WASHINGTON — Mike MacDonald is the most Little Three man in Little Three hoops history. He’s a graduate of St. Bonaventure. He coached Canisius. And his son plays at Niagara.
“Finally,” Joe Mihalich says, “we got Mike to wear purple.”
MacDonald and Mihalich are old rivals – and old friends. Turn the clock back 20 years and MacDonald is head coach at Canisius and Mihalich at Niagara. Fast forward to the weekend just past and there’s MacDonald and Mihalich at arenas 11 miles apart in Washington, each trying to win conference tournaments for their current schools – and each sending texts wishing the other good luck.
MacDonald’s Daemen Wildcats lost in the East Coast Conference tournament semifinals to St. Thomas Aquinas on Saturday, but late Sunday received an at-large bid to the Division II NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season.
Mihalich’s Hofstra Pride beat Drexel in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament on Sunday and they play Delaware in Monday's semifinals. A win would put the Pride in Tuesday’s final with an automatic invitation to the Division I NCAA tournament on the line.
Mihalich won a bid to the Big Dance for the first time in his seventh season at Niagara. Now he’s in his seventh season at Hofstra – and hoping for another lucky No. 7.
Mihalich played basketball at LaSalle, where his father taught philosophy. The son majored in math instead, which he figures comes in handy in his coaching.
“Three is more than two,” he says. “That’s why we shoot a lot of threes.”
When they met in the 1990s, Mihalich was a LaSalle assistant coach and MacDonald an assistant at Canisius.
“We’d always run into each other recruiting, and we’ve been friends ever since,” MacDonald says. “When he got the job at Niagara, and I got the job at Canisius, we were competitors on the court but remained good friends.”
That’s an old-school callback to the heyday of the Little Three, when Canisius’ Bob MacKinnon and Niagara’s Frank Layden were good friends 50 years ago. That’s not the norm nowadays for coaches at rival schools.
“To have that arch-rival across town was fun,” Mihalich says, “and it developed a friendship with Mike that’ll last forever.”
When Daemen played a weekend set last month at Molloy College on a Friday and New York Tech on a Sunday, MacDonald’s Wildcats practiced at Hofstra on the Saturday between, at Mihalich’s invitation.
MacDonald recalls the time Canisius beat Niagara, 72-70, in the 2001 MAAC quarterfinals in Buffalo. Days later he was in his office around 9 at night, preparing for the championship game, when the phone rang.
“This is before caller ID,” MacDonald says. “I pick it up and it’s Joe. He’s hurting from their loss, but he’s wishing me luck.”
Canisius let MacDonald go in March 2006. Mark, youngest of his four sons, was born a month later. Michalich and his wife Mary came by Mercy Hospital to meet the baby. (And when Mihalich got a hip replaced at Buffalo General, MacDonald came by to visit.)
Now Mark is in the eighth grade at St. Benedict’s. Next year he will go to Canisius High School, just like his brothers. Mihalich’s sons went to St. Joe’s, so the friendly rivalry even extends to the next generation.
Mihalich says one reason he left Niagara was to be closer to his sons, who are all in coaching. Joey is an assistant at Penn. Matt coaches basketball at a high school in Connecticut. And Tony is an assistant track coach at George Mason.
“We loved it at Niagara,” Mihalich says. “If I had died up there, I’d have died a happy man.”
MacDonald’s son Matt played at Penn and was coached by Mihalich’s son. MacDonald remembers a moment with his wife Maura two years ago when Penn won the Ivy League title.
“We were on the floor at the Palestra and Penn is cutting down the nets and I hear someone calling my name,” MacDonald says. “I turn around – and it’s Joe and Mary. They joined Maura and me on the floor. At that point we aren’t coaches anymore; we’re parents.”
Speaking of parents, Mihalich once took a course from his father at LaSalle called the philosophy of sport. His father’s 1982 book, “Sports and Athletics: Philosophy in Action,” tells of the “sacred space” and “sacred time” offered by the games we play.
“That’s how I think about basketball,” Mihalich says. “The games are 40 minutes. You prepare for weeks and months and you lift weights and take extra shooting and practice for hours and hours and at the end of the day it comes down to 40 minutes and it takes every tick of that clock – sacred time.”
Mihalich holds dear his copy of the book with this inscription from his father: “You are this book.”
Monday night's sacred space is the Entertainment and Sports Arena, home of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. A win gets Hofstra one game from its first NCAA tournament bid in 19 years. Heck, it was 35 years between bids when Mihalich took Niagara to the NCAA tournament in 2005 – and he got the Purple Eagles back again in 2007.
MacDonald took Daemen to its first NCAA tournament in men’s basketball a year ago. Now he has the Wildcats in it again. All of which means there will be more congratulatory texts this week between these old rivals and old friends.
“We compare notes, we follow each other,” Mihalich says. “And it’s fun to see his son at Niagara.”
That’s Nick MacDonald, the Niagara freshman forward who completed his father’s claim to the title of most Little Three man in Little Three history.
“You have to give it to Mike,” Mihalich says. “I don’t know anyone else who checks all those boxes.”