New Jersey’s college coaches want basketball back, so they’re fighting coronavirus

It wasn’t yet official, but Steve Pikiell had basically coached Rutgers to its first NCAA tournament berth in 29 years. The drought was over. At the same time, Pikiell’s daughter, Brooke, had just helped Northwestern capture the Big 10 tournament in women’s basketball. She was looking forward to her first NCAA tournament as a junior.

Then boom. Coronavirus shut down the operation, shattered their hoop dreams.

“I really felt for my seniors at Rutgers,” Pikiell told the Daily News. “And my daughter was devastated. We had that with my team, and then in my own home.”

Despite everything lost, Pikiell believes the NCAA made the right move by canceling the tournament. He assumed the TV commitments would force the NCAA to hold a tournament without fans, but public health took priority over money.

Now Pikiell is trying to help ensure that next year’s tournament also won’t succumb to this resilient virus. The 52-year-old, along with the 15 other men’s and women’s Division I coaches in New Jersey, joined TEAM NEW JERSEY, an initiative dedicated to teaching methods of mitigating the coronavirus’ spread. On Thursday evening, each New Jersey coach will share public health guidelines on their various social media platforms.

It’s a growing movement for basketball coaches, with New Jersey following identical programs in New York and New England. Participating coaches include Iona’s Rick Pitino, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Rutgers’ Vivian Stringer. Andy Borman, the executive director of AAU powerhouse NY RENS, and Ben Horwitz, a graduate assistant at Syracuse, devised the idea.

Dan Klores, the Peabody award-winning filmmaker, then created the campaign that has united rival coaches.

“David Stern would always ask can a ball change of world?” Klores said. “And our answer is that it can.”

Kevin Willard, the Seton Hall men’s coach, is also part of TEAM NEW JERSEY and is anxiously hoping the mitigating guidelines will help retrieve a level of normalcy. The New York native said some of his players don’t own the proper equipment to train in isolation, so his program shipped over basketballs, jump ropes and resistance bands.

Willard also wonders whether his team had already been infected by the coronavirus since a flu-like illness spread through the roster in late February. The illness wasn’t yet on the radar so they weren’t tested.

Now, 32 days after Gov. Phil Murphy announced a stay-at-home order, Willard revealed he’s struggling with the detachment from his players and staff.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I really miss my team,” he told the Daily News. “I struggled with that the last couple weeks. FaceTime is great and texting is great, but I just miss being around my guys. Every day is not peachy with roses. I really struggle with not being around my team, not having that interaction with my team, with my players, my staff. We see each other every day when it’s normal, and we’re around them every day. Some days are better than others right now for me. That’s just the truth.”

What gets him by?

“Red wine,” he joked.

Willard’s message against the pandemic is to protect the most vulnerable. He wants health and hoops.

“The biggest thing is getting younger people to understand it’s not you, it’s you going home to your elder parents or your grandparents,” Willard said. “Those are the people who are really struggling with this.”

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