The Post-Journal

Michael Heary Won't Forget Last Moments With His Dad

If you ever wanted to find Tom Heary during a basketball game at the Fredonia High School gym, all you had do was look for the doorway at the end of the Hillbillies' bench.

For it was from that customary position that the secondary school principal would keep one eye on the crowd, one eye on the court and both ears tuned into Dave Polechetti, the Fredonia basketbal coach, who patrolled the sideline just a few feet away.

"I became very accustomed to having Tom, as a friend, sitting there," Polechetti said. "I don't know how many times over the course of those years, during the course of a ballgame when I would turn and look to Tom when I felt that things weren't going right."

And, as always, Heary would give a nod or a thumbs-up sign. It was his way of giving Polechetti encouragement, his way of showing that he understood. "I became very accustomed to that," Polechetti said. "It's very emotional to me to look over there and not have Tom at my right side."

Heary died a week ago today at age 54 after a 6½-year battle with leukemia. The illness sapped him of his strength, forced him into early retirement and eventually cost him his life. But his son, Michael - the youngest of four children born to Tom and Rita - believes that his dad's presence will remain in that gym forever.

"On the basketball court, that's where I feel him most," said Michael, a 16-year-old junior at Fredonia.

And that's only appropriate.

The elder Heary, a basketball player in high school and later at Canisius College, was an acknowledged hoops junkie who shared that fanaticism with his only son.

Not long after Michael was born, his dad held the infant in his arms and they watched basketball games together on TV. As Michael got older, a basketball hoop was hung on the garage, in the basement and - are you ready - in the kitchen.

"Our kitchen wasn't really that big, but it was big enough," Michael said. "I wasn't that big at the time, so it was fine to me. The end of the refrigerator was the foul line and the ends of the cupboards were the baseline. The big story was one time I took a shot from the corner and the ball went off the rim. My mom was cooking and it went into the chili. She just took it out, washed it off and said, 'Keep going.'"

And Michael has been doing that ever since. By the age of 8, he was discussing basketball strategy with his dad during televised basketball games and, before his father's illness, played one-on-one games with him in the driveway.

"We used to play a lot and he always beat me because I was too small," Michael said. "I hit a few jump shots and then his ego would get in the way and he'd take me down low because he knew that's where he could beat me."

By the time Michael was 10, the games in the driveway ended because his dad was diagnosed with leukemia.

"At that time, I didn't know a lot about what was going on," Michael said. "I didn't know how short his life (would) get cut."

But Heary didn't allow his illness to drag down the family, which also includes three grown daughters, Mary, Maura, and Michele. He didn't complain, he always asked about others rather than dwell on his own condition and he continued to be a loving husband and father.

"He was always big on making sure that everything stayed as normal as possible around the house, especially for me being so young." Michael said. "That was his big thing. That was just another example of him always thinking about somebody else."

Michael's interest in basketball continued to grow through elementary school and by the time he was a seventh-grader, he was a member of the eighth-grade team. The next year, as an eighth-grader on the junior varsity squad, he began to realize the gravity of his dad's illness.

"He got even more sick as he went along," Michael said. "From that point on, I decided I was going to make an effort to go really far."

He's headed in the right direction. This season he's averaging about 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists as the Hillbillies, who are dedicating the season to Michael's dad, have raced to an 11-1 record and are currently ranked 11th in the state among Class B schools.

Michael first placed his stamp on the Western New York basketball scene last March when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a Section 6 semi-final playoff victory over Lackawanna. That game was the first time that Heary, who was too ill to attend, had ever missed one of his son's games. Up until then, Heary had seen Michael play every game and every scrimmage.

"He didn't go to Christmas Mass with us (last year), but he was at the games of the (Fredonia) Booster Tournament," Michael said. "That's what a lot of people don't realize. There were a lot of times when he was really, really sick, but he would just rest throughout the week just to make it for Friday (games) or really take the week and get ready for Tuesday (games)."

This season, however, Heary wasn't able to attend any games. He was hospitalized in Rochester last Nov. 9 and his condition never improved. He died last Saturday at Brooks Memorial Hospital in Dunkirk. The funeral was Tuesday.

Amazingly, just 24 hours later, Michael poured in 36 points as Fredonia downed Gowanda in a Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Interscholastic Athletic Conference game.

"When people ask me about being able to play the day after his funeral and being able to play when he has been sick, that's the way he'd want me to go on," Michael explained. "He would want me to go on like he never had a problem. That's why I found it very easy to play because you start thinking about all the things that he did and it just gets you excited and you want to play."

Toward the end, Heary wasn't able to communicate with his family because he was on a respirator. There weren't going to be anymore basketball talks or pregame trips to McDonald's with his son. The reality of the situation had begun to finally hit Michael and his family.

But the something happened.

"I was in there while he was dying," Michael said. "They had a computer screen that showed his blood pressure and his heart rate, and his numbers were decreasing slowly. Then his heart rate went from zero to 24 three times."

That, Michael maintains, was a signal from his dad.

"That's my basketball number," he said. "That happened three times back and forth and he passed away on zero. I guess that was his way of saying that was our last time together. I'll remember that. It's very special."

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