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A fond farewell to Ed Galvin, the high school basketball coach I carried with me all these years

The former Fenwick coach thought of us as his sons.

Ed Galvin was the head basketball coach at Fenwick High School from 1969-79.
Courtesy of Fenwick High School

I was a skinny freshman at Fenwick High School in 1974 when a 6-foot-6 presence with a buzz cut so tight you could have putted on it stopped in front of me in the locker room.

This was Ed Galvin, the school’s varsity basketball coach. Gym class had just ended, and not surprisingly, seeing that he doubled as a gym teacher, we had spent the session playing basketball.

The goal of every unsure, self-conscious 14-year-old is to avoid detection of any kind. So, uh-oh. What had I done wrong?

“Morrissey,’’ he said.

“Yes, sir?’’ I said.

“You keep shooting,’’ he said.

I had two immediate thoughts: 1) How would Galvin, the coach of one of the best teams in the Chicago Catholic League, know who I was? And 2) Keep shooting? Could a shark stop swimming? Could an artist deny his creative side?

The first thought never left me. That an adult would notice me in a positive way meant everything. I felt 7-feet tall, not the 5-8 I was at the time. The second thought was probably my hoops downfall. Perhaps if I had paid attention to defense, ball handling, rebounding or any of the other things that make a basketball player I would have contributed more to the varsity when I was a junior and senior. Or, perhaps, and this is more likely the case, you can’t make a two-toed sloth play shutdown D.

“Yes, sir,’’ I said.

Then he walked away.

Ed Galvin died last month. He was 88. I had not seen him or talked with him since my senior year, but I always knew that was immaterial. You don’t lose your coaches. They stay with you, no matter where you are and no matter how many years have passed.

He’s in the Catholic League Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame for his stops at St. Rita and Fenwick. He became the first men’s basketball coach at Rosary College (now Dominican University), moved on to North Central College and then spent the last 10 years of his career coaching at Illinois Math and Science Academy. When he retired in 1997, he had more than 600 victories. Those are the mileposts of his professional career, the brighter lights of a life devoted to the game. But for many of us who played for him, it’s the smaller, everyday sparks that still give us warmth.

“He expected you to do what he taught you to do, and you know the looks that he gave if you didn’t,’’ said Pete Stroth, a big, strong teammate of mine at Fenwick. “That head would cock one way or he’d give it a quick shake or he’d put his head down so he could look up at you when he was mad.

“My sisters used to do this imitation of him pulling up his pants, then pushing them down, then going side to side. His nonverbal stuff was legendary.’’

Oh, those withering looks. You didn’t want to be on the business end of one of those. Mostly, you didn’t want to carry around the boulder that came with knowing you had let him down. But if he praised you, well, there was no better feeling for a high school kid in need of direction, which is to say every high school kid.

“When I got a big rebound, I’d never look for my parents, anyone in the crowd, some girl I might have been sweet on,’’ Stroth said. “I was looking at Ed Galvin. He’d give quick nod that said, ‘That a boy.’ And it felt great.’’

The big moments for us were wonderful. Led by Brian Liston, who went on to play at Loyola University, we finished second to St. Joseph and Isiah Thomas in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament my senior year. We beat a Westinghouse team that had Mark Aguirre, Skip Dillard and Bernard Randolph.

We lost in triple overtime to undefeated East Leyden in the state tournament, ending our season. You don’t know silence until you’re in a locker room after a game like that.

Tough memories? Yes. Austin’s Eddie Hughes, who would go on to play three seasons in the NBA, stripped me of the ball during a game that year. He got a three-point play out of it because I fouled him on the layup. It was a trifecta of bad. Coach Galvin let me have it in the locker room afterward, and it signaled the end of meaningful minutes the rest of the season. It turned out to be a very good, though very painful lesson: You don’t get everything you want in life. Also: Maybe work on your weaknesses as you journey forward, kid.

These were different times. You weren’t buddies with your coach, not like it is today. No one was dousing Coach Galvin with bottled water in the locker room after a big victory, partly because there wasn’t bottled water back then but mostly because it just wasn’t like that. You’d get a rousing postgame speech from the coach, and you knew you did well.

What I didn’t know then was how much he cared about us.

“My dad loved his players,’’ said Eileen Galvin Healy, one of Coach’s six children, all girls. “When my mom went in to deliver my youngest sister, the doctor came out and said, ‘Ed, I’m sorry, it’s another girl.’ My dad was offended. He found it ironic to have six daughters because his whole life was surrounded by all the young men he coached, who were like his sons.’’

Fifteen years ago, I took a month off from work while I began chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer. I was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune at the time. An assistant sports editor told me he picked up a ringing phone in the newsroom one day and heard a gravelly voice on the other end.

“This is Ed Galvin. Where has Rick Morrissey been?’’

A few days later, I received a card from the coach and his wife. They had asked the Poor Clares to offer a Mass for me. I also had my wife’s sister’s order, the Carmelites, on my side. It was a full-court spiritual press, and, really, the cancer didn’t have a prayer.

I experienced then some of the same feelings I had when I was a freshman: Coach Galvin remembers me? And he took the time to check in on me? It only would have been better if he had left a message telling me to keep shooting.

I wrote back to him and thanked him and his wife for thinking of me. I told him that I was OK and that I hoped the cancer treatments would somehow be so effective I’d be able to dunk. My name and the term “above the rim’’ had never been used in the same sentence before.

It wasn’t until 20 years after I graduated from Fenwick that I learned that Coach Galvin was in the Hall of Fame at Loyola University New Orleans for his illustrious playing career and that he was the 55th overall pick in the 1955 NBA Draft for the Syracuse Nationals. He was drafted into the U.S. Army right after that and never played professionally. In his senior year, he averaged 19.9 points and 16.7 rebounds. Astounding numbers.

But what would your typical self-absorbed teenager know of anything outside his knot of immediate concerns? Nothing. I was too concerned with getting through the coach’s demanding practices. At the end of those sessions, he’d have groups of us alternate running around the outside of the court, doing pushups, jumping rope and hopping over rows of folding chairs pushed together like little bridges. It was a sort of basketball Stations of the Cross. Maybe you ran a little harder when you ran past the coaches sitting at one corner of the court. Just maybe.

Before each Fenwick home game, “Sweet Georgia Brown,’’ the Harlem Globetrotters theme song, would blast over the loudspeakers as we ran on to the court. Another tradition.

“The pride of my dad walking into that gym with his team,’’ Galvin Healy said. “That’s something I’ll never forget my whole life.’’

Neither will I.