The best high school coaches are those who get the most out of their players.
All their players.
They have the special ability to motivate, inspire and teach everyone from the starters to the benchwarmers. Sometimes, they have lasting impacts.
I’ve encountered quite a few such coaches over the years. Chuck Donohue (Buena Regional/Southern Regional football), the late Ken Leary (Pleasantville boys basketball), Dennis Miller (Vineland wrestling), Mike Naples (Ocean City girls cross country/track), Pam Pickett (Buena Regional softball), Dave Troiano (Wildwood girls basketball) and Jack Weeks (Lower Cape May Regional baseball) are just some of the many current and former local coaches that fit that description.
Rollie Massimino, who died at age 82 last week from cancer, had that kind of impact on Marc Rosenberg.
Thirty years before he guided Villanova over Georgetown in 1985, Massimino was coaching high school boys basketball in Union County at Cranford and Hillside, respectively.
Rosenberg, now a 72-year-old veterinarian living in Ventnor, played for him at Hillside in the early 1960s.
“We weren’t the biggest team, so ‘Mr. Mass’ really stressed defense and toughness,” Rosenberg said. “There were times when he would get so frustrated with us that he’d throw us out of the gym into the snow for not working hard enough on ‘D.’ But he also had a compassionate side. He wouldn’t do it until we put on our hats and gloves. And after practice was over, he’d pile us into his ‘58 Oldsmobile and drive us home.”
At 6-foot-2, Rosenberg was among the tallest players on the team and was considered a good shooter, but Massimino thought he lacked toughness.
He tried to develop it by having Rosenberg guard Hillside’s star player at the time, 6-3 forward Frank Checorski, during practices.
“After a while, Frank would get mad and start throwing punches and knocking me to the floor,” Rosenberg said. “But looking back, it worked. It made me a tougher defensive player.”
During Massimino’s time at Hillside (1959-63), his former team, Cranford, was one of its biggest rivals.
Cranford was coached at the time by future NBA legend Hubie Brown.
“Rollie was all real,” Brown told NJ.com last week. “When you engaged with Rollie, that was how he felt. That’s how he generated the ability to connect with his players and get them to perform at their highest ability.”
While Massimino was climbing up the college coaching ranks, Rosenberg was pursuing another sport at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the fencing team at Penn and helped the Quakers win the Ivy League title.
He never lost his love for basketball, however. After earning his degree in veterinary medicine, he served as an assistant coach in his spare time at Cherry Hill West and Millville High Schools.
He reconnected with his old coach in 2013, while he was spending some time in Deerfield Beach, Florida and Massimino was coaching at Northwood/Keiser University in West Palm Beach.
Although more than 50 years had passed, Massimino remembered him.
“He looked up without hesitation and said, ‘Rosenberg you still can’t go left,’” he said with a laugh.
Rosenberg never stopped playing the game.
To this day, he can be found every Saturday and Sunday morning playing pickup games on the outdoor courts in Margate and at Ventnor Elementary School in the winter.
And he still uses the lessons he learned in high school.
“I play tough defense,” he said. “I’m not afraid to grab a guy’s shirt or shorts to slow him down one of the kids if he tries to get by me. Of course, by kid I mean a guy in his 40s or 50s. But I think ‘Mr. Mass’ would be proud.”
(David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.)