By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large
Mike Rao was entertaining to watch from our fourth-row bleacher perch in Notre Dame’s Dillon Hall.
At these home games, we sit directly across from the Irish bench.
“Coach”, as I am apt to call him, was a stroller, a pacer, a courtside wanderer along the gleaming hardwood.
‘Travellin’ Man’, is how I thought of him.
Sure, other coaches do this, but Rao did it with a style of his own. He can be so, so, animated.
Gone, after 20 years, give or take, as coach of the senior Irish basketball team.
How do you write up 20 years, how do you give them the recognition they deserve? Not with a bold-face asterisk behind the name, that would be tantamount to giving it short shrift, or writing it off completely. How tacky is that.
So we turned to friends, family and dribble-driven peers to have a say, unbeknownst to him. That is where the best insights are to be found, with these folks.
Their sharing was rich in content.
“Mike makes a very significant positive impression on his players through his passion for the sport,” says Don Larman, a basketball ref, coach and long-time Tribune Tournament committee member. “It’s evident how he inspires players both on and off the court.”
Larman is retired from a lengthy career as a probation officer. He knows the importance of positive role modeling in helping to shape malleable, young lives. He credits Rao for being just that, a positive role model, not just on the court but in the hallways at Notre Dame where is still on faculty. Just not coaching any more. It seems incongruous in a way.
When asked what Rao brought to the game, year after year, one word came to mind for Larman, a thinking-man’s analyst: passion.
Passion was always there during basketball season but equally so in the off- season, said Larman.
Stories of Rao’s off-season commitment are legendary, he says.
“He opened the court for kids during off-season and he was there for them. He has this undeniable passion for basketball and it carries over, like osmosis. Kids see the coach is enthusiastic and into it in a positive way and that’s reflective on them as well.”
The principal, Ralph DeFazio, has been witness to transformative moments in students’ lives which, he says, are attributable entirely, or in part, to Rao’s influence.
“Kids have come to appreciate Mike through the years. I think Mike wears his heart on his sleeve and the kids recognize that. They know the inner core of what’s driving Mike is to develop an individual with character. Sure, the game is important but you have to carry on through life. Mike puts a focus on that.”
Rao came to the basketball hardwood always with passion, with discipline, with routine and with work ethic, DeFazio says about his teacher/coach. And he went on to praise him for his role modeling, his mentoring and his guidance.
“All so commendable” says DeFazio.
Rao, 58, will leave a legacy at the Catholic school, one that overshadows the importance of the rudimentary, like teaching agility skills and shooting skills, among others. Says DeFazio: “It’s not only about championships. It’s about the mark that he left with his athletes, who became young adults and carry on those lessons learned on the court into life.”
Bob Tomiuck, who years ago played hoops for Notre Dame, who is a referee, member of the Tribune Tournament committee, long-time follower of Irish basketball and friend of the Rao family, admires the bond Rao has with his players.
“When he coaches them, they become his team forever. They know he puts his heart and soul into it. He and (Dave) Fucile (former assistant coach) they worked great as a unit, the way they treated the kids.”
Adaptability was one of Rao’s strong suits as a coach in soft-spoken Tomiuck’s opinion.
He was able to adapt to the style of play of the team they were playing against, he was able to change on the fly, he was versatile, Tomiuck says. Things that are easier said than done.
And Rao is gifted with a deep-seated understanding of the game, says Tomiuck.
Son Christopher, turning 22 in the spring, talks with unreserved affection and appreciation for the man who is his dad, former coach, and forever mentor.
“We talked about the game every time we were together since I was 10,” he says during a phone interview from Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, where he is a student, player and assistant coach.
“I learned from him that as player, it was essential to be a good person, responsible for your actions, accountable to your teammates. Responsible and accountable, that’s what he told us.”
By way of backgrounding, he says his dad played junior basketball while attending Eastdale Secondary School. He says soccer was really his forte, especially when he played with Roma, a team that was part of the National Soccer League, and where he earned rookie of the year honor in the early 1970s.
Young Rao describes his dad as “a genuinely good and giving person. He pours himself into the game of basketball. The values he instils aren’t fake, he practices what he preaches.”
I admire the son’s rebounding faith in his father, the son who can say with pride breaking through his voice, “If you look at the gym during Christmas time, the gym was always full with guys who came back to practice, guys who understood what Coach Rao did for them, as people and as players.”
Of course he will have a legacy, young Rao says.
“His legacy is that he built a monster of a program, year in and year out.”
And then I asked his wife: “What has the game of basketball taught Pam Rao about Mike Rao?”
She says in reply: “One thing is, he has a bright basketball mind, he sees things no one else, or just a few others, see…. He has a soft, sentimental side that not a lot of people see.”
She goes on to say that sentiment manifests itself in a wall of books in the Rao household, books with photos and clippings about the boys, the teams, who played for him over the years. They are one of things he treasures most, she says. They are so important to him he gets out of sorts when only on-line game reports are available, his preference is hard-copy coverage that can be clipped from the newspaper, and saved for posterity.
I ask: “How important is winning to Mike?”
Pam says in reply: “It’s not foremost, not at all. Winning is nice but he wants the success of his players and to play well, whether they win or lose. That’s what counts.”
I ask: “What’s it like living with Coach Rao during basketball season?”
Pam says in reply: “I guess it depends on what the team is like.
“It could be hard living with a coach and player. When Christopher was on the team, it could be hard living with a coach who was also a father. I think it’s his passion. But it’s nice living with someone with a passion, even though you have to give up a few things along the way.
“It’s not just about basketball; we’ve had players living in our home from time to time because they had no place else to go. He does these things very quietly, he’s gotten them lots of things, like shoes, so they could play. He wanted them all to be successful, on the court, in school, in life.”
(Written for the 2017 Tribune Tournament program book.)