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Cooney: Bill Fox's legacy one of caring and commitment

07/19/2021, 12:45pm EDT
By Kevin Cooney

Bill Fox (above, middle), at a reunion for the 1977 Catholic League championship squad. (Photo courtesy Mike O'Connell/Ted Silary).

Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)

In every story and relationship, there is a beginning and an ending. But not every relationship story should start at the beginning. And so, it is such that this one begins with the last conversation.

It was in the packed hallways of the Palestra on Catholic League finals night in 2019 in the moments before Roman and La Salle tipped off. I was taking my 21-year-old stepson to his first ever game at The Cathedral. I wanted him to get the full experience- packed house, wild fans, a sense of how the echoes rattled under the whale belly roof on 33rd street.

Out of the din, I heard a familiar noise. “Cooney!” a deep voice said. “Over here!”

I turned my back, sorting through the maze of people. I knew exactly who the owner of that voice was. Sure enough, I saw a distinctive looking man with neatly-trimmed white hair and thin wired glasses standing in the corner, waiting for family members who were there for the women’s game with Archbishop Wood. In a sense, I felt like I was 17 years old again and walking the hallways on Solly Avenue in 1991. 

Bill Fox had that impact. He made you feel like you stood out in a crowd, whether it was 8,000 people or eight. 

The man who defined Father Judge’s basketball program from 1975 to 2005 with two sabbatical years in between along with three PCL champions and a 545-269 record died on Sunday night – his two year battle with ALS done with the grace and dignity that you have expected from the man all along.

There will be hundreds of words said over the next few days in articles and on social media about Bill Fox, the coach and Philadelphia basketball institution after his time as a player at LaSalle University. The numbers speak louder -- of 545 wins against 269 losses, 26 playoff appearances, 18 appearances in the PCL semifinals during the old Northern Division/Southern Division breakdown. Six championship games and three titles (1975, 1977 and 1998). 

His basketball style fit perfectly with the school he was connected with. For almost his entire time, Judge was comprised of parish kids – not AAU studs. Fox’s success was the idea that he didn’t just have the guys in his building playing that style, but it trickled down to St. Bernard’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Dominic’s and St. Timothy’s – the feeder schools that kept the Crusaders engine primed. The 1998 team is likely the last true “neighborhood” team to win the PCL title with a bulk of the players all coming through the same parish programs. He adopted the 3-pointer when it came into fashion in the late 1980s, but kept the focus on winning the old ‘protect the basketball and pass for the open shot’ style that looked out of Norman Dale. It thrived in the old Northern Division land wars that often slogged along like a Russian winter but with the intensity of a blast furnace. 

In my mind, however, they are irrelevant to the true story. Because to just view Bill Fox as a basketball coach, however, would cheapen the legacy of the man. How much of a great family man he was to his sons Brian and Brendan, his daughters Bridget and Maura and his wife, Maryellen. How much he meant to a lot of boys that walked through the doors as freshman and emerged as young men in four years.

I worked for Judge’s basketball team as its statistician and public address announcer my junior and senior year in high school. (That’s 1991 and 1992 – otherwise known as the dark ages to some of you kids.) My introduction to Coach Fox came from Bill Koch, his long-time junior varsity coach and an omnipresent figure at Rowland and Solly Aves. If there was ever a Mount Rushmore at Rowland and Solly Aves, it’s Fox, Koch, football coach Whitey Sullivan and baseball coach Joe McDermott. 

What Coach Koch and Coach Fox – along with Fox’s fine assistant coaching group of Rich Miller, Charlie Liddell and Ron Zawacki among others - was trying to do was break an otherwise shy kid who was overweight and kind of the ultimate definition of a “C student” to get involved. And so, the best way to feel invested was to feel like you were a part of a team- even if you had no vertical leap and no rotation when the ball left your hand.

When Conshohocken was underway in the spring, there was always a summons to his room along with a few of the players involved. “Hey, want to go to Conshy tonight?” he would ask. There was no good basketball reason for me to go — I wasn’t a player. But at that time, Coach Fox knew that I loved the game and I was interested in reporting on it. And of course, I would go.

When the basketball team got jobs distributing giveaways at the Vet for Phillies games in the early 1990s, Coach Fox would drive the big 15 passenger van down with players and managers in line. It paid $25 a game. And when it came time to leave after the fourth inning, Coach Fox would look at me and say “You got a ride home, right?” with a casual wink – knowing that a baseball crazy kid like me would always say yes and watch the final five innings from somewhere in the upper deck where he couldn’t get caught. (I think technically, he wasn’t allowed to let us stay.)

When I became a reporter, our relationship didn’t always go swimmingly. There were times when I’m sure he didn’t appreciate some of the questions I asked. I know there were tones and queries taken by me that I would later regret — perhaps more as a frustrated alum than an objective reporter of an ever changing landscape. But he never yelled, he never complained and never let it impact the way that he treated me down the road.

When I would bump into him at various times — usually at the Phillies, occasionally elsewhere — we would trade stories about family. Nobody loved to tell stories about his family better than Bill Fox. And nobody seemed to take in every word you were saying about yours better than him, processing it all.

He also worked for the Department of Recreation in Philadelphia- which seemed to have a Judge teacher employed at every single playground north of Bridge Street to Street Road. After retiring from teaching Business Law at Father Judge, he worked for the Commerce Department and the School Board. 

In a year when we lost Jim Fenerty, we’ve lost another legend way too soon. What I hope is that Coach Fox’s ultimate legacy isn’t anything connected with just basketball. Instead, it should be one about caring for others, commitment to his outstanding family, the testament to his faith and the vast number of friendships that he leaves behind.

That’s what I’ll remember. Just like that booming voice that stood out on a late February night at a packed Palestra.

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