by Pete Janny, Sports and Managing Editor
Tim Leary was a man of leadership, mentorship, and service to others, most visible during his 43 years as the head basketball coach of his alma mater, Saint Francis Prep. He became the heart and soul of the program, and more importantly an inspiration and hero to so many within the Saint Francis Prep community. He may no longer patrol the sidelines at Prep games, but his impact on the school and within local high school coaching circles still reverberates powerfully.
Leary grew up in Brooklyn and attended Saint Francis Prep from 1959 to 1963, where he played on both the baseball and basketball teams. During those days, Prep was a breeding ground for basketball talent, sending off many players to the division one level. Naturally, Leary fit in well with those talented Prep teams. In 1963, his team advanced all the way to the city championships before losing to a Power Memorial team led by the legendary Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Although Saint Francis lost the game, the experience emboldened Leary for many more big moments to come in his athletic and coaching careers.
That same year, Leary arrived in Riverdale to start his undergraduate and athletic careers at Manhattan College on an athletic scholarship to play both basketball and baseball for the Jaspers. Although easier to do back then, playing multiple sports on the division one level has never been considered an easy undertaking by any measure. Leary’s ability to accomplish that feat spoke volumes of his innate potential as an athlete. Additionally, Leary benefited from having a distinguished coach in Ken Norton, who coached basketball and baseball at Manhattan and is regarded by many as the best coach in school history.
“He was a workhorse, his effort was tremendous,” said Brother Robert Kent, alumni director at Saint Francis Prep and a friend of Leary’s. “He loved Manhattan.”
On the court, Leary helped guide the Jaspers to two NIT appearances throughout his four years. He contributed as the sixth man on both of those successful Manhattan teams and was best known for his jump-shot and passing ability. Leary’s numerous encounters with like-minded, high-achieving people on the division one level taught him what it took to be successful in life. On one occasion, Leary and Manhattan met Army at Madison Square Garden when Bobby Knight was the coach and Mike Kryzewski was a player for West Point. At one point in the game, Knight strategically mocked Leary to distract him from guarding Krzyzewski. While seemingly petty and amusing on the surface, Knight presumably did it out of an underlying respect for Leary as a player and competitor.
“Bobby Knight yelled out at him, ‘Leary you suck’,” Kent recalled humorously. “Leary turned his head and Kryzewski goes backdoor. Knight then yells at Leary, ‘I got you’. True story.”
In the springtime, Leary was a varsity starter in three of his four years on the Jasper baseball team. His value to the team was shown through his ability to play first base and left field, on top of being a relief pitcher. Leary’s versatility and overall talent eventually got him drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of college. But rather than furthering his baseball career, Leary was leaning toward a blue collar lifestyle, planning to follow in the footsteps of many family members who had worked for the NYPD.
Nevertheless, his first job out of college was at St. Augustine in Park Slope, where he served as a teacher and basketball coach at the school. The original intention was to use the opportunity to make some extra money before likely transitioning to a life in law enforcement. However, by the end of his second year at St. Augustine, Leary’s long-term focus switched to teaching and coaching. Looking back it’s safe to say he made the right choice.
After St. Augustine closed down, Leary assumed coaching duties at Saint Francis Prep and accepted a teaching and administrative assignment in the New York City public schools system. Whether running a practice or lecturing a history class, Leary was always in command of the situation at hand. Above all else, he was most proud of his role as an agent of opportunity and success in the lives of hundreds of young people over the span of four decades.
“He was really tough but he had a purpose behind his toughness,” current Saint Francis basketball coach Jimmy Lynch said. “He wanted every kid to excel and to be the best that they could be.”
Having played for him at Prep and later worked on his staff, Lynch had the chance to develop a close bond with Leary. The mutual respect they had for each other led Leary to handpick Lynch as his successor by the time the illustrious coach retired after the 2017 season. The opportunity to carry on the mantle of his hero was far too good for Lynch to pass up.
“I learned from [Leary] how to run a first-class program and how to do it with integrity and dignity,” Lynch said. “More important than that, he was a mentor for me and taught me how to be a man and how to raise a family.”
Leary passed away on Feb. 13, 2018 after battling gallbladder cancer for close to a year. Two years earlier, Leary’s wife, Claudia, passed away from ovarian cancer in March 2016. The loving couple is survived by four children and seven grandchildren. Even though the patriarch of Prep basketball is gone, there is no love lost between the program and the Leary family.
“As long as I am the head coach at Saint Francis, him and his family will always be a part of our basketball program,” Lynch said. “You can see in the style of play. He has a lot of influence in what we still do.”
All the wins and accolades were simply the icing on the cake for Leary. His basketball coaching resume speaks for itself: 646 wins over 43 seasons at Prep. That lofty total gives him the rights to seventh place on the all-time wins list in New York State basketball history as well as second place among Catholic School basketball coaches behind only Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy who had 972 wins. The sweetest of those victories came in the 1992 CHSAA City Championship when he finally captured the prestigious title that Alcindor deprived him of as a player. Leary’s legacy lives on in basketball immortality as a member of the New York State Coaches Association Hall of Fame, CHSAA Hall of Fame, Basketball Old-Timers of America Hall of Fame, and the St. Francis Prep Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame.
Accolades aside, those who knew Leary best can all agree that he was a preacher of the fundamentals, both in the sense of basketball philosophy and how to be a gentleman. He brought the best out of his players.
“The biggest praise he could get is that he got the most out of his talents,” said Donald Kent, the former Monsignor McClancy basketball head coach and a basketball teammate of Leary’s at Saint Francis. “He didn’t have the horses some of these other New York City coaches had. He was undermanned and really didn’t have a center. He was a well-respected coach and could get more lemon juice out of a lemon.”
Former Xaverian High School head coach Jack Alesi came to know Leary from their shared experiences at a basketball camp run by basketball gurus Lou Carnasecca of St. John’s University and Red Sarachek of Yeshiva University in the early 1970s. From then on, Leary and Alesi built a special bond that led to them eventually leading that same camp together in the early 2000s. At the time of Leary’s death, Alesi says that, “he was as a good friend as I ever had.”
“Timmy was a tremendous teacher of basketball,” Alesi said. “He was one of the best two or three teachers of the game that I have ever seen. If anyone saw him do a clinic… there are people like Hubie Brown who is known for being the greatest clinician, but Timmy Leary was at that level.”
The part of Leary’s track record that is easily overlooked because of his basketball genius is his 10-year run as varsity baseball coach at Prep. In addition to initially starting out as the junior varsity basketball coach for two years upon returning to his alma mater from Saint Augustine, Leary was handed the keys to the baseball program. He won at will in that role — 199 victories to be exact — just as he knew best. That run also consisted of five Queens titles and a city championship which put the program on the map in a big way.
Oddly enough, despite the widespread adulation for Leary, he has not been given his rightful place in the Manhattan College Athletics Hall of Fame. Based on his athletic career alone, Leary makes a compelling case for induction. When you also factor in his lasting legacy as a coach, there should be no debate as to whether or not he belongs in this prestigious club alongside other illustrious athletes who attended Manhattan. As a result of his notable absence in the hall of fame, a group of alumni have mobilized to formally nominate Leary for this honor. The goal is to get him inducted in time for this coming November when alumni and administration will gather to celebrate the newest inductees.
Not seeing Leary on the sidelines at Saint Francis Prep basketball games anymore is a strange reality for everyone who came to know and love him. He personified greatness in all aspects of his life as someone who loved and cared for others. Never the one to make the situation about himself, Leary took great pride in being part of the Saint Francis Prep and Manhattan College communities. Prep has already immortalized him. Now, the Jaspers have the chance to do the same.