The Newark basketball team wearing pink socks, sneakers and T-shirts had Coach Eddie Franz on edge, as he nervously watched to see if they could close out the championship game on Sunday.
“All right boys, guard up,” he said, seated in section 202 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway.
His playoff season at Morristown-Beard School ended last week, but Franz was channeling his thoughts to West Side High School, his second-favorite team, for good reason.
The team was wearing its pink ensemble in his honor. Franz, 60, has lung cancer.
He appeared to be calm as the Rough Riders were clinging to a two point lead with 1:13 remaining in the Group 2 NJSIAA final against Camden High School.
Internally, though, he was rooting hard because the team has been helping him through a tough period in his life.
Although pink is the color usually used to denote breast cancer, kids don’t make a color distinction, they just see cancer and they wanted to do something for Franz, who has been a part of Newark basketball for 13 years.
“It really hurt me,” said Yasim Hooker, an 18-year-old senior who has known Franz since elementary school. “I was in a lot of pain.”
The socks and sneakers are plain as day, but the T-shirts they wore on the layup line and on the bench crystalized their thoughts.
“Pray for Franz” was written on the back.
“Another Day. Another Chance” was on the front. The logo belongs to Fam Eternal, a Newark apparel company that made the shirts and whose co-owner knows Franz, too.
Since the coach’s diagnosis in January, pink has become the teams lucky color for an unlucky disease. West Side has gone 9-0, but it needed one more victory to claim its second consecutive Group 2 title and to win for Franz.
“The thing about the disease, you feel like you want to do something to be a part of the fight,” Franz said. “I think that’s what these kids felt like they needed to do.”
The relationship between Franz and Newark starts with Akbar Cook, the head coach at West Side.
Franz has known Cook since he was a 15-year-old teenager at Life Camp, an outdoor summer program in Pottersville where Franz has been director for 30 years.
“He’s been a mentor to me, almost like a father figure that I didn’t have growing up,” Cook said.
Franz hired Cook to work at the camp as a counselor. Years later, after Cook graduated from college and expressed an interest in coaching, Franz hired him to be junior varsity coach at Morristown-Beard.
Cook moved on to Newark Vocational School and the relationship between the two men strengthened. Franz would help Cook train his team, which would play a scrimmage game against Morristown-Beard before the season and a regular season game at the end.
The urban and suburban players became friends. They were around each other a lot, playing in the same summer basketball leagues and working as counselors at Life Camp.
“We called it Vo-Beard,” Franz said.
About three years ago, Cook was hired at West Side as head coach and the Vo-Beard connection might as well have been called West Side-Beard. The kids kept scrimmaging with each other on the court and working together at camp.
Since Franz’s shocking diagnosis, the relationship has grown even closer. The kids blew him away when he first saw them wearing pink during an Essex County tournament game last month.
Franz was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a cancer that usually afflicts smokers, but one the American Cancer Society said is prevalent in non-smokers.
Franz, who never smoked, thought he had pneumonia after exercising one morning in January. He had shortness of breath and went to the hospital for a chest x-ray.
“The first thing they (doctors) say to me is, ‘Are you a smoker?’ ” Franz said. “I knew at that point, there was a problem.”
It shook him up.
Cook was rattled, too. He wore pink last year when he coached West Side to its first championship. Pink tie, shirt and socks. Pink anything. He did it to honor his late mother-in-law and two aunts, who died from the disease.
Two weeks ago, West Side’s starting center, Quaion Taylor, learned that his grandmother had cancer.
“This is bigger than basketball,” Cook said.
When he got the call from Franz, that’s all he could think about.
“I was saying here we go again,” Cook said. “I’m not a crier, but I was on the phone crying with him.”
He told Hooker about Franz’s diagnosis and the two put their heads together.
“I thought it would be a good idea to wear pink to represent Franz and win a state championship,” Hooker said.
Quayon Williams-King, 18, said, pink is his favorite color and Franz is one of his favorite people because of the coach’s honesty.
“He always kept it real with me,” said Williams-King. “He would tell me if I was doing something wrong.”
Franz, however, said he doesn’t feel special. He’s gracious.
“To see kids supportive of somebody who is not their coach, it kind of shows the comraderie that basketball gives you, and how relationships develop over the course of time.”
Franz may want to change his mind about not feeling special. Cook wore his pink shirt for the first time Sunday.
“I just want him to know that he’s not alone,” Cook said.
Before the game, the message was clear.
“Franz is here, let’s do this for him,” Hooker said.
They defeated Camden 51-49, and did their small part in helping a man who means so much to them cope with cancer.