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NAPLES — As the St. John Neumann basketball team prepares to open the season Tuesday, the Celtics will do so with their head coach in their thoughts and prayers.
Tony Grasso, set to begin his 11th year coaching the Celtics, suffered a stroke Sunday in his South Fort Myers home, less than 48 hours before the team’s first game against Canterbury.
Neumann girls basketball coach Shannon McFee, who visited Grasso in the intensive care unit at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, said Grasso, 61, is conscious and can communicate non-verbally, but is not able to speak. McFee and Celtics athletic director Steve Howey said Grasso should recover but did not know how long it would take.
“He’s a fighter,” McFee said. “If there’s anybody capable of recovering from this, it’s him.” McFee said he spoke with Grasso at 5 p.m. Sunday and the coach was doing fine. Grasso suffered the stroke, McFee said, at about 8:30 that night.
John Wholihan, an assistant under Grasso for eight years, said he had not address the Celtics team yet. Neumann’s student body was informed of Grasso’s illness Monday morning, and the school had a prayer for the coach.
Wholihan will serve as interim coach while Grasso recovers. He said the Celtics will play Tuesday’s game at Canterbury per Grasso’s wishes. Neumann also will not change its schedule for Friday and Saturday’s Celtics For A Cure Thanksgiving Shootout, a 16-team boys and girls event, which the school will host for the second straight year.
“We were going to cancel (Tuesday’s game), but coach Grasso wants us to play,” Wholihan said. “He can still let us know what he’s thinking, he just can’t verbalize. For him, we will play. Hopefully it will be a rallying point for the kids.”
Neumann has rallied behind Grasso, a biology teacher and head of the school’s science department, before.
In 2004 he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. After 30 rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Grasso had beaten the cancer just a year later.
Since then, Grasso, has been active with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and many of his students have gotten involved. The Celtics have sold bracelets and held flag football games in the past to raise money for the event.
The proceeds from this weekend’s basketball tournament will benefit Relay for Life, which is why McFee said Grasso was so adamant that the games go on.
“I talked to Tony here at the hospital (Monday morning),” McFee said. “He understands everything and can communicate with a nod and a wink of his eye. We asked if he wanted us to try and move the games, and he absolutely did not want us to.”
Howey had not visited Grasso as of early Monday afternoon, but said all of the coach’s friends and family are optimistic he will fully recover. It was too early to tell how long it would take, Howey said.
Those familiar with the Brooklyn, N.Y., native’s tough attitude, though, have no doubt that Grasso will be able to overcome his stroke just as he beat cancer five years ago.
“He’s fighting it already,” Wholihan said. “There’s no doubt he’s going to be back, hopefully by the end of this season.”
Though it will be tough for the whole school to be without Grasso, Celtics coaches say, the basketball teams will continue under Wholihan. McFee, who is the Neumann boys’ all-time leading scorer and also coached the boys team in the 1990s, will assist Wholihan. Girls junior varsity coach John Gulley also will help.
“We pride ourselves here at Neumann as being one program, boys and girls together,” McFee said. “These kids love coach Grasso. They’d run through a wall for him. As much of a fighter as he is, I don’t see any way he’s not going to get better.”
Connect with Adam Fisher at naplesnews.com/staff/adam_fisher