BERKELEY, N.J. – Who knows how many times Mike Clemente Jr. had waited anxiously for a basketball game to start at Central Regional prior to last Friday. Hundreds, for sure, when you consider his father coached the Golden Eagles for 31 seasons, he scored 1,098 points as a player and is now in his third year as the head coach.
But this was different, a fact that became apparent as he looked across the court in the moments before the season-opener and saw his wife, Allison, and their 18-month-old daughter, Emily, in the stands, along with his parents, siblings and friends.
Completing the scene were his players, some of whom were part of a 22-win campaign a year ago, and all of whom are like family to the 32-year-old.
“I knew it was going to be an emotional day, but it was more emotional than I thought, especially at the start of the national anthem when I started to think about all the things,’’ Clemente said. “It’s been a long six months, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere besides being here with my team.’’
It was last July that Clemente gathered his players at the school to tell them he’d been diagnosed with mediastinal non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a softball-sized tumor near his heart pressing on a main artery.
What followed were six grueling rounds of chemotherapy, leaving the hospital just in time for the first practice on Nov. 27. As Clemente stalked the sidelines against Brick last week, the same way he always had, just without hair, he was a testament to the teachable lessons of athletics he pushes every day.
Clemente knew something was wrong even if doctors kept telling him he was fine, with just the slightest exertion leaving him exhausted and out of breath. Then a pulmonologist spotted the problem in chest x-ray, which a CAT scan and biopsy confirmed.
And by the time Clemente gathered his current and former players for a hastily arranged meeting at the school in mid-July, the competitiveness that drove him on the basketball court had already kicked in after spending a day feeling sorry for himself.
“I thought it was going to be something about team goals or something like that,’’ senior forward Tommy Ruscitti said. “But all the seniors from last year were there, and coach started off saying, `I have something to tell you,’ so I knew it was pretty serious. Then he said he had cancer.’’
“When we first found out he was sick we all had to come together,’’ senior guard Xavier Jackson said. “This season is bigger than us. We have to work hard every day for him. Because he gives his all every day and if he is fighting something really serious and he’s giving it his all, so there’s no reason why we can’t. That’s just the mindset we have now.’’
“It’s such an aggressive form of cancer, so they treat it very aggressively,’’ Clemente said. “It’s dose adjusted, so every cycle they went up a level as long as my body could handle it. We went six rounds. I wasn’t able to teach during that time. Honestly, the last three cycles were very tough. I rarely even got out of bed. It was really tough.’’
After three rounds the tumor had shrunk dramatically, while tests this week will determine what’s next in terms of treatment.
His being able to return to the court for the first day of practice, and walk out of the locker room with his players for the season-opener against Brick, in the gym where his name hangs on the wall in several spots, with both he and his father in the school’s Hall of Fame, might have been the greatest therapy of all.
“To see him out there, it was amazing,’’ Allison Clemente said. “I got choked up when I saw him with the players, because honestly, the whole time we were going through treatment I know he was focused on me and Emily getting him better, but it was these kids. It really was.
“Mike was the strongest person I know, he was amazing, and we’re grateful to everyone who helped us because without them we wouldn’t be here today. Just like he was on the court he is in life.’’
While much of Clemente’s focus was on getting his young team to grow as quickly as possible, he couldn’t help but reflect on the journey.
“It’s emotional for me to even to think about what I’ve put my family through. What they had to go through with everything,’’ he said. “That’s probably the hardest thing for me. Seeing them deal with everything that I was going through, but they handled it so well.
“There were some dark days. I’m as competitive as they get and I really tried to push through it but there were days that were a little negative, and my wife and my parents were always there to snap me out of it.’’
It’s personal now
Clemente knew he wanted to do something to make an impact in the community beyond the basketball court when he was hired at Central in 2015, having learned about that responsibility from his father and former Moravian head coach Jim Walker, who he played for and spent two seasons coaching under.
That first season he turned a game into an emotional fundraiser for Trevor Kwatkoski, a local 5-year-old battling bone cancer. A big crowd showed up, and Todd Frazier made an appearance in what turned into a special evening for the Central program.
Then last year, Clemente and athletic director John Scran came up with the concept for a showcase tournament to benefit Coaches vs. Cancer, the national movement that empowers coaches and players to make a difference in the fight locally.
This year’s event, featuring 10 teams at Central on Jan. 20, will also benefit Monmouth Medical Center’s Grateful Patient Program, which helps implement new technologies and treatments for cancer patients.
It’s Clemente’s way of recognizing the nursing staff and doctors who have been so important in the process of shrinking the tumor. They became an integral part of his support system, alongside his family, including his mother, Maureen, and sisters Lynne and Lauren, his players and coaches, including Dan Torsiello, John Fredo, and Adrienne Cangelosi-Schafer.
“The event is personal now,’’ he said. “You never think it could happen to you. But when it happens to you have to take it head on. But I couldn’t have done it alone.’’
So if you want to know why events like Central’s Coaches vs. Cancer showcase are important, here it is.
The lineup is strong throughout day with Howell taking on Colonia at 11 a.m., followed by Donovan Catholic-Woodbridge at 12:30 p.m., Mater Dei Prep-Red Bank at 2 p.m., Central-Point Beach at 3:30 p.m. and Toms River North-Highland Regional at 5 p.m.
If Clemente’s story helps raise awareness, and dollars, even better. The event is looking for sponsors, with several levels of sponsorships available, as well as donations, which are all tax deductible. Anyone who has questions or is interested in getting involved can contact Clemente directly at (732) 691-2598.
And if you’re looking to see some great basketball on what is sure to be an emotional afternoon, make your way to Central Regional on the third Saturday in January to support an incredible cause.