The end of Jim Fenerty’s coaching career came sooner than he wanted or expected. It came in the dead of night a week ago Thursday, the very day he had announced that he would retire after this, his 30th season as Germantown Academy’s boys' basketball coach. He woke from a fitful sleep at 11:30 p.m. with pain in his chest. He began tiptoeing around the house, figuring he was dealing with a bout of indigestion that would subside, though he thought it strange: He hadn’t really eaten much.
Three hours later, he woke his wife, Mary. Take me to a hospital, he told her.
There, he learned the double-barreled diagnosis: He had pneumonia. He’d also had a mild heart attack.
“The doctor said, ‘What do you want to do in life?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘I want to live.’ ”
So that was it. After building GA into a regional and often-national power, after winning 626 games, after spending a week in a bed at Abington Hospital, Fenerty, 68, no longer had a choice about when he would walk away from coaching. He had to stop cold turkey.
Back in 2012, GA had canceled a game against one of its Inter-Academic League rivals, Malvern Prep, after Fenerty felt the entire right side of his body – his face, his arm, his leg – go numb. What he assumed was a stroke turned out to be the effects of polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer that, thanks to oral chemotherapy and weekly checkups, he has managed and lived with since. He coached through that. This, with his heart, was different. He is on medication now, but he might yet need bypass surgery. Coach through this? His doctors said no. His family said no. So he said no.
“We had a whole series of conversations,” Fenerty said late Tuesday morning, in the kitchen of his home in Warrington. “One problem is, my cardiologist is a GA parent who has seen me coach. My oncologist, his kids went to Haverford, and they’ve seen me coach. They said, ‘You’re not exactly the kind of guy who sits like John Wooden holding the game program in his hand on the bench. You’re up, moving, screaming, and yelling.’ ”
Exactly what kind of coach has Fenerty been? A Philly coach, in the best sense of the term and tradition. Born in Kensington. Moved to Olney three days before his first day at Cardinal Dougherty High School. Started coaching in the Incarnation CYO program. Worked his way up from there, from a Catholic elementary school teacher to the athletic director and a social-studies teacher at GA, from CYO leagues to the freshman coach at Bishop Egan in Levittown, where he’d sit in on other coaches’ practices – Speedy Morris’ at Roman Catholic, Bill Fox’s at Father Judge – hoping to pick up insights, hoping to learn. Went from head boys at Egan, maybe the worst coaching job in the Catholic League at the time, to GA, maybe the worst coaching job in the Inter-Ac in 1989. Eddie Burke, the old Drexel coach, asked him once, You got a crucifixion complex or something?
Fenerty told him he thought that he could do something at GA. Two years later, with a point guard named Alvin Williams, the Patriots won their first league championship under Fenerty. Sixteen more followed. He’d hold CYO tournaments in GA’s gym, show kids and their parents that pastoral campus in Fort Washington, talk to them about the quality of the education and the basketball, and the program began to sustain itself. Host Kobe Bryant and Lower Merion one year, filling the gym to the point that the fire department chief joked that he’d put Fenerty in jail for violating code? Sure. Fly to Akron to play St. Vincent’s-St. Mary’s? Absolutely. The Patriots’ ball boy at the time, 10-year-old Jimmy Fenerty, went on the trip, too. Got to rebound for LeBron during a shootaround. Dad just watched and smiled.
“In life, sometimes you’ve got to know who you are and what you want to do,” Fenerty said. “I was a Philly kid. I never wanted to be bouncing from one place to another.”
Those 626 victories are second to Morris’ 736 among boys' coaches in the Catholic, Public, and Inter-Ac Leagues, and they’ll earn Fenerty a spot in the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame someday. He knows, he said, that there will come a moment at, say, 1:35 in the afternoon, about the time he’d start preparing for a practice or a game, only there will be no practice or game, and there will be that twinge. I should still be coaching. But then he’ll feel a twinge in his chest and remind himself, Well, maybe not. Maybe not …
“I’ve had time to think about it as I’ve been lying in a hospital bed,” he said. “I have no regrets. I’ve been able to do what I love to do … ”
He swallowed back tears.
“… for almost 40 years, 30 years at GA. And, um …”
Not too many people can say that.
“I know,” he said, “and they actually paid me to do it. So … good stuff.”
His next cardiologist appointment is Thursday, and he hopes his doctor will clear him to attend GA’s Senior Night, next Tuesday. But Sunday night, with Mary, their younger daughter Erin, and Jimmy – now 28 and an assistant coach under Fran O’Hanlon at Lafayette – home for dinner, Fenerty felt another twinge in his chest. And before he knew it, Erin, a pediatric nurse, was taking his blood pressure, and he was back at Abington for more tests, spending one more night there, just in case.
“I was afraid my daughter was going to build a cage and put me in there with just kale for the rest of my life,” he said.