SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Seton Hall basketball team showed their typical tough-minded, never-quit attitude on the court in an early February game at the Prudential Center defeating Providence in overtime 74-72. That night the Pirates also delivered that same message in real life first-hand to 13-year-old Chatham boy Will Cody, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia back in the spring.
As a special guest of head coach and Westfield resident Kevin Willard, Will was made to feel a part of the team for the entire evening. He presented the referee with the ball to start the game at center court and had a seat on the bench right next to Willard, getting an up-close view of the coach and the team at work. Will was even presented with his own game ball in the locker room in front of the entire squad by an emotional Willard at the end of the thrilling victory.
Before his diagnosis, Will played travel hockey, CYO basketball and every other activity that kids play.
"We just thought it would be great if he came to be part of our team for a day, kind of got back to team sports,” said Willard, the 2015-16 Co-Big East Coach of the Year. “I think it’s an important reminder to college kids, how lucky they are. I think that gets lost in college.”
What didn’t get lost is the effect this show of kindness has had on Will and his family and the message to his team that, while winning basketball games may be the main focus, the sport is also a vehicle to teach critical life values. For the Cody family, who are Seton Hall fans and continued to go to home games the rest of the season, the personal connection to Willard and the team made a difference.
“The big thing is it’s been a long year,” said Kelly Cody, Will’s Mother. “You can’t do the things you used to do. It’s special because it makes him happy to be a part of something that had to do with sports.”
Will is undergoing daily treatment and doesn’t have the stamina needed for a regular routine. He is still in remission and in the maintenance phase where treatment lasts about three years. He is able to go to school a few hours each week and spend some time with friends.
Seton Hall was going through a particularly rough stretch at the time Willard invited Will to sit on the bench. The Pirates had lost five of its previous seven games in Big East conference play. The season needed to be turned around if Seton Hall were to return to a second NCAA tournament in two year’s.
Last season, led by Isaiah Whitehead, who now plays for the Brooklyn Nets, the Pirates won the Big East Tournament in a thrilling game over the eventual national champion Villanova Wildcats, but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season the expectations were once again that Seton Hall – led by four returning Junior starters – would be vying for an NCAA tournament bid.
Since the Providence game that Will spent time with the team, Seton Hall finished the regular season winning five of its final seven contests. The Pirates continued its stellar play in this year’s Big East Tournament, making it all the way to the semi-finals, though losing this time to Villanova in, yet, another exciting game 55-53, before a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The dramatic in season turn-around can be attributed largely to the emergence of 6'10" junior center Angel Delgado, who has become one of the premier big men in the country. Delgado led the nation in rebounding this season at just over 13 per game while showing a deft passing touch creating offensive opportunities for his teammates.
“Bringing a team back from the dead is in my view is the most difficult thing to do in basketball,” said Steve Lavin, who was a head coach for UCLA and St. John’s and is currently an analyst for Big East games on Fox Sports national coverage. “In particular climbing the ladder in a conference that has 7 NCAA tournament teams. It’s one thing to be 3-6 in a bad league, turn it around and get hot on the back 9, and go 7-2 against bad competition, but Seton Hall went 7-2 in a very competitive league.”
Willard, who is in his 7th season at Seton Hall, has a record of 127-100 with the Pirates. The last two seasons have been the best basketball that the South Orange campus has seen since the early 1990’s. Now the Pirates are ready to face Arkansas on Friday in the NCAA tournament.
A hard-driving coach, Willard expects the same focused effort from his players that he gives every day. The son of NBA and college coaching icon Ralph Willard and the mentee of Rick Pitino, he has taken the lessons learned from these men and his other basketball experiences and formed his own basketball voice.
“He has a nice balance of tough-love,” said Lavin. “Excellent pedigree in terms of his background, you can see with each year as a head coach he’s beginning to master his craft.”
That craft that he’s been working on and wants his players to experience includes having them understand the value of being in a positive environment, communicating with each other on and off the court and seeing that success is not only defined by winning basketball games.
“He’s never negative,” said star Junior forward Desi Rodriguez, teary eyed and in hushed voice in the locker room following the loss to Villanova in this year’s Big East tournament. “I’m kind of devastated [after the loss]. I appreciate my coach. He did a great job all year.”
The Cody family would agree.
The Pirates in the NCAA tournament: No. 9 Seton Hall (21-11, 10-8 Big East) will face No. 8 Arkansas (25-9, 12-6 SEC) in Greenville, S.C. in the South Region at 1:30 p.m. on Friday. The game can be seen on TNT. AM790 will have the radio coverage.
A frequent contributor to Tapinto Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports (a sports program for children of all abilities) and the editor of Education Update. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org