IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery had two jobs in Albany, N.Y., in the mid-2000s. One was well-known: head men’s basketball coach at Siena College, where he led the Saints to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 2007-10.
The second: coaching his sons, Connor and Patrick, on the fourth-grade Albany City Rocks AAU team. That one was much less glamorous.
Which was more stressful?
“Clearly, coaching these two,” Fran McCaffery laughed, smiling at Connor and Patrick, a senior and sophomore at Iowa City West, sitting on their living room couch.
Life was — and is — different for McCaffery’s boys. When you’re young, lots of perks come when your dad’s the head coach they write about in the papers.
For Connor, a sports nut, it was access to college practice in early elementary school. For Patrick, who first cared much more about Batman than sports, it was Nerf-gun battles with Siena players.
Those perks have become expectations as they’ve grown older. Their father took over at Iowa in 2010. They were blessed with height and athletic genes — Fran McCaffery was a Division I basketball player and their mother, Margaret McCaffery, scored more than 1,000 points for Notre Dame from 1988-92.
Now they are in their final days as high school teammates. They’re two focal points of Iowa City West, Iowa’s No. 1 team and the Class 4A favorite at this week’s state boys’ basketball tournament.
“Playing on this team has been really fun this year,” Connor said. “Now that I’m a senior, I’m trying to help (Patrick) and help the younger guys… At least, I’m trying — trying to get them to understand what we need to do to hopefully get back and win state.”
But the perks, the expectations, their dad’s job — none of that defines Connor and Patrick’s life. Basketball is a critical part of it, sure.
But brotherhood is bigger.
An athletic bond
Connor brushed his hand through the air as he painted the yard of his grandparents’ lake house in northern Minnesota, where he and Patrick grew up playing baseball together.
“In left field, there’s the cabin. So if you hit it over the cabin, for (Patrick), it’d be a home run,” Connor said. “… And then center field is my Papa’s shed. There’s two sheds, so if you hit it there, it was like a bomb. And then there’s a tree in right field, and that’s when it gets to my Papa’s garden and the woods, and that’s right field. That’s where I used to hit it. And we would just play.”
It wasn’t traditional baseball. Fran McCaffery would occasionally come out and pitch, but it was mostly “1-on-1 baseball.” The rules were … in flux.
“He’d always make up some random rules, so I’d never win,” Patrick said as Connor smiled and shook his head. “Something for me would be a foul ball and then, ‘Nope.’ For him, no it’s not.”
“This is not true,” Connor laughed. “I would just hit the ball too far, so he would have to run and go get it.”
Connor already loved sports by the time he and Patrick started playing — when they were 6 and 4, Margaret, said.
Patrick wasn’t a fan yet. Up until these games in northern Minnesota, Patrick would rather wear a Power Rangers costume and run around, deep into an imaginary life-or-death battle with some evil foe.
But these funky, 1-on-1 games started to change all that.
“Connor just thought that he was the oldest, so everybody should come and watch him, so he should have a pitcher and a legitimate crowd,” Margaret laughed. “Patrick was happy to go out there himself and just kind of practice — (like) nobody’s really paying attention; I’m just going to throw it up and hit it to myself.”
“That’s how he got good at hitting,” Fran chimed in.
Patrick now plays 1-on-1 baseball with the youngest of the bunch, Jack, who’s 10. He may or may not use some of the cheati — excuse me — the creative winning methods employed by Connor years ago.
“It’s a rite of passage,” Patrick told Jack.
‘Just stay being a brother’
Connor learned Patrick had cancer on March 21, 2014. The day after Patrick’s 14th birthday.
A freshman at West at the time, Connor was on his way home from school with his friend Nate Disterhoft. He was supposed to go somewhere when he got home — he doesn’t remember where.
He just remembers the phone call from mom.
“He had (cancer),” Connor said. “I just remember sitting there. I didn’t know what to say or think.”
Two days prior, Patrick had part of his thyroid removed. There was a tumor on it. Biopsies hadn’t revealed anything, so doctors needed to remove it to test if the tumor was malignant.
It was. Patrick was diagnosed with thyroid cancer as a seventh-grader.
“I think he knew that Patrick could beat it,” Disterhoft said of Connor at the time. “But he was definitely quiet about it. He’s usually a pretty outgoing guy, and I remember, for the next couple weeks, he kept more to himself and you could tell he had some stuff going on in his life that he wasn’t really sure how to handle yet.”
Patrick underwent iodine treatment after having the rest of his thyroid removed. He would take pills filled with radioactive iodine to hopefully target and expunge any lingering cancer.
But, in effect, he became radioactive and had to remain isolated in the basement. Fran, Connor, Jack and their sister, Marit, moved to a hotel for a while. After a few days, Margaret could be in the same room as Patrick, but she had to stay at least 6 feet away.
Everything Patrick touched had to be thrown away. Clothes, sheets, pillows, video game controllers. He couldn’t get any pee on the toilet seat. He had to flush three times.
“And a bunch of other stuff to make sure it didn’t get out and I didn’t hurt anybody else,” Patrick said.
He can talk about the whole experience now. And — chances are — he’ll make you laugh when he does. But that wasn’t the case when he was the 14-year-old with cancer.
That’s where his big brother came in.
“Whenever I was around (Connor), we just never really talked about it,” Patrick said. “We just acted like everything was normal; just continued doing the same thing: playing video games, talking about his season, stuff like that.”
Margaret McCaffery asked Patrick if that helped him. He nodded.
“Going through it, I knew he didn’t like talking about it,” Connor said. “But I didn’t feel the need to anyways. I thought that he would enjoy it more if we talked about anything but what was going on.
“I know he probably would like it better if I just kept it normal with him. I didn’t think he wanted to talk about it and I tried to just stay being a brother.”
Nearly two months later, on June 13, a scan showed no cancer. Patrick had beaten it.
Relationship on the court
Connor, a Hawkeye recruit, leads the state’s top-ranked team with 19.8 points per game while shooting 53 percent, 42 percent from long range and 84 percent from the line. He’s also got about 2.4 assists for every turnover. He’s a point guard in a lengthy, 6-foot-5 frame, and ESPN ranks him the No. 90 prospect of the Class of 2017.
Patrick, still thin but steadily adding weight, is a 6-foot-7 bundle of upside: He’s third on the team with 14.3 points per game; he shoots 60 percent and 34 percent from 3-point land — a tantalizing number from a kid who could dominate the paint once he adds more weight. An unofficial Hawkeye commit, Patrick is considered the No. 60 sophomore nationally by Rivals.com.
The high school stars carry their brotherhood to the court, too. They try to find the right teammate-sibling balance when they play.
“At times on the court, I’ll say something to him, thinking of him more as my brother rather than a teammate — just because I expect more from him, maybe, than I would a teammate — even though it’s not really fair,” Connor said.
“We just don’t really care about each other’s feelings as much on the court, compared to some of my other teammates, because we’re brothers,” Patrick chuckled. “We’ll just get over it; it doesn’t really matter.”
Their no-filter dynamic works because they’ll always have blood to fall back on.
“In the end,” Disterhoft said, “they’re still going to love each other because they’re brothers.”
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.