NEENAH – This wasn’t the path Scott Bork envisioned for himself when he was named the Neenah boys’ basketball coach three summers ago.
He’s supposed to be holed up in a stuffy gym, somewhere. Running a summer camp. Scouting players. Listening to the glorious din of bouncing basketballs, chirping whistles and squeaking high tops. Prepping for another season.
Instead, he’s sitting atop a stool inside the training room at Neenah High School and opening up about the medical condition that led to his unexpected resignation last month.
“I had no intentions of being done,” Bork said.
A health scare won’t allow him to continue on.
It’s the second game of this past season — a Friday night in early December — and the highly ranked and touted Rockets are at Appleton West for a Fox Valley Association opener.
Neenah is struggling. The contest is tight. Bork is intense and growing increasingly agitated with how his team is playing. The middle of the fourth quarter arrives. Crunch time. High stress.
Bork is standing in front of the Rockets’ bench when his left arm suddenly goes numb. He immediately turns to assistant coach Chas Pronschinske and tells him what’s going on, that something is wrong.
Pronschinske, knowing Bork’s father has survived a heart attack, is concerned his friend might be suffering the same thing. So he grabs Bork and quickly sits him down, but by that time, the numbness has extended to the left side of his face and there’s a metallic taste in his mouth.
“It’s not like it’s paralyzed numb, but you can’t feel anything,” said Bork, who managed to stay calm and seated for the remainder of the contest — a 42-32 Rockets victory. “It was probably no more than two minutes, and the feeling started to come back. … It was scary, but not that bad. It wasn’t enough to make me leave the game, leave the bench, and say, ‘I’ve got to go.’ “
After the game, Pronschinske and fellow assistant coach Al Krueger insisted Bork see a doctor right away, so Krueger drove him to the emergency room at nearby St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, where he spent the night and underwent a series of tests, including an MRI, which revealed no blockages or damage.
But there was this stunner from a neurologist: Bork had experienced a transient ischemic attack, or a “warning stroke.”
The attack is caused when blood flow to the brain is temporarily blocked by a clot. According to the American Stroke Association, symptoms occur quickly but last, on average, for about a minute. And while the episode usually doesn’t lead to any permanent brain damage, it’s still a very serious situation.
Bork now takes baby aspirin and is on medication to control his blood pressure. He hops on an elliptical machine or exercise bike as part of a daily, one-hour cardio workout. He gets in a little weightlifting. He has ditched the salt and eats more chicken and fish.
And he has given up coaching. Reluctantly. But it’s a necessity.
“As soon as it happened, and I found out more information about it, I went to my own personal doctor, and he laid out more facts about it and got more personal with me and said you need to get rid of the stress,” said the 53-year-old Bork. “(Stepping down from coaching) became a thought at that time. If I have any other kind of episode like I had, I’m done. Right then. That we knew, and I talked about it with my staff.
“I wanted to wait through the year, but I knew when the season was done, it’s what I had to do. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it’s what I knew I had to do.”
What’s so stressful about running a successful high school basketball program?
For Bork, it was making sure an army of middle school and youth coaches were hired and in place and the program’s hoops club was running smoothly. It was answering a swarm of texts and phone calls and emails —some cheerful, others not so much.
It was poring over film, studying scouting reports and devising practice plans with his coaching staff. It was the anxiousness of making sure his team was hardened and prepared to grind its way through an imposing schedule while also residing in one of the toughest and most rugged conferences in the state.
It was guiding a top-level program with heady expectations, one that was carrying a No. 1 preseason ranking and coming off a glittering 26-2 showing in which it finished as FVA champs and advanced to the WIAA Division 1 state title game, where the Rockets engaged in an agonizingly tight battle with perennial power Germantown before losing 48-42.
It was sustaining all of that success and overseeing an entire program while also making sure he was getting it done in the classroom as a math teacher at Neenah’s Horace Mann Middle School. It was working seven days a week and rarely catching a mental breather.
Sure, Bork had help. But that didn’t quell the incessant worry and anxiety. Admittedly, he was bad at simply dropping the things he couldn’t control and letting go.
But now, he must.
“It’s 11 months out of the year, and when you’re dealing with a program the magnitude of a Division 1 program in the FVA, you’re working with 30 different coaches at all different levels,” said Pronschinske, who served as Neenah’s head coach for six seasons and is keenly aware of the mental strain, fatigue and pressure Bork was under. “You’re dealing with 200, 250 basketball players and 500 parents. And then on top of it, you’re managing your own team during the season.
“You’ve got youth basketball going on, along with your own program. Then you throw in the administration and wanting to win and have success. That puts a little more stress on you. And you have a family and are trying to find time for them. The time management is tough.
“When I was the head coach, I didn’t feel a ton of stress, other than during the season a little more. But when I got out of it, I thought it was crazy what I was doing. I realized how many hours I was putting in.”
A series of events leading up to that Neenah-Appleton West matchup had been particularly stressful for Bork.
Neenah was coming off a long there-and-back road trip the previous week to Washington, Illinois, where it tipped off its season against Peoria Notre Dame as part of the Children’s Hospital of Illinois Shootout Series.
Then came news that Rodney Scales, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who had transferred to Neenah from suburban Detroit, moved back during Thanksgiving break.
Yes, Scales could have been a nice addition to a frontcourt that included Matt Heldt, a 6-10 Marquette University recruit and one of the top-rated seniors in the state. But that’s not what bothered Bork.
He knew the grim world Scales was re-entering. And it was a burden he couldn’t push aside.
“I knew where he was going to have to try and live, and I knew it wasn’t going to be a good situation for him long-term,” Bork said. “He grew up in Inkster (Mich.), which is right outside of Detroit. Things he grew up seeing that we really were hoping to help him get out of. … It was just a tough situation, so something like that wears on you.
“And just some things during that day of the game that went on that I had to deal with that afternoon while trying to teach. My mind was on a thousand things at one time.”
Bork said he felt fine in the months, weeks and days before he suffered that “warning stroke.” But the increased exercise and dietary tweaks have him feeling even better these days.
Determined to finish the season, Bork spent more time in the school’s cardio room before games to keep the stress level as low as possible. He remembers telling Pronschinske of being scared before the Rockets faced Kimberly in a highly anticipated showdown between state-ranked teams in a packed and pulsating Ron Einerson Fieldhouse.
It was Neenah’s first game since playing Appleton West, and few knew of the frightening health situation Bork had encountered only a week earlier.
“I was worried something was going to happen, which meant I was done coaching,” Bork said. “That was my first concern. If something happens here, I’ve got to walk away three games into the season, and that’s not what I want to do for these kids.
“But there was also, ‘What if it’s bigger?'”
Added Pronschinske: “To have that happen at that age already, you don’t want anything to affect the rest of his life. And I’m sure that factored in his decision to give up coaching. … Living a healthy life, that’s the bottom line. He can still enjoy basketball in other ways.”
Bork is convinced the stress of being a coach led to his “warning stroke.” But he’s grateful, too. He now knows he’s at risk of one day suffering a stroke, and he’s working hard to minimize that threat.
“A lot of doctors told me it’s called a warning stroke for a reason,” said Bork, who led the Rockets to a 20-5 mark this past season and a 64-12 record in his three seasons in charge. “You got a warning. You’re way too young to have this. So having it now, maybe it prevents a full-blown major stroke.
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
So why open up? Why share this story? Because stress can be an unseen danger for anyone, and there are ways to handle it much better than he did — and can.
Recognize any job brings stress. Have a plan in place to release the stress before it builds. Accept the notion there are things you can’t control or change and then let go. Those are his tips.
Will he miss coaching basketball? Without a doubt. After all, Bork has been a head or assistant coach with the Rockets the last 13 seasons.
He’ll attend games, cheer for the players who still mean an awful lot to him and support new coach Lee Rabas, the latest caretaker of Neenah’s storied basketball tradition.
But Bork has a far more important game for which he must focus on and prepare. And it’s a game he fully intends to win.
It’s called life.
— Brett Christopherson: 920-993-1000, ext. 207, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @PCBrettC