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CLINE: Marelle inspires, even at the national level

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

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Special Photo Greater Atlanta Christian School assistant coach Joe Marelle recently spoke to the Coaches vs. Cancer board of directors about his battle with cancer. Pictured from left is Norm Stewart, Dave Rose, Bobby Cremins , Fran Dunphy, Fran McAfrey, Joe Marelle, Jim Calhoun, Bruce Weber, Roy Williams, Mike Brey and Bo Ryan

Joe Marelle has been to the NCAA Final Four in various cities. His love of hoops has led the longtime local basketball coach to multiple arenas to watch the games as a spectator. But this weekend, when the tournament visited Atlanta, his reason for attending was different.

This time it wasn't as a coach, but as a cancer survivor and speaker. His audience: the board for Coaches vs. Cancer, made up of a who's who of college basketball coaches. In a room that featured coaches with national titles and other records, including Roy Williams of North Carolina, there was no doubt about the star attraction.

"(Joe) has a story that's amazing. There wasn't a word said during his speech." said Jim Satalin, national director of Coaches vs. Cancer. "When he left, you could tell Roy Williams was moved. He said: 'That's why we're here, guys.' It was emotional. We've never had that kind of response before, honestly."

Marelle, the longtime Duluth head coach who is now an assistant at Greater Atlanta Christian, made such an impact that Satalin said one CEO who was in the room asked for and received a copy of the coach's speech to share with others. While Marelle was given a basketball signed by the coaches in the room, his speech moved them so much that Satalin is arranging for the college coaches to receive a group picture signed by Marelle.

"He was incredible," said Satalin, who invited Marelle back to the event after hearing him speak during the 2007 Final Four held in Atlanta.

Marelle's story was new to those college coaches, but it has been well documented here in Gwinnett, where the county's Tipoff Club annually gives out an award called the Joe Marelle Courage Award to an outstanding player who has overcome health problems or other obstacles.

Marelle said he is touched by the coaches naming the award after him, but admits it is also a little tough since it brings back memories of some not-so-great times. He said the speech he gave on Saturday at the Atlanta Hilton conjured up some of those same feelings, but he knows he can't explain who he is now without telling of the long road he traveled to get here.

"I felt like when I got cancer I lost my credibility," said Marelle, whose name adorns the gymnasium at Duluth High School. "They thought I was damaged goods. But the biggest thing cancer has done for me is ... people call me to ask me to speak to friends or family who are going through cancer, and I can do that because in a lot of cases I've been there and done that. I know about the nausea, losing your hair and food tasting like rubber -- I've done that."

The coach, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998, said he likes to share his story because "people need to hold onto the idea that 'I can get through this.'" In the speech he delivered this past weekend, he compared himself to a No. 16 seed in the tournament, an underdog who overcame non-Hodgkins lymphoma and Leukemia despite dire medical evaluations.

While giving his speech, Marelle looked out into the room and saw Jim Calhoun, the retired UConn coach with two national titles to his name. He saw Mike Brey from Notre Dame, Bruce Weber from Kansas State, Bo Ryan of Wisconsin and Fran Dunphy of Temple as well as Williams. These are guys he's seen on the biggest stages, and now they were watching him.

"It's very intimidating," Marelle said. "Those are some of my idols, guys I watched on TV and read about and now you are in the same room with them. I just said to myself: I coach basketball on a much smaller scale, but I've beaten something else that's on a bigger scale.

"And after the talk, the guys shook my hand and hugged me, and they were very down to Earth the way they treated me."

Coaches vs. Cancer is a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches that empowers basketball coaches, their teams, and local communities to make a difference in the fight against cancer. In his role on Saturday, Marelle was acting like the coach he is, motivating that room to raise money and awareness for people, like him, who are fighting cancer.

"My main goal is to do what little I can in my life to help a person (battle cancer)," Marelle said of his own shining moment at the Final Four.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.

MARELLE'S SPEECH

I always thought of myself as an ordinary Joe. For 20 plus years, I was the sideline guy in a suit with a silver whistle dangling from my neck coaching basketball at Duluth High School. And for most of those years, my perspective and my world view, was determined by how many games our team won or lost each season.  That is, until something in my life, changed ALL that.  And this story is a story about perceptions!

Now, let's travel back to 1998, when I was at the Final Four in San Antonio. I began experiencing severe pains in my side and those pains became so severe that I had to return home to Georgia to see a doctor.  I was quickly diagnosed with mononucleosis. But the pain did not subside and in fact persisted for months. After a host of opinions and even more tests, I was finally told I needed to see an oncologist.

Nonchalantly, the doctor saunters into the room. He takes a look at me, reviews my blood work and tests and he doesn't say a word.  He just scribbles quietly and matter of factly on a small prescription pad, hands it to me and then walks out.  I look down at that piece of paper and read the following, " Stage 4 Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; take 30 pills a day, 6 months to live, UNCUREABLE."  The words leapt out at me from the page. My Perspective?  I was just given the 16th seed.  And a 16 hasn't beaten a one. Yet…

As a coach, I didn’t particularly care for his scouting report or game plan because for my entire life I was all about wins and losses. But in this single moment my perceptions began to unravel and I realized God was and is the only Head Coach.  He sets the game plan, and he determines how many minutes I get to play.

I switched Doctors to Dr. Tony Landis and My beautiful wife Kathy and 3 children Joey, Mary Pat and Tony were forced to adjust to dad “the coach” having cancer.  “Perspective"?– I begin to realize the impact this illness can have on your loved ones and how it affects their lives as well the impact  for them of watching cancer impact mine.

After six years of chemo, I eventually got a win and some good news that my cancer was in remission. But the bad news quickly followed.  Because of the harsh treatments, I now had acute leukemia with a critical window of just 30 days to LIVE.  And the ONLY chance I had was to have an experimental bone marrow transplant.

The doctors scoured through the bone marrow donor data base with over one million people on it but there was not one single match. And then I was told the only option for treatment was to get a mini haploid type bone marrow transplant, an experimental procedure.  Next up?  I got relieved of my coaching duties and teaching job at Duluth because of my illness. Talk about the 16th seed!

Perspective?

My oldest son Joey, who set the bench press record for his football program, decides to take leave from college to become my donor.  His bone marrow saves my life.  While I did not receive his weight room strength, my oldest son underwent an excruciating experimental operation in an attempt to save my life. And even my perspective of the word 'team player' takes on a new meaning.

In 2005 after my comeback from cancer, I was fortunate enough to be named the head basketball coach at Mount Pisgah Christian School and my youngest son Tony transferred there. Leaving behind his lifelong friends, and a promising high school basketball team, he chose to play on my team and by the end of our first season; we only lost one game in the state of Georgia.  In fact, our team had played their way all the way to the State Championship!

Before the State Championship game I walked into the locker-room to give my pre-game talk.  I did not mention the other team….  Instead, I challenged them to realize how blessed and fortunate they were to be playing the game of basketball and to never take that for granted.  Every player just like every person has different God given abilities and tools. And that night, I challenged my players to USE those tools to the best of their ability. I told them about all the children I had met stricken with cancer that could not play and to realize how fortunate they were to have this ability and this night.  But WIN OR LOSE, I said, "I love you all because you have believed in me and allowed me to do what I love. COACH BASKETBALL.

Perspective?  That night, my team sure used their tools and that was my first State basketball championship ever after 25 years of coaching.

The last 4 years I have been assistant coach at Greater Atlanta Christian School with a great coach and even better friend Eddie Martin.  So far we have won 3 State Championships in the last 4 years.  More importantly, we are striving to teach our players about perspective.

I have also reevaluated what it truly means to be a COACH.  In the dictionary we are defined as one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy.  But nowhere in the definition does it mention winning or losing games. Because the real wins are the relationships and interactions we have with others. It is realizing what you have in whatever moment you find yourself in and NEVER taking those blessings for granted. Whether its basketball, spending time with family and friends, or in your work.

My previous perspective was based solely on wins and losses as most coaches strive to win every game, until cancer made me reevaluate what was truly important. Your family, your friends, your health….Each day you wake up is a win and if each day, you realize you are healthy and able and are surrounded by loved ones, there is NO excuse to not have great energy and enthusiasm in what you do-- You will be winners more times than not when the scoreboard sounds.  NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE IN LIFE, 1ST HALF OR 2ND HALF, IN THE BONUS OR DOUBLE BONUS, IF YOU ARE STILL PLAYING THE GAME AND USING YOUR TOOLS YOU'VE WON.

“PERSPECTIVE”.

And if you find yourself in a 16th seed situation and what looks like a huge loss, brace yourself.  Don't ever forget the impact you can have on others and the impact their lives will have on you.  I will never forget the day Coach Shyatt then the head coach at Clemson, now at Wyoming, brought his basketball team to see me and present me with a game ball in my hospital room.  And at another particularly low moment, I received an autographed basketball that said, “Keep Fighting Joe” from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski.  Man, I needed those words!  My incredible wife and 3 children loved me with all their hearts.  My players, past and present, gave me pep talks like the ones I gave them once that lifted my soul.  And even though there won't ever be a thank you card big enough to express my gratitude for all the love, with the help of a great team of people my family, my friends, my players and my fellow coaches. I was able to raise over $10,000 for Coaches vs. Cancer through a Sports MEMORABILIA Auction.

So many people poured love, life and inspiration into my life that gave me the strength to keep going. And your generosity and work has given me the ability to return to the greatest game in the world - basketball and to play the greatest game in the world - the game of life. I thank you for both of these and I encourage you to continue your work in making a difference in fighting the war against cancer.

And remember….Once I was given the 16th seed.  Incurable cancer but guess what?  A 16 has beaten a one.

THIS IS PERSPECTIVE!

Thank you!