Former City Honors coach Drake Francescone passed away over the weekend. Jerry Sullivan wrote an outstanding column on him in today's paper.
I began working at The News in October of 1999. I missed covering Francescone's accomplishments in other sports, including volleyball, in which he set the standard for one of Western New York's best programs that has been continued on by Deborah Matos.
I knew Francescone as a basketball coach, and a great one.
In Sully's column, he mentions the City Honors awards banquet that followed their 2003 state championship. I was there, too.
I really don't make a habit of attending those kind of affairs -- because I don't want to be viewed as playing favorites, and there are just too many of them, things like that.
I started to mention those things to coach Francescone after he invited me. But actually, it wasn't exactly an invitation. It was somewhere in between a strong suggestion and an order, not unlike the many he gave so many players over the years. I was going, and that was that.
It was one of the most special evenings I've been a part of. As Sully wrote about, Francescone had all of the players speak. There were many touching moments. Seniors talked about how far they progressed. Underclassmen talked about where they wanted to end up. Team managers (including perhaps the best one I've ever dealt with) were even part of the proceedings.
Francescone even had a player take to the podium even though he didn't play at all during the season. He wasn't academically eligible, and for a moment during the banquet, Francescone was coaching the kid right up there on the dais -- simultaneously chiding the player for not making the grade while giving him the goal to do so the next season, right there in front of a room full of people.
The night was an example of what can be so right about high school sports. Kids that might have not hit the books were given a reason to, and were given a coach that would make sure they would. Kids from different backgrounds, different levels of talent, worked together to be successful against the odds, to form one of the most enjoyable teams I've ever covered.
One of those Centaurs was A'aron Mungro, whose play inspired me to name an A'aron Mungro All-Hustle Team, something that has become a staple of the annual Prep Talk All-Championship Week Awards. City Honors certainly had some skilled players (including 2003 Player of the Year Micole Parker), but they were undersized against every opponent. They were so good because of their desire, their passion, their smarts, their teamwork -- and all that was funneled to the floor by their coach.
Francescone was fiery, sometimes foul-mouthed, a disciplinarian who was a domineering presence on the sideline and in his huddles. People like to throw the term "tough love" around when a coach is being hard on a player, but Francescone delivered both parts of that phase out in equal doses. He cared for his players, and he wanted them to learn from their experiences, which is why he was so tough.
He demanded the best out of his athletes, and in the end -- as I heard in story after story at that postseason awards night in 2003 -- those players loved him for it.
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Addition: Here's The News' obituary, which appeared in Wednesday's papers.