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Barons’ long journey together hits emotional peak

Billy Baron remembered the last time he saw his father cry. It was 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and he was sitting in the passenger seat of his father’s car. Jim Baron had been fired after a 7-24 season at Rhode Island. There was no going back. The thing was, they weren’t quite sure how to move forward.

Billy’s entire reason for leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference and Virginia for the Atlantic 10 Conference and Rhode Island was to play for his father. The master plan called for them to be together until Billy graduated. Instead, he watched his father fall victim to the cold, unsentimental ways of Division I sports.

Just like that, it was over.

At least that was the thinking nearly three years ago, when their basketball futures together screeched to a halt. They didn’t know at the time that Jim would get another job or that Billy would join him or that together they would rescue a Canisius program that had won five games and handed its coach the same fate.

“It was a rocky first two years for me,” Billy Baron said Saturday. “I thought Rhode Island was home for me. It didn’t end up that way. It was like me and my father were kicked out. To be able to embrace it here, to be able to call it a second home, that means more than anything. I know I’ll be able to come back. That means a lot.”

Billy Baron’s voice was cracking. He sighed while trying to collect his thoughts after an emotional Senior Day that included a 90-78 win over Fairfield. It was likely his last game in Koessler Athletic Center, a place that gave him and his father both a new beginning and the perfect ending.

And it meant plenty to Jim Baron, too.

Baron is an old-school coach who doesn’t often waste time discussing his emotions, particularly as they pertain to his son. If you spend enough time around Baron, you learn the tough exterior is merely a cover. He’s a good guy who cares deeply about his players, a passionate father who adores his boys.

Coaching your own kids is not easy, something Jim Baron learned while coaching his older son, Jimmy, at Rhode Island. You’re coaching and parenting and sometimes coaching while parenting. Jim Baron pushed his boys to maximize their potential and to make sure their teammates never accused him of being soft on them.

It’s a delicate balance.

Jim made Billy a better player, but Billy made Jim a better coach. Some would argue that the best thing about Canisius hiring Jim Baron was that Billy was part of the package. He’s been the Griffs’ best player over his two seasons in Buffalo and the biggest reason for their turnaround. He’s the best player in the conference this year.

And now he’s down to his final weeks with his father.

The sobering reality has become more evident in recent weeks. Billy could sense a change in his father, knowing the end was near and trying to enjoy the time they had left. They talked about it Friday with Cindy Baron, the wife and mother who held their family together when it seemed basketball would tear them apart.

Jim Baron looked like a kid whose mother was dragging him to church Saturday during the ceremony for the seniors. He’ll forever be a coach, and it appeared he was treating the celebration as a trivial matter that interfered with the game. It was all a facade, of course. He was struggling to hold himself together.

“It was really special,” Jim Baron said without being asked. “It seemed like these two years went really, really quickly. We went out for dinner last night, and it was really special. You know, I don’t know. I treasure every moment of it because we’ll be talking about this for the rest of our lives.”

Baron’s final game at Koessler Athletic Center was hardly his best by his standards in recent weeks. He has led Canisius in scoring 41 times in his 63 games over two years. He has scored in double-figures 43 times. He has led the Griffs in assists 50 times. He has led them to a 39-24 record, including the win over Fairfield.

He was averaging 35 points per game over his previous three contests and Saturday was third in the nation in scoring. He made only two field goals and had none in the second half against Fairfield. He attempted a season-low eight shots while fighting off double-teams 25 feet from the basket.

For a while, it was a reminder of what Canisius would have looked like if Baron didn’t arrive on campus two years ago and lead them from the abyss. It also offered a glimpse into the future after he leaves. Here’s hoping the 1,909 in attendance understood they witnessed something special Saturday.

Baron was unable to find any rhythm from the outside, in part because Fairfield harassed him all afternoon. He found other ways to hurt the Stags after four team fouls were slapped on them following a skirmish in the second half. Canisius was pushed into the bonus, and Billy countered with an exhibition in free-throw shooting.

He proved he was the smartest man in the gym. He initiated contact, sold the officials on borderline calls with proper body position and freed up teammates for open shots. He made 16 of 18 from the line in the second half and had nine assists. He finished with a team-high 22 points, turned an ugly game into a masterpiece and left to a standing ovation.

“I didn’t realize it until now; it didn’t really sink in that the end was near,” Billy Baron said. “It’s starting to sink in for both of us. We’re really trying to cherish these last moments. … He doesn’t have any more sons. Being a point guard, playing the position he played, wearing the number he wore, it’s going to be tough for him.”

It’s been an interesting ride, to be sure. Baron could have spent Saturday afternoon at Virginia playing against Notre Dame, which he torched for 33 points earlier this season. He could have been in Olean and playing for Rhode Island against St. Bonaventure, where his father starred as a player and coach.

Baron left Virginia to play for his father. He left Rhode Island with his father, and the Rams have struggled without him. After two transfers and three teams, he played the final home game of his college career at Canisius with his father at his side. He has spent the last two seasons returning a favor.

“I’ve been in a car with my father at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, both crying our eyes out when he got fired,” Baron said. “I’ve seen the worst of college basketball. To finish off here, at a place I can call my second home, it’s extremely special. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This is the right spot for me.”