Apache Paschall: A coach and a friend

Apache Paschall was a close friend of mine.

It may be impossible to explain how difficult it was to write that sentence.

Paschall -- the girls' basketball coach at Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and the Exodus NYC AAU club program -- died on Tuesday morning at age 37. Because he was younger than me, it's still inconceivable and painful to have to write about him in the past tense.

Journalists are not supposed to befriend the people we write about. The unwritten rules are pretty clear about avoiding such conflicts and complications.

But in talking me through my grief over Paschall, who had been battling an aggressive form of skin cancer since a diagnosis in October as well as other serious health issues, my close friend and colleague Chris Hansen made a great point about the world in which we travel. There isn't yet enough money or notoriety in girls' basketball to motivate anyone. Those who are involved must do so because of the passion they feel for the sport and its growth. As such, the roles of the people on my beat are not the traditional ones -- reporter, coach, parent, player; we all tend to be comrades in arms and friendships like mine and Paschall's are not just unavoidable, they're almost fated.

It didn't seem that way at first.

When I began taking HoopGurlz to a national audience, people told me that Paschall admired my work. But how could I ever tell? Anytime I ever saw him, the most I got was a nod and maybe a hello. I told a mutual acquaintance I thought Paschall didn't like me for some reason.

"It takes him time to warm up and trust people," I was assured.

Finally, during a club tournament in Mason, Ohio, I walked up to Paschall, who was black and Native American, and told him I thought he didn't like me because I wasn't as light-skinned as he was. He laughed. It wasn't long before we were texting and calling each other regularly, often so late at night that I regularly accused him of being a vampire. The subjects of our conversations more often than not had nothing whatsoever to do with basketball.

His favorite reaction in texts, sometimes to the point of being some alien form of punctuation, was: lol. In other words, don't take things so seriously that they consume you. I liked Paschall's advice, but knew in my heart he never heeded it. Everything consumed him, especially anything that had to do with his players -- his kids. The whole lot of it ate him up eventually in the form of his cancer, his congestive heart failure before, and his stroke before that.

Maybe the constant issues he faced made Paschall ill, but it was his disregard for himself, I'm convinced, that did him in. The past year, he never expressed concern about dying, but about not being present for his girls. His biggest fear was looking weak, or scaring them with his appearance. During the height of his treatments for skin cancer, Paschall insisted on calling me every other day to ask about my youngest daughter, who'd been hospitalized, or to comfort me about some other personal challenge.

The conversation only reluctantly turned to him. The last time I talked to Paschall, a few days ago, he sounded feeble but encouraged because his treatments were ending. Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.) had missed some games because of him, and he was trying to hatch an adventure for his girls, maybe to Phoenix to play St. Mary's, the team that had deposed them as No. 1 in the country, or somewhere like Chicago. A couple years ago, he'd taken his team to Russia. He never wanted the inner city to become a prison for him or his girls, so he left it as often as possible, by any means possible.

And when I say "any means," I mean any. None of his programs had any money, but that never stopped Paschall from globetrotting. His teams at Nazareth and St. Michael (New York, N.Y.) took the subway to their games. His St. Michael team traveled individually on trains or buses to Glens Falls, N.Y., for the state federation championships. Those alternate means of transportation earned Paschall a reputation for unreliability. If his families drove to events, they'd inevitably encounter traffic. If they chartered buses, they would break down. Last summer, Paschall went so cheap for a bus that the company forced his team to leave Murfreesboro, Tenn., the morning before a major semifinal matchup.

As he was being whisked back to New York, Paschall texted, "Driver made us leave early lol. Exodus needs a bigger travel fund lol."

"I have a better idea," I texted back. "Fire this driver and replace him with someone on a more flexible schedule."

Paschall didn't enjoy his reputation for being late or unreliable. But it came with the territory.

So did his haters, I guess. I always knew a lot of people actually resented others for succeeding, but I never saw it to the extent of the disdain that followed Paschall. Part of it, he brought upon himself. He was as transparent and incapable of sugar-coating anything as they come, and many do not like hearing things the way they are.

Still, the naysaying about Paschall was far out of kilter even with the elevated level of his bravado. People told me he was evil. Detractors spread rumors about his being a thug. Just about everyone, it seemed, was convinced that he cheated. But I saw something else altogether. Because I earned my graduate degree from Columbia, I consider New York a stomping ground of sorts, and managed to visit Paschall often. We'd meet for dinner, invariably late at night because he'd first have to conduct practice, counsel some girls on schoolwork or personal matters and ferry several of them home. And then our dinners always were a constant stream of interruptions, via texts or calls from his players -- about anything you could imagine.

The most for which I could ever criticize Paschall, besides leading too often with his heart and not his head, was lack of organization. I once asked him if he owned a datebook. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled pieces of paper, with names, numbers and a few reminders scrawled on them.

Apache Paschall lived a hard life, but never wished it on anyone else. In fact, he was hell-bent on protecting others from following suit. Because of his sister and later his daughter, both named Satara, he made girls his cause. Lucky for them all. And I couldn't help but love him for it. His gift was loving me right back. He never asked me for anything, not even a quarter for the soda machine. He never brought up a ranking, evaluation or story written by us about his cherished players, even times I absolutely knew he didn't like what was said. Never, ever.

Paschall showed me that it was possible to befriend a source, but that doing so comes with a price. My payment finally came due in the form of the tears in my eyes and the pain I feel in my heart. In time, I know those will subside, though not disappear altogether. Just like the vision in my mind's eye of my dearly departed friend, towel on his shoulder, knowing smirk on his face.

LOL, Apache. The joke, all along, was on everyone else.

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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 glenn@hoopgurlz.com.