Because he was advised by his physician not to come alone, Robert "Apache" Paschall was braced for bad news, but not for the worst. The prominent, lightning rod of a coach figured he'd been targeted with more than his share of bullets, and had dodged most of them. So when his doctor uttered the diagnosis, Paschall said his mind immediately checked out of the room.
His doctor kept talking, but the only one still listening was Lauren Best, Paschall's closest friend and longtime assistant coach at Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and the Exodus club program. She wrote down the diagnosis -- skin cancer, requiring chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
"This has to be the worst nightmare ever," Paschall remembers thinking. When the mental fog started to lift, he asked Best, "What about the girls?"
The girls, his players, had helped him survive his previous worst nightmare, congestive heart failure, and delivered Nazareth the first New York State Federation AA girls' basketball championship in its history. The cosmic payoff to all the stress and emotion was supposed to be this season.
This year's roster is a dream -- seniors Darius Faulk and Taylor Ford, a pair of nationally ranked college prospects, and sharp-shooter Brianna Sidney; sophomore Bianca Cuevas, another nationally ranked prospect, and a pair of towers in 6-foot-6 senior Lisa Blair and 6-5 junior Lubirdia Gordon. Supplementing them are transfers Brianna Butler, their club teammate who is the No. 13 prospect in the 2012 class; Monasia Bolduc, a 6-1 forward from upstate New York, and Sadie Edwards, a 5-10 guard who is watchlisted by ESPN HoopGurlz in the 2013 class.
Heck, never mind defending the state title, this is a team that has designs on a national championship.
As a club team, this same group last summer was as good as Paschall has had. ESPN HoopGurlz ranked Exodus NYC No. 7 on the national summer circuit.
"It was a stress-free team," Paschall said. "They were just different. They didn't have as much baggage as we normally have with kids. They had their personal challenges, like our kids do, but they were just more happy."
But his and theirs has been a Dickensian tale, with breathtaking best of times always seeming to be shadowed by equally breathtakingly worst. After Paschall built St. Michael Academy into a national power, the Manhattan-based school closed in 2010 because of financial pressures. Paschall and his players' parents scrambled to find a new home for the program at Nazareth, but early in the team's first season, he was investigated for alleged recruiting violations and later was exonerated.
In the midst of all that, last January, Paschall developed flu-like symptoms. The symptoms worsened to the point where he could barely catch his breath. His daughter, Satara Golson, had just started living with him and it was her 15th birthday, so he put off a doctor's visit for a day. Alarmed at Paschall's condition, Best took him to New York Downtown Hospital, where he was admitted and diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The diagnosis preyed on his worst fears; only a year before, his close friend, Marques Jackson, a prominent club coach out of Dallas, had died of a heart attack.
Putting off his doctor's visit for his daughter, and dancing around his heart illness for his team, is typical behavior. During a game last December against Bishop Loughlin, Paschall blacked out, not remembering many details of the game. Two months later, a CAT scan revealed he'd had a stroke.
"He's always more concerned about one of the kids," said Best, who played for Paschall at St. Michael and has been his top assistant for 10 years.
The circumstances were similar in June. One day Paschall felt a lump in his neck-throat area, but attributed it to a swollen gland. When the condition persisted, he visited his doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. When the lump grew, the doctor suggested a biopsy, but Paschall insisted he needed to travel with his club team during the month of July, a key evaluation period for college prospects.
Paschall, 37, has a history of taking on at-risk kids and working to make them feel safe and successful. Such kids, Best said, are accustomed to the kind of roller-coaster ride they are experiencing with their team and coach. Paschall also is no stranger to life's ups and downs. He grew up in New York's projects and saw his mother go to prison when he was 10. He was receiving interest from Blackhill State, Utah, William & Mary and Wyoming to play college ball, but abandoned his career when his grandmother, who raised him, became gravely ill.
Because so many come from single-parent households, Paschall is more than a father figure to many of his players and he has developed a symbiotic relationship with most. He credits them, along with his mother and assistant coaches, with keeping him buoyed as he dealt with his heart condition.
"I'm not naturally a positive person when it comes to adversity," Paschall said. "They kept me positive."
Despite the skin-cancer diagnosis, Paschall intends to continue coaching. Dr. George E. Laramore, chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Washington, said coaching is possible, but that Paschall will be undergoing an "intense form of treatment," and there will be limitations.
"He can continue to coach, but he may not be as energetic," said Dr. Laramore, a radiation oncologist specializing in the treatment of head and neck cancer. "Because of the location (of treatment), he may have problems projecting his voice. There could be many side effects, and he'll have to stay on top of his nutritional status."
Paschall said he is undaunted. He is prepared to hand off more to his assistants. He vows to find energy, so he is "not slumping around my players."
Giving up coaching is not an option, even if quality of life is a possible casualty.
"Because of the love that I get from the girls and their families, I weigh the stress of coaching as something that I will not give up," Paschall said. "If I had to stop coaching today, I don't know what I'd do with myself. I put my life into these kids and believe that, no matter how unorthodox my methods are, they are effective."
Paschall tells a story about a girl. She was an eighth-grader and was carrying a gun. Eight years later, because of basketball, she graduated from a major university.
"And she never has to go back to the projects," he said.
Every season Apache Paschall has a motto for his team. Last year, it was, "The Rise of the Fallen." This year it will be, "Against All Odds." Plans to have that phrase emblazoned on plain black t-shirts were completed before Paschall even knew about the cancer.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.