The picture is less than three weeks old, but it is already well-worn, its ink faded and its edges fraying from the number of times Dr. John Giannini has taken it out of his wallet, held it in his hand, every time finding himself at a loss for words as he runs his fingers over it.
“I carry a little newspaper cut out picture of him to my games this year,” says Giannini. “We shockingly lost a great one and someone that I was so lucky to coach, and even luckier to get to know.”
Giannini was speaking of former University of Maine star Nate Fox, whom Giannini had coached for three years in Orono and who was shot to death in his driveway in Bloomingdale, Illinois, on the night of Dec. 22, just two days before Christmas Eve.
In his 27 years of coaching, dating back to the two seasons he spent as a graduate assistant at the University of Illinois, and head coaching gigs at Division III Rowan, Maine and now La Salle, Giannini has been around a lot of players, many more heavily hyped and highly recruited than Fox. But according to Giannini, none were better players or left a bigger impression on him.
“Nate was as good as any player that I’ve ever coached. He had an incredible combination of size, strength, skill, basketball IQ and toughness,” says Giannini of the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound power forward who scored 1,036 points and ripped down 454 rebounds while shooting 57.9 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from behind the arc in two seasons at Maine after transferring from Boston College.
“Nate could have played anywhere in the country,” says Giannini. But as good as he was — and Fox was good, no doubt about it, playing for 13 seasons abroad at some of the highest levels of professional basketball — Fox the person left an even more indelible mark on his coach.
Now, Giannini is left with an absence in his life, and a hole in his heart far larger than his former player’s massive frame. It’s a void that will never be filled.
“Nate is just really on my mind right now, and thinking about him all the time,” Giannini says. “If you look at the pictures of him, he was massively strong. He looked like a bodybuilder in spite of his terrific basketball skills. He was this huge person, but his personality was even bigger than his body.
“Everyone knows about him because of the legacy that he left. And his legacy was far more than who he was as a player: he was this fun-loving, caring, wild and crazy guy. He just was a man’s man in the best sense: he was tough, he knew how to have a good time, but he was also a true friend and nice to everybody,” he says, his voice beginning to crack, the wound still raw and unhealed 17 days after Fox’s death.
That Fox wound up playing for Giannini was a stroke of luck, the coach readily admits. Fox, who was offered a host of Division I scholarships in both football and basketball coming out of Plainfield Central High, had spent his first two seasons at Boston College riding the pine under O’Brien. When O’Brien left to take the job at Ohio State, much of the Eagles roster scattered. Gianinni landed Boston College point guard Andy Bedard, Giannini’s most coveted recruit, as a transfer and Fox was, essentially, a throw-in.
“Nate was Andy’s best friend. I didn’t know much about him and he really hadn’t played at BC, but Andy really pushed hard for him. He had a huge frame and we thought in the America East he could at least be a body,” Giannini laughs. “About a week into practice me and my staff looked at each other and it was one of those, ‘wow, this kid could be the best player in the league,’ moments where we knew we’d fallen into someone really special.
“(Head coach) Jim O’Brien told me, ‘John, the way Nate developed, he would have been one of the best players on our Final Four team at Ohio State.’”
But once again, as special as Fox was on the court, according to Giannini, the mark the player left on his coach and his teammates was even more once in a lifetime.
“He was just,” Giannini says, trailing off, unable to find the words.
A week after Fox’ death, his former coaches and teammates converged outside of Chicago, coming together from the far corners of the globe to remember Fox. Giannini thought he’d heard everything about his former player at that point, but even after his death, Fox continued to amaze and touch his mentor.
“Just going through the grieving process with his former teammates, two new stories came out that I’d never heard about,” says the coach.
“We had a walk-on named Jon Wallingford [at Maine] who checked IDs at the weight room before he became a walk-on. Jon was about 5’10” and certainly didn’t look like a Division I basketball player, and he was a freshman working at the desk. And Jon told me when Nate came in every day they would talk and developed a friendship,” Giannini remembers.
“And here’s Nate, a big-man-on-campus, having this friendship with this guy that he just met checking IDs. And Jon’s point was, ‘Nate was great to me before I was a teammate, and he was great to me before he knew who I was, and he was great to me when I was the most regular student on campus.’ I think that’s really powerful.
“Fred Meeks, was a guy that we had from Alabama. And here you have a southern guy and a northern guy whose demographics couldn’t have been more different, but Nate invited Fred over to his house one summer, and Fred wound up staying at his house for a month and training with him.
“Fred was just heartbroken because he said, ‘Coach, I was literally a part of Nate’s family. I couldn’t have been treated better and I’ll always remember that time as very special.’ How many guys invite a teammate over to their house and then end up having them stay for a month and having this special relationship with someone they really have very little in common with other than basketball?”
Giannini grows quiet, his lasting memories of Fox filling the great silence. Finally, he begins to speak again, to tell one last Nate Fox story — the story of the player’s final, longest lasting gift to his coach.
“When I went to the viewing, all I could think about was how lucky I was to coach him,” he says, returning to the picture of Fox, forever frozen in time. “I keep it (the picture), just to remind myself of how lucky I was to coach him, but to remind myself of how lucky I am to coach Jerrell Wright and Steve Zach and D.J. Peterson. It makes me appreciate them more, and frankly it makes me a more patient, better coach.
“Every great coach rides on the backs of his players. None of us are anything without our players. And Nate had such a dramatic and huge effect on us both professionally and personally, that I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I was. I think this tragedy with Nate has helped me to understand that better.”