WPIAL and Pitt basketball have always been near and dear to Greg Cercone. His father played at Pitt alongside the great Don Hennon back in the 1950s. Greg himself was a star player at Quigley Catholic in the 1990s and has coached in the WPIAL for two decades.
Cercone, in his second year as an assistant at Lincoln Park, guided some excellent teams over the years, but a WPIAL title had always eluded him. Friday night, however, Cercone stood at midcourt with a gold medal finally hanging around his neck. And it came at Pitt, the school at which his 87-year-old father once played. His dad, Eugene, watched the game online from home.
While that is a great story in itself, there’s another part of Cercone’s championship experience that is a testament to him being one of the strongest people you will meet. You see, just making it to Petersen Events Center wasn’t an easy task. After all, he was just two weeks removed from having a tumor the size of a large grapefruit removed from his stomach.
Watching players, coaches and fans celebrate their team’s WPIAL titles is always a special moment, but, regardless of your favorite school, everyone should get up and applaud Cercone, who, despite visibly hurting, was not about to allow the severe pain stop him from sitting on the bench to watch his team’s gold-medal triumph.
“I never thought I’d make it back so soon,” Cercone said. “The doctor called me a few days earlier and gave me a clean bill of health (the tumor was benign) but said, ‘Just don’t get too excited.’ With my family history at Pitt and me coaching for so many years, just getting there and winning was so bittersweet.”
Cercone, 45, said he’s always been a healthy guy. A shooting guru who is still a tremendous shooter himself, Cercone just last summer advanced to the Elite 8 of a national shooting tournament in which the grand prize was $100K. But Cercone’s world was flipped upside down Jan. 5 while attending a Lincoln Park-South Fayette girls game with his now 3-year-old son, Maverick.
“I had my son on my lap watching the game,” Cercone recalled. “I got a stomachache and was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I just ate. I thought, ‘Did I eat something bad?’ It was just excruciating pain. I ended up driving myself to the emergency room. They did tests. They checked my gall bladder and my appendix. And then they did a CT Scan and said I had a growth. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ You think you have acid reflux and then they hit me with that.”
So, Cercone visited with an oncologist, who told him the tumor was so big — it grew to as large as 16 centimeters — that it would need to be removed.
“Like a basketball coach would, I said, ‘What, in the middle of the season?’” Cercone said. “He said, ‘Greg, we have to get it out. It’s too large.’”
Cercone had surgery at West Penn Hospital on Feb. 16 and was hospitalized for six days. Not that it kept Cercone away from basketball. From his hospital bed, he was still watching film and calling Lincoln Park head coach Mike Bariski to talk basketball as the Leopards readied for the WPIAL playoffs. Both are graduates of old Quigley High School and have known each other since Cercone was a sharpshooting guard there.
It turns out Cercone missed only two games. With the help of his fellow assistants helping him up and down from his chair, Cercone, walking very slowly on and off the court, helped guide Lincoln Park to a semifinal win against Highlands before going on to defeat North Catholic, 78-68, to capture their sixth title. Friday, the Leopards begin their quest for a state championship.
“I said to him, ‘You have to understand there are going to be bumps in the road, but we’re going to get you there no matter what,’” Bariski said. “I told him if we had to take him in a gurney, we were going to do it. Him on the bench gives me confidence in what I do because I have a lot of respect for him. The kids loved it, and I was so ecstatic for him.”
Bariski isn’t the only person with lots of respect for Cercone. He’s well regarded around the Western Pennsylvania basketball community as being a fantastic coach and one of the best shooting instructors around. Cercone first cut his coaching teeth as an assistant under Mark Javens at the Community College of Beaver County in 2000, and has spent time as either a head or assistant coach at Hopewell, Beaver, Quigley and now Lincoln Park. There’s a who’s-who list of standout players he has personally trained, everyone from Maverick Rowan and Dustin Sleva to Adou Thiero and Maddie Webber.
“He thinks a lot differently than me, which is great,” said Bariski. “To have different thinkers on the staff is the way you want it to be. He’s also a detail-oriented guy who has coached structured offenses, and I need that voice sometimes.”
The outpouring of support has been special, Cercone said. That support system includes his family, friends and others in the basketball community. Cercone is not allowed to drive for another four weeks, so fellow Lincoln Park assistant Will Lucas has been picking him up and taking him to practice.
Cercone was an outstanding player in his day. He starred at Quigley and once held the WPIAL record for most 3-pointers in a WPIAL playoff game with nine. Cercone then spent three years playing at Valley Forge Military Academy before finishing his career at King’s College. And while he’s in his mid-40s, he can still shoot with the best of them. He showed that in July when, in a field of 260 competitors, he nearly went all the way before falling in the Elite 8. The tournament, held at Spooky Nook in Eastern Pennsylvania, included a slew of players who play or played internationally. Among the players Cercone defeated in the head-to-head, single-elimination bracket-style event was former Syracuse star Eric Devendorf.
It will be a while before Cercone shoots a basketball again, but he’s OK with that for now — winning his first WPIAL title and doing it at Pitt was an experience he will never forget.
“This is probably the longest I’ve gone without shooting,” he said. “It’s been tough, but winning and being on the bench meant so much.”