When Tom Freeman talks about the best season of his coaching career, he starts near the end.
Down by 25 points to eventual-champion Nottingham, his Delsea basketball team staged an incredible comeback and cut the deficit to two before time ran out in the Group 3 state semifinals in March 2018.
“Just to go out with the character that you showed all year, that was everything,” Freeman said.
In Freeman’s book, that loss said as much about his team as any victory, including the clinic the Crusaders ran in a sectional-semifinal win over Timber Creek and the South Jersey Group 3 title-game triumph over Seneca.
For years, Freeman was similar to almost every other coach, talking a good game about matters that cut to the heart of sports and of life.
“It’s like Rocky — you get knocked down and you get back up, right?” Freeman said.
But it’s one thing to tell your players about resiliency, about fighting through adversity, about dogged determination and defiance in the face of daunting odds.
It’s another thing to show them.
Last July, Freeman sat on a table in a hospital in front of an emergency-room doctor who he said “looked like he had seen a ghost.”
A younger doctor stood by, tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” the older doctor told Freeman. “But you have cancer all through your body.”
Thankfully, that original diagnosis was wrong — Freeman had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, not pancreatic cancer — but there was nothing but hard road ahead for the 43-year-old father of 6-year-old twins, as well as his family and friends.
“I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ’What did you just say to me?’ ” Freeman said.
It’s not lost on Freeman that 2018 started out as the best year of his life — “Great family life, twins are 6, I’m a huge Eagles fan and we win the Super Bowl, and I have the most enjoyable team I’ve ever coached” — and that everything turned upside down in July.
Freeman had experience in battling through tough times in sports — he was a member of the 1997 Rutgers-Camden basketball team that snapped the school’s NCAA-record, 117-game losing streak — but this was different.
This was no game.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it to Christmas,’ ” Freeman said, his voicing cracking with emotion.
After an agonizing two-week period during which his condition finally was clarified and a treatment plan developed, Freeman approached his situation with the same tenacity that has marked his playing, teaching and coaching careers.
“He’s a fighter,” Tami Freeman said of her husband.
Freeman lost 40 pounds. He lost his hair. He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy.
“The hardest part was having to see everybody else deal with it,” Freeman said, sitting in an office at Delsea the other day. “Because once they told me what I had, my thing was, ‘I’ll beat this.’
“But to see what my wife went through, my parents. The twins knew Daddy was sick, but my wife did such a tremendous job helping them through it and hiding the fact that she was broke up.”
Freeman’s diagnosis was devastating news to Javon Gordon, Delsea’s star senior guard.
“When I first heard it, I got a text from a friend in school and my heart dropped to my stomach,” Gordon said. “I actually shed a tear because I couldn’t understand why he had to go through such a hard thing.”
Freeman, who also had been the Delsea boys’ soccer coach, wasn’t able to continue in that role in the fall. But he made every game in support of longtime assistant Brian Lindsey, who took over as head coach.
“I tried to make it a teachable moment,” Freeman said. “One afternoon, I had chemo and it was moved to a night game because it was Cumberland’s senior night and my wife was yelling at me and I said, `Come hell or high water, I’m going.’ ”
The lure of returning to coach basketball spurred Freeman through treatment. He told everyone he would be there for Day 1 of tryouts.
Freeman said he was overwhelmed by the support from other Delsea coaches, the administration, folks in the community.
He coached every basketball game save one, missing an outing because of the flu. He led a young team to another division title, to 13 wins in its last 16 games before Thursday night’s Group 3 tournament loss to Moorestown.
Gordon said Freeman is the same coach, demanding as ever.
“I love that he’s back yelling at me,” Gordon said with a smile.
Longtime basketball assistant coach Matt Miles said Freeman has changed in subtle but significant ways.
“He’s the same coach, but I think he’s more determined than ever to help kids,” Miles said. “I see him talking more to these kids, using more examples. His eyes are open to what’s really important.”
Three weeks ago, Freeman received word that his cancer was in remission. He still needs to be monitored, but his prognosis is good.
Freeman used to think he couldn’t love his family any more than he did.
He used to think he couldn’t cherish friendship and fellowship any more than he did.
He used to think he couldn’t embrace coaching any more than he did.
The last year taught him otherwise. He has come to glimpse life’s limitlessness.