The CHSAA has lost a coaching legend.
Tim Leary, who coached boys’ varsity basketball for 43 years at St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, died Feb. 13 at the age of 73 after a nearly yearlong battle with gallbladder cancer.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Feb. 16 at St. Thomas More, Breezy Point, where the longtime L’il Terriers coach lived full-time since 2000. He is survived by three brothers, four children and seven grandchildren. His wife, Claudia, died in March 2016 from ovarian cancer.
In his storied career, which ended after the 2016-2017 season, Leary’s teams won a total of 646 games, the most among St. Francis Prep coaches, the seventh most among New York State basketball coaches, second in the CHSAA to the late Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood.
“He’s (Leary) just an icon in the history of the CHSAA,” said CHSAA President Ray Nash, a fellow St. Francis Prep graduate. “God knows if they’ll be people that will stay around that long anymore. It’s tough to lose such a good guy who really embodied the Franciscan education. I think that’s what’s more important than wins and losses. It’s like losing a family member.”
Leary grew up in Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, Windsor Terrace, and played Catholic Youth Organization basketball at St. Rose of Lima, Parkville, and baseball at the Parade Grounds. He followed in his father’s footsteps by attending St. Francis Prep, Williamsburg.
At the Prep, he played four years of basketball and four years of baseball. As a senior, his varsity basketball team went to the city championship final but fell to Power Memorial H.S., Manhattan, which was led by star player Lew Alcindor, a.k.a. the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“We were fortunate enough at St. Francis Prep to play with some really outstanding players,” said Ralph Addonizio, Leary’s high school teammate in basketball and baseball. “Timmy was a fine athlete in that mix – a solid teammate, a solid performer.”
Upon graduation in 1963, Leary earned an athletic scholarship to play both basketball and baseball at Manhattan College, the Bronx. He had aspirations to join the NYPD, like many of his family members before him, but a coaching opening at the soon-closing St. Augustine H.S., Park Slope, piqued his interest.
As a 21-year-old, he coached varsity boys’ basketball at St. Augustine, while also coaching varsity baseball at St. Francis Prep – all while he was completing his master’s degree from Brooklyn College, Midwood.
When St. Augustine closed two years later, Leary embarked on a 30-year career teaching junior high for the New York City Board of Education. He also then began coaching junior varsity boys’ basketball at St. Francis.
In total, he spent 10 years as varsity baseball coach, four years as junior varsity basketball coach and then 43 years as varsity basketball coach. His 1991-1992 Prep varsity team won the CHSAA ‘A’ division city championship. He won his 600th career game in January 2014.
“Coaching against Coach Leary was like going to the dentist – you never looked forward to it, but you had to do it,” said Leary’s high school teammate Don Kent, who coached against Leary as the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Msgr. McClancy H.S., East Elmhurst. “He fought you tooth and nail.”
Leary is a member of the St. Francis Prep Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor, New York State Coaches Association Hall of Fame, New York City Pro Am Basketball Hall of Fame, CHSAA Hall of Fame and Basketball Old-Timers of America Hall of Fame.
Despite these accolades and all of his career wins, Leary’s top concern was always demanding a first-rate effort from his players in order to bring out their best and make them better people. He said he enjoyed the relationships he built and loved seeing his players years later as respectful men. “Tim had such a profound effect on so many lives in his 49 years of coaching,” said St. Francis Prep Alumni Director Brother Robert Kent, O.S.F. “He will be truly missed.”
Leary’s legacy at the Prep will continue to live on, since it’s a place he called home for such a long time.
“I spent a lot of my life at St. Francis Prep,” Leary said in 2017. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community. I had a great life and great career there.
“Prep was good to me, and it was really enjoyable. It all worked out for me.”
It certainly did work out for the L’il Terriers’ coach. Though he’s gone too soon, he’s now reunited with his beloved wife Claudia in heaven.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.