Coaches Vs. Cancer Game This Weekend A Personal Struggle

Darius Martorano will be one of the Central Regional Boys Basketball players expected to play at the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase. (Photo courtesy Joe Cimino of the Central Regional School District)

There will be plenty of boys’ basketball action at Central Regional and Lakewood high schools Saturday, Jan. 20, and Sunday, Jan. 21.

Central’s spacious gymnasium will be the site of the second annual 2018 Central Regional Boys Basketball Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase, which will consist of five games.

And Lakewood will host the J.R. Smith Team Swish Shoot-A-Way Showcase.

Joining a national fundraiser to support cancer research started in memory of late North Carolina State men’s coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer April 28, 1993 after leading the Wolfpack to the national title in 1983. Central mentor Mike Clemente and his program raised and donated more than $2,000 to the American Cancer Society last season.

Central Regional Boys Basketball coach Mike Clemente will bring his team to the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase. (Photo courtesy Joe Cimino of the Central Regional School District)

This year’s event will take on a more personal meaning.

In July of last year, Clemente, a former Central athlete, was diagnosed with mediastinal non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He has undergone intense chemotherapy over the past five months in his fight against cancer.

Now in his third season as the Golden Eagles’ coach, Clemente was diagnosed with the illness in mid-July of last year.

“At about the end of May, I no longer felt normal,” he said. “I had a really bad dry cough. Each time I exerted myself, I felt a lot of pressure in my neck and my head to the point where my veins popped out of my head. There was a tumor in my chest that was pressing on the main arteries in my heart. When I exerted myself, the exertion closed the veins.”

Clemente said the symptoms were blessings in disguise.

“It was a good thing they were happening as by the time we found the illness it was at stage two and there was a tumor in my chest cavity that was about the size of a softball.”

To express his gratitude to the doctors, nurses and support staff at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, all proceeds from this year’s showcase will be donated to the facility’s Cancer Services Program. The program helps implement new technologies and treatments for patients in their battle against cancer.

Clemente said Monmouth oncologist Dr. Seth Cohen has played a large role in his recovery.

“It is safe to say I am in remission,” said Clemente, who is examined every three months by Cohen and his staff at Monmouth. “Right now, I am cancer free. There is scar tissue. The tumor was so big that there will be scar tissue there forever.

“I no longer take chemotherapy. Dr. Cohen has helped me a ton – a ton. The staff was on the ball right away. He knew what was wrong with me and how to treat it. He gave me his cell phone number and said I could call and text him when I wanted to. I told him, ‘I am game for whatever you want to do to me.’ My competitive nature definitely came out right away. I told him, ‘I am willing to beat this thing. I am willing to do whatever it takes.’ ”

Clemente’s condition has vastly improved since the onset of the illness.

“I feel stronger every single day,” he said. “Each day, I feel more and more like myself. It was my goal to be with the team on the first day of practice (the day after Thanksgiving). When I got there, I was not feeling right, but it was special to be there.”

Marvin Goodwine Jr. will be one of the Central Regional Boys Basketball players expected to play at the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase. (Photo courtesy Joe Cimino of the Central Regional School District)

Coaches vs. Cancer is a national program that empowers basketball coaches, their teams and local communities to make a difference in the fight against the illness.

It promises to be an exciting day of action.

At 11 a.m., it’s Howell against Colonia. Donovan Catholic will take on Woodbridge at 12:30 p.m. Mater Dei Prep will tip off against Red Bank Regional at 2 p.m. Central will go against Point Pleasant Beach at 3:30 p.m. and Toms River North will battle Highland Regional at 5 p.m.

“I would not put a financial goal on the event in terms of the money we hope to raise,” Clemente said. “We want to raise the awareness level of cancer in general. When I was going through treatment and spending a lot of time in the hospital, I learned of the advancement of the technologies that fight cancer. It was mind boggling to me to see how many people from different age groups have cancer.”

Clemente has relied on a strong support group in his fight against the disease.

It consists of such persons as his parents, Mike Clemente and Maureen Clemente, his wife, Allison; the couple’s child, Emily; his sister, Lynne; the Central administration and his team. Also playing a large role in Clemente’s recovery are another sister, Lauren, her husband, John Yannariello, and their three children, John, Harrison and Henry.

“I have tried to stay positive through this whole thing,” Clemente said. “My family has really helped me. I have a 16-month-old baby and my family has pushed me through everything even when times were tough. My team has been unbelievable through this whole thing. My coaching staff and my players always checked up on me. They kept me positive and made me laugh and kept my mind off what was going on – the battle I was fighting.”

Another person who played a large role in Clemente’s battle was Central athletics director John Scran.

“John has become one of my best friends,” Clemente said. “He was there every single day for me when I was in the hospital. We have gotten very close. The support everyone showed was beyond my expectations. They really showed their true colors in terms of how much they really care about people.”

Clemente, 32, a 2003 Central graduate, played four seasons of varsity basketball under his father and scored 1,098 career points at guard.  He also played varsity football under his dad when his father was an assistant coach. He won 11 varsity letters. He won four in basketball, three in football and four in baseball. He began his college career at Virginia Wesleyan and played three varsity seasons of basketball at Moravian College, captaining the team for two years and winning its Defensive Player of the Year Award in three campaigns.

The Toms River resident took Central to an 11-15 record in his first season. Led by career 1,000-point scorer Maks Gruszecki, a guard, Central (22-6) set the school’s single-season wins record and was the first team in school history to earn the top seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III Tournament in which it lost to Winslow Township in the quarterfinals a year ago. Winslow won the Group III state title.

Walter Maldonado will be one of the Central Regional Boys Basketball players expected to play at the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase. (Photo courtesy Joe Cimino of the Central Regional School District)

Clemente’s father coached the Golden Eagles to a 361-275 record from 1981-2012 before his retirement. The elder Clemente led Central to six Shore Conference Class B South titles. His son was one of eight Central players to score either 1,000 or more career varsity points – Mike Morin, Harrie Garris, Jermaine Clay (2,206), Jason Pozo, John Tice, Arian Clay and Ibn Moye.

The elder Clemente was the head coach of the South team in the 2012 State All-Star Game and was inducted into the State of New Jersey Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010 for his coaching accomplishments. Lynne Clemente, a former North standout, was inducted into the State of New Jersey Athletic Hall of Fame prior to her dad for judging high school gymnastics.

“My father and my coach at Moravian, Jimmy Walker, always talked about giving back to the community,” Clemente said. “We hope to make this a great basketball day as well as raise the awareness of cancer.”

Clemente said he hopes to return to teaching personal finance and economics at Central in March.

“The people at Central felt being around the team would help me,” he said. “It has helped me more than I felt it would. I think about being with the team the first second I wake up and the final second before I go to bed. I am able to be there for the kids and help them reach their potential on and off the court. That is something I take a lot of pride in. It helps me get through the tough days.”

Meanwhile, the Lakewood Piners will go against John F. Kennedy of Paterson at 6 p.m. Teaneck will take on Pope John XXIII of Sparta at 3 p.m. and Neptune will tap off against Immaculate Conception of Montclair at 4:30 p.m.

Smith, a former Lakewood standout, now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.