EAST SYRACUSE — Bishop Grimes boys basketball coach and Canton native Bob McKenney noticed something was not right when he bumped his breast in late September.
McKenney, a self-described “pretty tough old guy,” was still sore 30 minutes after the initial bump. After examining himself, McKenney thought that something felt odd and decided he needed to see a doctor.
He later found out he had breast cancer.
McKenney had a mastectomy in November, and after biopsies, it was determined that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. After getting those nodes removed, the cancer had spread a little more, so his treatment plan changed from taking a prescription drug to radiology, and then it was determined that he would need to undergo chemotherapy.
He goes through chemo treatments once every three weeks and has gone through two rounds so far. He will undergo two more rounds of chemotherapy that are set to conclude in mid-February. After that, he will have a month of radiation and finish his treatment with 10 years of tamoxifen.
McKenney has not missed a beat. The 64-year-old has continued to teach, coach basketball and serve as athletic director. McKenney has missed just one practice and no games, and the practice he missed was because he came down with the flu.
For McKenney, being away from the team is something that he didn’t even consider.
“I‘m single. I’m an older guy. It’s kind of been all I have, really,” McKenney said. “It’s been my life for so long.”
Before starting at Bishop Grimes in 2015, he coached at Jamesville-DeWitt for 20 years, where he won five state championships and two Federation championships. He is one of the winningest boys basketball coaches in Section 3 history.
“You can be in a tough spot, you just have to dig down,” McKenney said. “And so I think the drive is to be a good role model and just, I love what I do and I love my kids.”
While a student at Canton Central School, McKenney was a two-sport standout athlete, playing basketball and football.
Due to his dedication and strong work ethic, he received All-Northern honors in both sports during his sophomore, Junior and senior seasons.
He was named first-team All-North defensive back in his junior and senior year. He was a captain of his basketball team that was class A League champions and had an overall record of 21-2. He was named the outstanding senior athlete in 1976.
McKenney was inducted into the Canton High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
Those around him notice his dedication and say it motivates them.
“Knowing that he’s fighting, it makes it easier for me to fight even when I feel tired or if I feel hurt,” senior captain Deng Garang said. “It just makes it easier knowing that he’s going through something that’s greater than what I’m going through.”
Even though McKenney does not ask, his coaches make sure he is taken care of during practices and games.
“Some days he does have to sit down and take it a little bit easier than he has in the past 20 years, but for the most part he’s trying to plow through, and that’s just the way he is,” assistant coach Steve Grattan said. “He’s never in his life ever asked any of us to do something he wouldn’t do himself first. And now it’s time for us to keep an eye on him and see if there’s anything we can do to lift him up so that things are pretty much staying the same.”
The coaches say they do the little things just to make sure coach is still prioritizing his health during the heat of the battle, things like staying hydrated during games.
“We make sure we have a bunch of (Gatorade) and make sure in timeouts and at the end of quarters and when he gets a chance that he’s staying hydrated,” assistant coach Charlie Falgiatano said, “because he’s still working as hard in a game as he ever has.”
The players say that McKenney’s intensity is still just as prevalent as it’s ever been.
“He’s very persistent,” captain Jon Corl said. “Honestly, it’s the same that it’s been in previous years. He still has so much energy. He’s still always there. Sometimes people have to tell him, ‘All right, you have to take a break,’ just because he’s always at it.”
“Minus the loss of hair, you don’t really think he has cancer,” senior captain Erik Wall said.
McKenney’s presence on the court has not changed, and neither has his presence in the school community.
Players say that they overhear him being told to go home during the school day, and while he responds with “I will soon,” he is still seen in the building until the end of the day.
When his team is not playing, McKenney can be found at school concerts and other sporting events to show his support. Players say that everyone at the school looks up to McKenney.
The love for McKenney was on full display when the team played Chittenango at home earlier this season and the student body came out in full support of coach for a “Pink Out” game.
“I didn’t realize that everybody was aware and I got emotional,” McKenney said. “(The team) wanted it so badly to win that. ... I’m just trying to keep them centered on winning for us and not making it about winning for coach Mac.”
While the players hear their coach’s message and say that they don’t feel any added pressure, they note that winning a championship this year would mean more.
“It feels like the stakes are higher because if we do end up winning the sectionals or states, that’ll just be everything he would ever want and what we want as well,” Wall said.
The players also note that by fighting on the court, it serves as a way to honor McKenney in his fight against cancer.
“He’s showing us how hard he’s working, how hard he’s fighting, and we have an opportunity to work hard and fight on the court,” Corl said. “It’s like he’s setting an example for us.”
McKenney said having the support from his three daughters — Becky, Mandy and Madison — coupled with the support of the community is overwhelming at times.
“It’s just been nice to have (my daughters) home. The worst for me is that I’m dragging people I love through something we never thought we’d have to really ever worry about,” McKenney said. “They’ve been fantastic. Everybody has. It’s across the board. My basketball family and my family has just been phenomenal.”
Bishop Grimes is hosting a “Fight Like a McKenney” benefit. Falgiatano said McKenney’s daughters were talking to him about putting something together, and when Falgiatano brought up the idea to Bishop Grimes’ administration, everyone was on board.
While the benefit will help McKenney in his fight, it’s not just about the money, Falgiatano said. It’s more of a way for everyone to be in one place and see the coach. McKenney receives calls and texts from former players, parents, fellow coaches, officials and many more daily, and with so many reaching out, it is hard for him to keep up. The benefit offers a chance for those people to be in one place at one time and show their support.
“For (the community) to be able to be in one place at one time, it’s coaches, it’s the officials, it’s athletic directors, his co-workers, every teacher in the building, current players, former players,” Falgiatano said. “They want to know what can they do to help. So the benefit was kind of meant to be an opportunity for him to be in one place with as many people who can make it.”
The benefit will be held at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School at 5 p.m. on Jan. 21. Donations can be made online and tickets can be purchased at the door.
With so many in his corner and the way McKenney has lived his life, those around him have no doubt that coach is up for the challenge.
“The love — even from competitors, intense competitors — it just shows basketball is just basketball. This is about his life,” Grattan said. “And if the way he’s done his coaching and lived his life is any indication, then he is going to beat this.”