Mike Balado and Kimani Young speak about that January 2013 day in an Arkansas hotel in a hushed, reverent tone, still scarred by their vivid memories.
The two former FIU assistant coaches were preparing to head home to Miami with their team after a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock, and fellow assistant and close friend Mark Lieberman was in the shower. Lieberman’s wife, Paige, was calling him over and over, desperate to reach him.
When they finally connected, Lieberman received news that shook him to his core. Mark and Paige’s infant son, Maxwell, had suddenly and unexpectedly died.
“It was brutal,” Young said. “Heartbreaking.”
Two and a half years later, after taking some time away from a college basketball career that consumed his days, Lieberman is in a far better place than he was. He has given up trying to make sense of what happened, and instead focuses on the lessons he learned and the life he can lead going forward.
And with encouragement from Paige and a tight-knit circle of basketball friends, Lieberman is ready to come back to the game he loves so much.
Lieberman has partnered with Tim Barnett, the owner and founder of F.O.C.U.S. Basketball Academy in Louisville, in leading the Camp of Champions, a July 21-23 camp at Floyd Central High that will feature former U of L players Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson.
He is also helping out on the AAU circuit and at adidas and Under Armour camps this month, and his coaching colleagues see their friend nearing a return to the sidelines, whether it’s college or high school.
“I really just think, when something like this happens to this tragic level, it causes you to question yourself and what you thought you were good at,” Paige said. “You rethink everything you did. But really, what Mark has found is that he wasn’t wrong about himself at all.
“He wasn’t wrong in thinking this is his life path.”
At first, after that 2012-13 season, Lieberman wasn’t so sure about that path. The death of his son prompted him to reevaluate his priorities.
Coaching consumed much of his time — by his own estimate 16 or 17 hours a day. He was the head coach for 13 years at a Monsignor Pace High in Miami before joining Rick Pitino’s staff at U of L, first as an assistant coach and later as director of basketball operations.
At FIU, a job he started a few months before Maxwell’s birth, Lieberman was part of a young and talented staff that included Balado, Young and head coach Richard Pitino. They were trying to rebuild a program that was decimated by a turbulent three-year experiment with former NBA star Isiah Thomas at the helm.
A tireless recruiter who loves intense practices, Lieberman didn’t get to see Maxwell or Paige much.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Lieberman said, “but I never want to make that mistake again.”
When their one season at FIU ended, Balado joined Rick Pitino’s U of L staff and Richard Pitino took the head coaching job at Minnesota, bringing Young with him.
Lieberman, still grieving over Maxwell’s death, said he couldn’t accept an offer to go with Richard Pitino and Young to Minnesota.
Instead, he and Paige settled full-time again in Louisville, surrounding themselves with Paige’s family, which is all here, save for one sister who lives in Chicago.
“I don’t know how we would’ve been able to (cope) without my family,” Paige said. “It’s been a tremendous help.”
Lieberman tried his hand at high school coaching, taking the head job at Floyd Central High just across the river in Indiana in May 2013. But after one campaign, in which the Highlanders finished with five wins and 18 losses, Lieberman resigned and stepped back.
He laid low from there, helping with clinics and doing some private coaching and consulting. He and his wife needed time to focus on grappling with something they’ll never fully understand, going to therapy sessions and group talks. Paige started a blog.
Throughout the process, Lieberman kept up with his coaching friends, frequently texting with Richard Pitino and Young. He began a friendship with Rhode Island assistant Jim Carr, who also lost an infant child.
In Louisville, he frequently met up with Balado, something he still does.
“It’s been great to see him so often,” Balado said. “I can’t even imagine the heartbreak he’s gone through the last two years. I can only tell you I’ve seen it in his eyes. “
At one point, Mark told Paige that “maybe it’s time for me to get a random job somewhere else and not do all this traveling,” she said.
“And I just asked, ‘Will that make you happy?'” Paige said.
They both knew the answer to that question. After all, Paige added, only three things have made Mark’s face light up in a way that is hard to explain. It’s a smile that simply shows her husband in his happiest state.
“He lights up coaching basketball,” she said, “and the other two times were when I told him I was pregnant.”
The Liebermans have a daughter now. Emery was born in March 2014, and is currently on a “daddy kick,” Mark said.
She has pretty blue eyes, and gives him a chance to practice the lessons he learned from his heartbreaking experience with Maxwell.
“It’s all about my daughter now,” he said, smiling.
“Not to sound cliche,” Paige said, “but it really is giving it your all every day. Knowing how quickly someone you love more than life can be taken away really keeps everything in perspective. You’d rather have a million frustrating parenting moments than none at all. We still have her. We love her. We have more good times than frustrating moments. It’s a different perspective. The things you thought matter don’t.”
To Mark, basketball matters more than anything but family. Everyone who knows him knows that, and Barnett picked up on it back in April, when they first met at a downtown event hosted by ESPN 680.
Their upcoming camp is a big step for Lieberman.
“If we can do something together and keep him on the court, putting him in situations to get him back doing what he used to do, it’s a win-win,” Barnett said. “Hopefully I can keep him around him as long as possible, but I know that’s not going to happen.”
Lieberman, sitting next to Barnett, smiled.
“I don’t want to just ease back in,” Lieberman said. “I’m ready.”
Reach U of L hoops writer Jeff Greer at (502) 582-4044 and follow him on Twitter (@jeffgreer_cj).
CAMP OF CHAMPIONS
– July 21-23 at Floyd Central High in Floyds Knobs, Ind.
– Featuring Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson, with others stopping by. Coached by Tim Barnett and Mark Lieberman.
– Entry fee is $225 per camper. Ages range from 6-16.
– For more information, go to KyCampofChampions.com.