Legendary St. Francis Prep boys basketball coach Tim Leary died Tuesday morning after a more than year-long battle with gallbladder cancer. He was 73. Leary died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Brooklyn, according to the school.
The Brooklyn native spent 43 seasons as the Terriers’ head coach and won 646 games, according to the New York Sportswriters Association, before retiring after last season.
He won the New York Catholic League’s Class A Championship in 1992 and reached the AA final in 1997, losing to Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) and La Salle Academy. Leary is a member of the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame.
“You can talk about legendary coaches — there are a lot of them — but he definitely has to be on the top of the list in terms of the best high school coaches around,” St. Francis Prep athletic director Sal Fischetti said.
Leary has the seventh-most wins in New York State history and is second all-time in the city’s Catholic League behind Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy. Former Xaverian coach and close friend Jack Alesi said he considers Leary to be on the Mount Rushmore of CHSAA coaches.
“He was a better teacher of the game than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Alesi said. “He could teach the game and used to do camp clinics. If they ever could have filmed the lectures, he could make a million dollars on DVDs.”
Leary was best known for getting the most out of his teams, which were usually less talented than the league’s power programs. But the teaching process was about more than basketball.
“When you are a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kid, you don’t understand what he’s doing for you,” said current St. Francis Prep coach James Lynch, who played for Leary and was an assistant coach under him. “He’s giving you more lessons than just how to run a five-out motion offense.
“He’s giving you life lessons that life is not always that easy. You got to persevere. You got to work at it and no one is going to hand you anything. I think you kind of realized that once you leave.”
On the sidelines, Leary could be viewed as tough on his players. He never shied away from getting on referees in a way the whole gym could hear. But off the court, he was a very different person — caring, kind and armed with a quick wit.
“He would yell at a ref real loudly and then he would walk away with that sly little smile,” Alesi said. “For the demeanor he showed on the court, he was the complete opposite off the court. He genuinely cared about people.”
In addition to being the basketball coach, Leary spent 10 seasons as the varsity baseball coach at St. Francis Prep, winning five borough titles and a city championship.
He also led St. Francis Prep’s basketball team to the city title game as a player, losing to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Power Memorial in 1963. Leary went on to play baseball and basketball at Manhattan College. He spent 30 years as a teacher and dean in the New York City schools system after beginning his teaching career at the now closed St. Augustine High School in Park Slope.
His wife, Claudia, died in 2016 after a three-year battle with cancer. He spoke about her to the crowd during his final home game last season and those close to him talked of how much he missed her.
“He wasn’t the same after [Claudia] died,” Fischetti said. “He could see his heart was broken.”
After complaining of stomach issues, he was diagnosed with cancer last year. Initial chemotherapy treatments went well before leveling off, according to Alesi. How quickly he died after being diagnosed still came as a surprise, Fischetti said.
Leary is survived by his three brothers, four children and seven grandchildren.
Services will be held at Joseph G. Duffy Funeral Home (255 9th Street, Brooklyn) Wednesday from 7-9 p.m. and Thursday from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. The funeral Mass is 9:30 a.m. Friday at St. Thomas More Church in Breezy Point.