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Playing for JB

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Jack Bruen during the 1995 season

by John D. Hubbard

It was just after Christmas. Just after a loss to Seton Hall and a win over St. Mary’s. After Jack Bruen had died and been laid to rest on the upward slope of the university cemetery.

The basketball team was back home again, back in Cotterell Court and there was a moment of silence, a poignant moment but hardly time enough. Gratefully, there was a game to play, because with time there were too many thoughts. The chance to play made everything that was so wrong seem right, at least for a little while.

And that was how it had gone all fall, from the day when Jack Bruen gathered this team he was so optimistic about, this group of guys without a superstar, without a shot, according to some pundits.

Jack Bruen told his players back in October he had pancreatic cancer. He also told them he was excited about the season and he would keep coaching. Then it was basketball. Tough, intense workouts. Good, solid practices. It was team ball: an up-tempo offense, hustling defense. Five guys working together. At its best, it was a style that reflected the coach: scrappy, relentless, street tough but disciplined, cunning.

The season began. Dartmouth came for the opener and so did Jack’s pals and former players. "They don’t take credit cards at any of the bars in town," Bruen, who always bought, told a reporter, "so I’m in trouble."

Colgate beat Dartmouth with four players hitting double figures. "A win always makes me feel good," Bruen told the papers and then he and his team travelled to Cornell, where the Raiders rallied to knock off the Big Red and share the early Ivy League lead with Princeton.

Next up was Syracuse. After years of lopsided losses, Colgate, playing its tenacious, team-oriented game, had an honest shot of winning in the Dome before losing 78-74. Following an overtime loss at Marist, they made an equally stout showing against St. John’s. The beast of the Big East.

By December 13 Colgate was 2-3 on the year and Bruen’s battle with his disease was well-documented. He used his wit, the humor that had endeared him everywhere he went, to temper moments that might otherwise have been unbearable. He turned conversations away from himself to basketball and others’ lives. He had with the games a respite from it all.

Marist was the opponent on a dwindling December afternoon. Bruen was subdued on the bench and often an assistant had to shout out Jack’s whispered orders. It was his game, though, and he shared in the 80-69 victory with his players. Six days later Jack Bruen died. He was 48.

More than 700 people attended the Catholic funeral in the Chapel and trudged up the hill on the coldest morning of the year for Jack’s interment. It fell to assistant coach Paul Aiello, who had lost his dearest friend, to hustle the players onto the bus for the trip to the Seton Hall Tournament that began that night.

The team came home with a split, came home to play Canisius after that moment of silence. They didn’t wear black but, instead, on each player’s jersey was a JB inside a shamrock. Rather than mourn a death, it seemed, they had decided to celebrate a life.

Colgate played hard, without quit, but they were spent and dropped the contest.

There will be other games.

 Jack Bruen, a native of Manhattan, played point guard at Power Memorial in the days of Lew Alcindor. He went on to start for three years at Catholic University, directing the team from the backcourt and as a two-time captain. He continued his basketball education on the staff of legendary school-boy coach Morgan Wooten at DeMatha Catholic High.

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Seth Schaeffer, team captain and one of only two seniors on the squad, has played a remarkable role this season, on and off the court. In uniform he is still perpetually in motion — finding open crevices from which to launch his reliable jump shots and hustling back on defense. His game is textbook and fundamentals provide the flash. Away from the game, it has been Schaeffer who most often faced the press, who explained to reporters the mood of the team, players’ reactions, his feelings about the death of someone so close. "I do my best to do what the coaches tell me, show them respect and lead by example," he said early in the season. Seth Schaeffer has been a shining example in the darkest of times.

Bruen eventually was named head coach at his alma mater, where he turned the Catholic University program around during his seven-year tenure in Division III. Nine years ago he was named Colgate’s 17th basketball coach, a dubious honor given the program’s dire straits — a decade of losing seasons.

Colgate fought its way into the upper echelons of the Patriot League, playing Navy for the conference championship in 1994. Led by Adonal Foyle, Colgate won titles in ’95 and ’96, earning NCAA tournament berths in the process. First against Kansas and then versus Connecticut, Colgate made its mark in the field of 64.

"Rarely has a coach transformed a program the way Jack Bruen transformed Colgate basketball," said President Neil Grabois. "His success, not only in the Patriot League, but in making basketball exciting for the entire Colgate family, has been extraordinary. Colgate is about talented people finding ways to succeed, some-times at a higher level than anyone thought possible. Jack Bruen made a difference."

Athletic Director Mark Murphy underscored the monumental job done by Bruen. "Jack accomplished the impossible in establishing a winning tradition at Colgate. His will to win and love of the game and his players were unequalled in college basketball. As great a coach as Jack was, he was an even better person. He was bright and funny, and had a tremendous compassion for people. We are all better off for having known Jack."

Jack Bruen is survived by his wife Joan, son Danny and daughter Kristen and a large extended family.

After last year’s disappointing season and Foyle’s decision to leave Colgate for the NBA, Bruen’s early enthusiasm for his ’97–’98 squad appears well-founded. The team is playing all out, just the way Jack Bruen coached.