Sister Maria Pares would say she stood “5 foot 3, maybe.”
Through her groundbreaking career as a coach and advocate for women’s athletics, she was a giant.
Pares died Friday from cancer complications. She was 75.
Pares was a pioneer in women’s sports while defying conventional beliefs about what a nun should be. She built a basketball dynasty at Sacred Heart Academy in the 1980s while simultaneously coaching at Canisius College.
“She was a pioneer, a visionary,” said Theresa Wenzel, who played for Sacred Heart’s 1986 state championship team. Wenzel is president of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
“Countless women around Buffalo and across the country have benefited from her vision. She’s not only a coach, but a mentor and a friend. She made us better basketball players, but more importantly better people.”
Pares’ trademark was her fiery demeanor and refusal to back away from a battle, whether against unbridled sports misogyny or perceived downstate arrogance toward Western New York schools.
Although her first cancer diagnosis came in 2001, she never stopped wearing out officials. Haggard referees still requested not to officiate her games and continued to secretly call her Attila the Nun.
“There was always something we were fighting for,” Pares told The Buffalo News for a 2015 feature about her life. “It was never pleasant. We were always churning, trying to get this, working for that.
“Even with Title IX, which is a joke, some men believe they deserve coaching jobs just because they one time in their life wore a jockstrap. I’ve always said that girls need female role models, and qualified female coaches should get these jobs, not men.”
Pares never lost two games in a row until 1986, when she left Western New York to oversee Marquette University’s rise to Division I, the NCAA’s highest level of competition. She gained national fame, appearing on the “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.”
Pares is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, the Canisius College Sports Hall of Fame, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame and the Sacred Heart Hall of Fame.
“Sister Maria is about the fight. She battles,” LeMoyne College coach Gina Castelli told The News in 2015. Castelli played for Pares at Canisius College and was an assistant for her at Marquette.
“She always made sure women’s players were treated well and respected. She was an inspiration for me because she never backed down.”
Pares grew up playing pickup football and softball on Oak Street and CYO basketball for Saint Louis Catholic Church.
She couldn’t have imagined a career in sports when she joined the Order of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity in 1962.
“Sports were my passion, but I wasn’t allowed to follow it because nuns didn’t do that,” Pares said. “Nuns didn’t do much of anything but teach and scrub floors, I guess. Women didn’t do sports. We weren’t allowed.”
Pares’ first vows assignment was teaching science in Charleston, W.Va., at a school that didn’t offer girls athletics. She went to West Virginia University and received a master’s degree in sports science, a rarity for women in 1973. The Church eventually assigned her to Sacred Heart to establish its athletics department.
Sacred Heart basketball dominated from the moment Pares took over the program. She went 229-10, with 13 straight Monsignor Martin Association championships and the 1986 Class C state championship. Sports Illustrated lauded Pares and Sacred Heart for their 127-game winning streak.
She also went 108-39 as Canisius College’s coach, leading the program to the 1983 Division II NCAA Tournament.
“She taught so many of us over decades to believe in ourselves and do the little things better than anybody else,” Wenzel said. “She taught you the fundamentals of the game, but also the fundamentals of life.
“She made us the best version of ourselves that we could be by really maximizing our experience as teenagers, and I think for women that’s such a pivotal time to get comfortable in your own skin and to like yourself and to build confidence while being challenged.”
Pares left Marquette in 1990 to care for her ill mother. Pares coached at St. Rose of Lima Elementary School and became director of athletics for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
She returned to Sacred Heart in 1999, coaxed by former Canisius men’s coach and current University of Michigan coach John Beilein. She won five more Monsignor Martin titles.
“She’s the No. 1 all-time high school coach in Buffalo,” Cardinal O’Hara coach Nick O’Neil told The News in 2015. O’Neil’s daughter, Brianna Williams, played for Pares at Sacred Heart.
“She’s one of the greatest coaches – men or women – in the history of Buffalo sports. She’s larger than life.”
Pares wanted one more year at Sacred Heart, but her contract was not renewed at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Devastated by the administration’s decision, she didn’t intend to coach again until an offer came from Al Monaco to be his assistant at Villa Maria College’s freshly re-established program.
“You could tell it had torn her down,” Monaco said of Pares’ departure from Sacred Heart. “When I asked her to join me at Villa Maria, I almost felt embarrassed because she’s such an icon and has accomplished so much.
“But immediately – you could hear it in her voice – she perked right up. She was thrilled. Coaching made her happy.”
Monaco was the boys’ coach at Williamsville South for 24 years. He joked Pares was instrumental in helping him launch Villa Maria’s program because he needed a translator to coach women.
“I’ve been coaching over 30 years,” Monaco said, “and it might be the best experience of my career to work with her and having gotten to know her. At first we butted heads because she was used to being a head coach. But it got to the point we became more than coaching colleagues.
“We became the best of friends. I fell in love with her and everything she’s about.”
Monaco expressed amazement at Pares’ willfulness as chemotherapy and other treatments proved increasingly insufficient over the past year.
Pares would soothe Monaco’s concerns by telling him she merely was in home hospice, not inpatient care. She would say she was facing just another temporary setback, the kind she’d rallied from so many times before.
Pares learned in November 2001 she had breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed.
The cancer came back four years later and spread to her liver. She also developed skin cancer and was treated last year for cancerous skin lesions in her ears.
“My darkest moment was after the first cancer surgery,” Pares told The News in 2015. “You go through all these crazy thoughts, psychological stuff, you know? If God created you to live, what am I going to do with my life now? Why am I still around?
“That was the questioning point of my life. I decided I wasn’t going to give up my life if it wasn’t time. There was nothing I could do about what is.”
Pares lived 16 years beyond her first cancer diagnosis and through myriad other health issues, including neuropathy that prevented her hands from performing simple tasks.
While watching a feature about NASCAR driver Brian Vickers’ battle against recurring blood clots, she recognized similar symptoms she’d been having such as shortness of breath and chest pain. A blood clot was discovered in a lung.
Those close to her are convinced it was her stubbornness and quasi-denial of her poor health that allowed her to thrive.
In an email to Pares before she died, Wenzel wrote:
“You have been a tremendous influence in so many lives and have challenged all of us outside our comfort zones, and for that I, like many others, thank you. I have matured from a shy, introvert to running a WNBA team.
“Your vision and confidence for us has been incredible and life-changing. Certainly in today’s age of helicopter parents and entitled kids that may not be acceptable, but for the many, the strong, the SHA-tough, we are proud to call you our coach, mentor and friend. ...
“Your tenacity and passion is reflective in my daily decisions, and I’m sure it is seen in all of us who had the opportunity to play for you. While it may not have always been easy, it was always worth it.”
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 28 at St. Michael R.C. Church, 651 Washington St. Buffalo.