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Basketball a welcome distraction for Gwynedd Mercy's Baron

01/28/2016, 3:00pm EST
By Josh Verlin

John Baron (above) is helping his family battle a tough illness while still coaching at Gwynedd Mercy. (Photo couresty Baron family)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
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Gwynedd Mercy head coach John Baron didn’t want to be a distraction to his team. Going through a terrible situation with his family, he considered resigning his position over the summer, or taking a leave of absence for the 2015-16 season.

But his team knew better. Baron had it backwards.

He needed basketball, to serve as his own personal distraction from the tragic reality at home.

For when the Griffins’ 15th-year head coach isn’t at practice or out recruiting, he’s thinking about his family, about his two children who soon won’t have a mother. When Baron goes home to his house in Valley Forge, it’s to his ex-wife Jane Baron, who’s suffering from Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

“It really puts your entire life in perspective,” he said. “I was living my life differently until the last nine months. And I think in the years to come, I’m going to stay in the realm I’m in now and not revert back to the way I was, on-the-go all the time and so many other things were more important.

“I always say to my team, ‘play in the present, you can’t affect the future and you can’t let the past affect your present either, play in the present.’ I was always trying to play in the future, worrying about the next day and two days. I’ve learned to back off and just play in the present.”

After taking the majority of the summer to spend time with his family, John decided with the support of his team and the entire University to return to his program and make it work.

He needed the distraction, and his program embraced that with open arms.

“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” senior guard Darnell Artis said. “I know he’s a tough guy, so he’s going to mask his emotions sometimes and I know it’s been tough on him, so it’s been tough on me because I don’t want to see him go through these types of things.”

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Jane Baron (above) is a professional dance instructor who stayed active and fit before her diagnosis. (Photo courtesy Baron family)

It was May when John and Jane found out.

Though the two had been divorced for seven years (“we probably made better friends and co-parents than we did staying married,” John explained), they were still close, connected by their two children: their daughter Jaylen, 13, and son J.P., 11, as well as the dance studio that the two run together, Jane Baron’s Academy of Dance, which employs 16 people.

Jaylen was dancing in a Broadway production designed for young dancers and singers, and the whole family was in New York for her performance. After watching Jane look progressively slimmer and sicker over the preceding months, John was alarmed when she spent most of a family dinner sick in the bathroom, complaining of nausea and back pain.

Though she’d told him multiple times beforehand not to worry about her health, that was the last straw for John.

“May 5 was the day, took her to (Paoli) hospital...kind of didn’t want to take her to the hospital because she told me to butt out,” he said. “I went to pick up my kids and picked her up too, took my kids to my parents and said ‘I’m taking you to the hospital.’ She didn’t say no, but she wasn’t happy either.

“Two hours later they told me she had six-to-nine months to live.”

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, it accounts for about three percent of all cancers in the United States but seven percent of the deaths. Those diagnosed with Stage I of the disease only have a 14 percent chance of seeing five more years. Stage IV, it’s down to one percent.

As the doctors explained to Baron, the pancreas is shaped like a fish. If the disease starts at the head of the fish, which causes the back pain and nausea, it can be caught quickly enough to give the patient quite a few more years. But when it starts at the tail, and slowly builds up towards the head, by the time the symptoms show up it’s too late.

Jane’s cancer started at the tail.

And so a week after the diagnosis, John and Jane had to have the hardest talk imaginable with their two children.

While John--who moved Jane into his house shortly after the diagnosis--says that both Jaylen and J.P. have handled it well so far, it hasn’t been without its difficult times.

“Last night was the toughest night of my life so far with them,” John said. “My son, J.P. is not a crier...he’s cried two times in the process, the night we told them and last night. He was frustrated with a science project last Tuesday or Wednesday...my mom called me and said she heard him say ‘I hate my life,’ so there were major red flags for a kid that’s handled it great.

“So I talked with him last night, about all the great things in his life, not just materialistic things but how many friends you have and that people are there to support us in this bad time. And then he made mention, ‘but I’m not going to have a mom soon,’ it’s the first time that he’s ever said it and he started to cry, it was the craziest night. I was up until 4:30 this morning unbelievably distraught.”

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Darnell Artis (above) and the Griffins are undefeated in league play this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

John told his team within a few weeks of finding out the news, sending a text message first to his captains and then to the remainder of the squad.

At first, the Griffins wondered who their coach would be for the upcoming season. But John Baron was there on the first official day of practice in October, and has been there for his team ever since.

“He’s handling it like a champ, he doesn’t distract us at all," senior Brian Hennessey said. “He leaves his business at home--he tells us what’s going on, he informs us, he lets us know--but other than that he’s still the same coach I’ve had the last four years.”

On the court, Gwynedd Mercy has been one of the top Division III teams in the area this season. After beating Cabrini 101-88 on Wednesday night, the Griffins are a perfect 10-0 in Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC) play and 12-5 overall, winners of seven straight in their quest for a CSAC championship and spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010-11.

John Baron hasn’t missed a game, even making it to a Dec. 29 game against Baruch in New York City, a day he spent with Jane in the hospital as she had a feeding tube implemented. Gwynedd Mercy lost that game, a loss John feels responsible for as he was only able to get there until 10 minutes before tipoff.

“We know he’s going through a lot right now and sometimes he claims he’s a distraction to our team but I completely disagree with him, I think it’s a motivating factor,” junior forward Arron Goodman said. “We want to do what he’s asking for us, we don’t want to cause any more stress in his life on top of anything he’s going through.”

The players all agree that while they might not talk about it too often, Jane’s fight is certainly providing motivation to the Griffins.

“For her to know that we’re doing so good, I just hope that helps her and keeps her spirits up,” Artis said, “because I know she wants us to win it and she wants him to win it and I know how badly he wants to win it.”

Artis, a Philadelphia native and graduate of La Salle College HS has been instrumental behind supporting his coach.

He wrote a letter signed by the team to the Breathing Room, a charity originally started by Gwynedd Mercy assistant Bernie Fitzgerland in the late 1990s when his wife, Diane, was battling breast cancer. The Breathing Room’s mission is to provide support for those who are helping loved ones fight the disease: bringing groceries, doing chores, cleaning the house.

Artis’ letter read, in part: No doubt Coach Baron will learn more from Coach Bernie in this phase of his life, where he may feel the weight of the world on his chest. I feel as a leader, it is my job to help Coach Baron get some weight off his chest for him to breathe.

Thanks to his team, Baron got the help he needed. And they weren’t the only ones: the entire CSAC is having a day they're calling "#Play4JalyenAndJP" next Saturday, and a team that John put together for the Philadelphia Pancreatic Cancer Run/Walk in September raised over $36,000.

While basketball can’t fix what’s happening, the support from those around him has been invaluable.

“Gwynedd has been unbelievable,” Baron said, mentioning athletic director Keith Mondillo and vice president Cheryl Horsey as those who’ve gone above and beyond to help him through these last nine months. “I stepped foot on campus through the whole summer like the week of basketball camp, and maybe a handful of other times. They let me take a leave of absence and then when I came back in September, Keith has been great...I do a lot from home while I’m sitting with her, still able to watch film, do recruiting stuff.”

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Jaylen (left), J.P. and Jane Baron. (Photo courtesy Baron family)

The original diagnosis, of six-to-nine months, runs out on February 5. John calls it the “red zone,” and both he and Jane know that her time remaining is counting down.

“We talk about it, sometimes,” he said. “I talk about it with her when I’m by myself, and I’ll ask ‘are you ready to give up yet?’ and she says ‘no.’

“She’s been really strong in a lot of ways, too...just in everyday life she was always the smiling person who was ‘turn that frown upside down’ to the point where it was relatively annoying. Now she’s acting that part, too. She’s facing this unbelievably scary adversity and she’s still acting the part, I have to give her so much credit for helping me help the kids because she stays positive.”

Helping Jane has undoubtedly helped John become a better person over the last nine months.

He always supported those in the fight against cancer, attending various Coaches vs. Cancer events, where he would listen to St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli talk about how everybody knows somebody who has cancer. And while John was certainly included in that group before, whether it was the parent of a friend or an acquaintance, having it hit so close to home changed the way he viewed those events, those meetings, those games.

“It’s ironic how when it happens to you do you really become self-absorbed into it,” he said. “So now I’m unbelievably aware of feelings...sending (someone) a post or a message, like ‘hang in there,’ where I might not have done that in that empathetic, sensitive way, and I see the support that many people have.”

Basketball has been a distraction for John, a necessary one as he and his family go through the most trying time of their lives. Because he knows what comes next, and he doesn’t want to be around the court when it happens.

Most coaches have to worry about wins and losses and recruiting and not much else. This season, John Baron has the weight of so much more on his shoulders, every time he takes to the sideline.

“I’m scared of not being next to her when she dies,” John said. “I want the two kids to be there with her to know she’s loved--my parents, her parents, me. And I’m scared that I’m going to be in Scranton playing Keystone when my mom calls me and says ‘Jane died.’ And that’s my biggest, biggest fear.”


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