CLEVELAND – Joe Corey, who taught me more about basketball than anyone, said the biggest thing in coaching was recognition. A great coach was able to see things no one else did, to recognize the possibilities in a player or within a game.
Corey, who died Saturday in Buffalo at 74, saw the good in everyone. He was a brilliant basketball mind, a hoop savant with a singular passion for helping young players and elevating the hoop community in Western New York.
But he was an even finer person, a devoted family man and Christian who put others ahead of himself. I can’t count the times when we had to cut short a phone conversation because Joe had to bring communion to someone suffering at home or in a hospital.
His formal coaching career didn’t last that long. Joe was head coach at Baker-Victory from his late 20’s until 1977. He coached the Buffalo State JVs for three years (where Mayor Byron Brown was a player) before retiring to start a business to better support his family.
“In his heart, he never stopped coaching,” said Elaine, his wife of 35 years (he left three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild). “He was always trying to help kids to get into college and earn scholarships. He was always mentoring.”
Corey touched virtually everyone in the hoop scene over the years. If he saw the glint in a kid’s eye, he would offer to work him out in private. Boy or girl, black or white, it didn’t matter.
If Joe liked you, you had a friend for life. In 1974, he sent a gifted shooter named Billy Truitt to South Carolina, where Truitt played for a young Bobby Cremins. For 41 years, Corey remained close with Cremins, a big-hearted Irishman who gained fame at Georgia Tech.
At Baker-Victory, Joe coached Kevin Cadle, who wanted so badly to play for him he traveled an hour each way by bus from Niagara Falls. Cadle became captain at Penn State and national coach of England. He’s now a top TV announcer in England.
Corey saw the possibilities in a Sweet Home assistant named Reggie Witherspoon many years ago. That meant hours on the phone discussing strategy, sometimes in the middle of a televised Georgia Tech game.
“At halftime, if it was a home game, he’d say, ‘I’ve got to go call Bobby’”, Witherspoon said with a laugh. “I’m thinking, ‘He can’t be calling Bobby Cremins.’ This is Georgia Tech in their heyday. I didn’t know if I was ready to believe this.”
A year or so later, Corey took Reggie to a Georgia Tech game. At halftime, Joe said he had to go to the locker room to tell Cremins to get Travis Best involved in the offense. Witherspoon figured he was going for popcorn.
Afterwards, Corey walked right into the media room with Witherspoon. He acted like he owned the place. That’s why Witherspoon started calling him “The Governor.”
A reporter asked Cremins about Best, who had a big second half. Cremins pointed to Corey in the back of the room and said, ‘That guy back there was in my ear at halftime about getting Travis more involved.’
“This is when I realized he really had been calling him at halftime in the locker room,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon said Corey asked Cremins for 12 tickets to a Celtics-Hawks game on that trip. Cremins was incredulous. Joe said he had some business associates in town. Cremins gave him six. Corey gave the extra tickets to kids.
Yes, Joe could see things. He started calling me around that time to talk hoops. We spoke by phone for a year before I met him in person. It was in Atlanta, where he took me to a Georgia Tech game during the Bills’ last Super Bowl.
I was also skeptical about Joe’s friendship with Cremins. But a security guard waved him into the arena. When we got to Cremins’ office, there were over a dozen South Buffalo guys in there, courtesy of Joe. He sat on Cremins’ bench that day.
Corey was the first one to tell me about Witherspoon, the first black head coach at a suburban high school in Western New York. Joe helped Witherspoon and Jim Kwitchoff start the ACE program to develop young players on and off the court.
“Joe had a vision that kids who were in Western New York were as good as kids everywhere,” Witherspoon said, “and should be given a stage to prove it.”
Corey told me about Tim Winn and Brian Dux when they were in junior high. He told Cremins he should recruit Winn, and never let his friend forget it when Winn led St. Bonaventure to the NCAAs.
He told me John Beilein was one of the best coaches in the country - before he got the Canisius job. He idolized former Canisius coach Joe Niland, Beilein’s uncle. He was on the committee that hired Marty Marbach over Beilein and told them it was a mistake.
“If he was with you,” Witherspoon said, “he didn’t mind fighting a war against the nation by himself.”
When he believed in a person, he didn’t back down. He was there in the difficult times. He pushed for Erie CC to hire Alex Nwora when Witherspoon left for UB and stood by Nwora when he was wrongly accused of sexual assault.
Joe took my late colleague, Allen Wilson, to his last basketball game before he died of leukemia in 2011. He hoped to one day bring Allen’s daughter, so she could see how loved her dad was in the basketball world. I’ll never forget how proud he was watching his daughter, Amanda, play college ball at Medaille.
Corey was right about Dux, who starred for Mike MacDonald at Canisius and became the best pro in England. When Dux suffered his near-fatal auto accident in England in 2007, Corey was there for him. He prayed with him, brought him communion. He ran a benefit for Dux.
“He saved my life after my accident,” Dux said Saturday. “I’m eternally grateful for him. He helped me believe.”
Corey’s belief was tested when he contracted throat cancer in 1997. Doctors gave him six months to live. Joe gave his life to God and fought the war. He went to church every day. He visited other cancer sufferers. He had two heart surgeries.
I’d tell Joe he was the toughest dead man I knew. He lasted 18 more years. He tore up his shoulder in a fall down a hill. But no hill was too tall for him to climb back up.
Joe said it was basketball that kept him going. He kept looking for kids with the gift. His last project was Matt Hart, a Canisius High star who was dismissed as too small for Division I.
For two years, Corey badgered me about Hart. Last year, after two strong years at Division III Hamilton, Hart joined George Washington, a top Atlantic-10 team, as a walk-on. Mike Lonergan took him without seeing him play in person.
John Gallagher, the Hartford coach, was the only D-I coach to offer Hart a scholarship. I told Gallagher he saw the same things Corey had been telling me about for two years. He said next time, have Corey call me first.
“We just couldn’t believe the support we got from him,” said Hart’s father, Dave, a former Buffalo State star. “It got to the point where I felt Joe was part of the family. When no one else believed in Matt, Joe became the outside validation.”
Hart was choking up over the phone. He said Matt had been unable to speak when he told him Corey had died. He said it was a hard call to make. I had to make it, too.
When my son was born in 1997, I asked Corey to be the godfather. He had such unwavering faith in God. He was the Godfather of local hoops. He was the ideal choice. And Joe was the best godfather anyone could ask for.
Jack loved him, too. He knew him simply as “Basketball Joe.”