Robert "Apache" Paschall, one of the country's most successful girls' basketball coaches, died at a New York hospital on Tuesday.
The 37-year-old coach at Nazareth (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and director of the Exodus NYC AAU club program had been battling an aggressive form of skin cancer since a diagnosis in October. He had also suffered a series of health issues during the past year.
"One thing that people will have to say good or bad is that he always was there for the girls," Nazareth athletic director Rochelle Murphy said. "He was just trying to give them an opportunity to play the game that they loved."
Murphy did not know any details of Paschall's death and said the school found out around 1:45 p.m. ET. Nazareth canceled activities for the rest of the day, and Murphy said there would be grief counselors there tomorrow. She said his death came as a complete shock, and his players were distraught upon hearing the news.
"We were with him yesterday, he wasn't bad, we never thought this would happen," senior post player Lisa Blair said. "He wasn't himself in practice; he was quiet, just watching us practice, but he didn't look that sick."
Blair said the team had gathered at New York Downtown Hospital, where Paschall died.
"There's nothing we can say but hug them," Murphy said of the players. "They're very distraught, and we called the parents and they came to get the kids, but there is nothing that we can do but comfort them and try to comfort them as we are trying to comfort ourselves."
During a telephone conversation a few days ago, Paschall said he had lost more than 30 pounds because of loss of appetite, but looked forward to the end of his treatment regimen. He was undergoing radiation treatment, followed by chemotherapy, for a form of skin cancer in his jaw area. The combined treatments have been requiring an overnight stay at the hospital.
In addition to appetite loss, Paschall complained of issues with his kidneys, as well as dehydration. Last year, he suffered a stroke and was hospitalized for congestive heart failure.
Nazareth, the No. 2 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings and the top-ranked team in New York City by ESPNNewYork.com, pulled out of the West Coast Jamboree in Contra Costa, Calif., last week, ostensibly because of complications with Paschall's health. The team is 3-0, and Paschall said he had been in discussions with No. 1 St. Mary's (Phoenix, Ariz.) and No. 7 Bolingbrook (Ill.) about filling open game dates in the Kingsmen's schedule.
The Lady Kingsmen are scheduled to next play Thursday night against Bishop Ford, whose coach, Mike Toro, said as of Tuesday night the game is still on.
"The kids from both teams, we all knew each other, we were all in basically the same program," Toro said. "They all still want to (play) ... we felt like it was the right thing to do."
"We don't really know what to expect from both teams on Thursday. It's probably going to be the most emotional game any of us have played in," Toro added.
Among his current players are Brianna Butler, a Syracuse signee ranked No. 13 by ESPN HoopGurlz in the 2012 class, and Bianca Cuevas, who is ranked No. 20 in the 2014 class and expected to be the next great guard to come out of the New York City area. Paschall also coached many of the same players in the highly successful Exodus club program.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't even be playing basketball," Blair said.
Toro said even though it was apparent that Paschall was getting sicker, he was still making an effort to be there for his players.
"Even though he started getting really sick he was always trying to make an effort to be there for the girls, he really cared about them and that's why it was important that he didn't stop coaching," Toro said.
"His one goal was going out and helping kids, getting them into college, and making something of them," Toro added. "He put every girl ahead of himself, he made sure they were doing well and he tried to send as many of them to college for free as he possibly could."
Paschall began coaching with St. Michael Academy and Exodus, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, with players such as Kia Vaughn, who now plays for the New York Liberty in the WNBA. Other storied Exodus alums include the Chicago Sky's Epiphanny Prince, who set a high school girls' record with 113 points in a game, and Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis, widely projected as a WNBA lottery pick.
Paschall built a powerhouse at St. Michael Academy before the school closed. He headed to Nazareth in Brooklyn, bringing several of his former players at St. Michael's with him, and made Nazareth a championship team in his first season, when the Kingsmen won the New York State Federation Class AA title.
Along the way, Paschall was investigated by the Catholic High School Athletic Association for possibly illegally recruiting players to his school, but was cleared. This season, three of his incoming transfers were ruled ineligible by the CHSAA's Brooklyn/Queens division for not having proper documentation to prove a parental change of address, but all three players were eventually cleared.
"It's a great loss for our league and the Nazareth community and girls' basketball in general," said Denise Hillig, the Brooklyn/Queens CHSAA president. "It's very sad and a terrible situation.
"He loved the game of basketball and he loved his team."
Paschall had a history of taking on at-risk kids and working to make them feel safe and successful. He grew up in New York's projects and saw his mother go to prison when he was 10. He was receiving interest from a number of schools to play college ball, but abandoned those plans when his grandmother, who raised him, became gravely ill. Like his own, many of his players' families were single-parent families, and he served as a father figure to many of them.
"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 told HoopGurlz in October. "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."
Information from ESPNNewYork.com contributor Rob Abruzzese was used in this report.