Each time Brendan Coxen read the speech aloud, his voice cracked. Here he was a grown man, teacher and former coach himself preparing to offer a tribute to his former coach and now lifelong friend. The words for the send-off flowed easily from his mind to the page, but executing them did not.
“It was a very emotional moment and I couldn’t get through it without crying,” said Coxen, who read the speech to former coach Bill Thom prior to Briarcliff’s game with Croton-Harmon on Jan. 9. “Thankfully, I ended up making it through OK.”
That Thom’s retirement has struck a chord with so many people in the Croton and Section 1 communities is hardly a surprise. After 33 years, 31 of them as the varsity coach at his alma mater, Thom has left a lasting mark in the village and the local basketball community at large.
He has amassed 393 wins and will be inducted into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame on March 13. Both achievements would’ve seemed unimaginable when Thom took over under humble circumstances more than three decades ago.
“I’m blessed to be included in the company of the people who are there,” said Thom, who served as Croton’s athletic director for 19 years and who will retire from a split role as a physical and special education teacher in June. “My dad was a plumber. My mom worked in the local 5-and-10. They gave to the church and gave to the community. They are my role models and I just wanted to give back.”
First, Thom accomplished that by establishing the basketball program as a consistent competitor in Section 1. (”When I was there, we were awful,” he said.) He also built strong relationships with players and their families, many of which exist years later.
Coxen said Thom would often call players after a game or practice to credit them for their contributions, no matter how small they might have been.
“It made you want to play harder for him,” Coxen said. “He had an ability to coach you hard but make you feel like he cared — even if you weren’t the No. 1 player on the team. You knew he cared about you.”
Thom’s caring nature has extended far beyond Croton’s borders. He has been an integral voice in the Section 1 basketball community and has had several medal-winning moments coaching some of the area’s top players at the Empire State Games and the BCANY Summer Hoops Festival.
Thom will continue to coach in retirement, just not in Croton. He will follow his son Ian, and spend Ian’s senior year on staff at Birmingham-Southern, a Division III school in Birmingham, Alabama.
Dialogue between Thom and the program started after Thom made the decision to retire and spend more time watching his son play. Still, he hopes to continue coaching there or elsewhere beyond next season.
“I’ve always wanted to coach on the college level and the cool thing is I’m going to do it with my son on the roster,” said Thom, whose older son, Billy, is the head coach at the Millbrook School. “The goal now is to coach on the college level.”
Before then, Thom will continue to embrace and, he hopes, improve the school and the program he knows better than anyone. Croton will host its second annual “Hoops for Heroes” on Saturday (or, in the likelihood of a snowout, Sunday). The five-game showcase was designed to salute active members and veterans of the armed forces.
Thom hatched the idea with fellow churchgoer Dennis Meekins at their parish, Our Lady of Loretto in Cold Spring. Meekins, whose son is a military officer who was wounded in duty, explained to Thom how gaps exist in the expenses wounded soldiers and their families have covered by the government.
With Meekins’ help, Thom formed a partnership with two groups responsible for filling those gaps: The Rockland County-based Barry Fixler Foundation and Hope for the Warriors. With officials and other game personnel donating their time, and typical event fundraisers, the “Hoops for Heroes” raised nearly $3,000 last year. Croton has already nearly doubled that total in pre-event donations and has set a goal of $10,000.
Each of the 10 participating schools will also have an honorary coach sitting on the bench in uniform. Thom will call for all current or former military personnel to be saluted throughout the day.
“It’s important to Billy and Barry that we educate the young men and women and tell these stories about sacrifice,” said Meekins, who has helped Thom organize the event.
Thom hopes “Hoops for Heroes” and the culture he has established in 33 years at Croton will continue in his absence. His legacy might be hard to follow, but it won’t be easy for him to walk away, either.
“There are certain attachment and bonds, they are going to be hard to replace,” Thom said. “I’m hoping the next coach is one of my ex-players or one of my assistants. It’s a big family to me. At the end of the year, we give out our T-shirts and they always say ‘family.’ That’s what it is to us.”