Andy Boogaard

Firebaugh boys basketball coach Jim McCall walking away after 37 years

Jim McCall walks away now, and for those familiar with his Asics sneakers typically in flight, this is borderline unbearable.

“It’s really hard to watch this end,” says his wife, Gwynne, “because I’ve seen the passion for so many years.”

Yet that will become official about 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Avenal High School gymnasium, where the Firebaugh boys basketball players coached by her husband will have completed a West Sierra League game and loaded the bus for the 1-hour, 20-minute drive back to school.

And it will be there that James R. McCall, 70 – long into distance running and Olympic-style race walking – and, above all, 37 years as the Eagles’ boys hoops CEO, will collect the 12 soiled uniforms, load them into this 1990 black Mitsubishi, drive to his north Fresno home, wash and dry and, Wednesday morning, fold and return them after a 42-minute commute to school.

Then he’ll let go.

“I know the end has come,” he says, voice cracking.

He’s the Central Section record holder in boys basketball coaching longevity, according to historian Bob Barnett.

He’s won a section career seventh-best 415 games, a league title here and there, unfailing respect among his peers and endless relationships of depth with players.

“What defines him is hard work and his interest in students in general,” says Bob Kayajanian, former longtime supervisor of the San Joaquin Officials Association. “He takes a tremendous amount of pride in making sure kids are doing the right thing, making some sort of contribution to the community.”

The endurance of McCall’s craft can be tied to a horrific family experience.

To coach this long – 46 years in all at Firebaugh – has been an escape.

Here’s why.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and, initially, a Firebaugh import through ministry (his college major), he was 42 and directing a summer church camp in Virginia in 1988 – part of an annual family return trip back east in the summer – when he received the call regarding his 7-year-old daughter: “She’s been struck by a car. It’s serious.”

Lydia McCall would never walk and talk again.

The day of pain – Lydia was playing with friends at a home in Pennsylvania that day.

The kids decided to run to a nearby creek.

To get there, they had to cross a curvy road with a blind turn.

Only Lydia was struck.

She was airlifted to Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. Dad was driven there in three hours by a fellow worker from the church camp.

The injuries to his youngest daughter were devastating: “Broken leg, broken arm and severe head trauma.”

McCall, sitting in the office last week of school athletic director Dave Rossette, takes a deep breath, collects himself and completes the thought: “They couldn’t control the swelling of the brain, and that was the problem. Doctors were surprised she lived.”

Lydia, 35, stays at United Cerebral Palsy of Central California at Cedar and Ashlan avenues in Fresno weekdays and with her mother, Mary, or father on weekends.

“You want the best for your kids and this isn’t the best,” McCall says.

McCall remarried since the accident, and his coaching career at Firebaugh has also counted assisting cross country for 35 years, football for 11 and swimming and diving for 10.

Along the way, he says, the accident’s impact on him has been mixed: “It helped in one way and hurt in another. Yes, coaching has been an escape for me. But I haven’t always been there for her when I should have been. There have been so many late nights when I could have been home helping.

“I love coaching, but the first thing I always tell young coaches: ‘I made a mistake when I was younger. You’ve got to realize that coaching shouldn’t be your No. 1 priority in life. If you’ve got a family, that should be your No. 1 priority.’ 

The accident’s impact on Lydia’s older sister, Trudy, has also been profound.

The former Roosevelt High valedictorian would earn a doctorate in neurobiology, a study of the brain, and is working for a pharmaceutical company in San Diego.

“The accident led her to pursue that,” Dad says. “That’s the connection.”

Meanwhile, though McCall is a bit critical of himself, his priorities are unquestioned by peers and anyone remotely associated with him.

Rossette, then Mendota’s boys basketball coach in 2007, recounts how McCall responded when he learned that Rossette’s first child, son Vante, would be born with Down syndrome.

“We had a game at home against Firebaugh – a big game, too – and prior to it, Jim gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever had. He had gone through personal trials, and he wanted to make sure he was there for me. It was the most gratifying experience I’ve ever had with him. He’s compassionate and passionate, and he’s been in it for the kids all the way. He cares for them dearly.”

The final days – This has hardly been McCall’s best season (7-20), but the Eagles were not going to be denied Friday night in the coach’s final home game.

With “McCall’s Hall” packed, including many faculty members wearing red and blue “TEAM MCCALL” T-shirts, Firebaugh rallied in the fourth quarter for a 49-43 win.

“There was so much emotion, energy and love flowing through that building,” says his wife, Gwynne, a Firebaugh Unified School District teacher for 33 years who is also retiring.

A presentation and slide show followed in McCall’s honor, and the Elvis Presley version of “My Way” was played.

The coach then made a speech, finished, placed his clipboard and whistle on the Eagles’ logo at midcourt and raised his hands in triumph.

And now to Avenal for the final tip and a sip.

“I’m going with a small group of friends,” Gwynne says. “And we’re taking apple cider and champagne glasses.”

It will be the 899th game for a coach who’s lost more games then he’s won in a program that routinely has developed players who were “starting from scratch” as freshmen, he says.

And the preacher-turned-coach will return those red and blue uniforms Wednesday morning swearing on the Bible “I did it my way,” and for all the right reasons.

“I’d hope my career will be defined for caring for players on the court and off the court,” he says, wiping a tear from his left eye. “I always tell them: ‘No matter where you are, I’m always going to be your No. 1 fan.’ 

Andy Boogaard: 559-441-6400, @beepreps

CENTRAL SECTION BASKETBALL RANKINGS

Records through Feb. 13

BOYS TOP 20

1. Ridgeview (SYL, 24-1)

2. Immanuel (CSL, 20-5)

3. Lemoore (WYL, 23-2)

4. Central (TRAC, 19-5)

5. Clovis North (TRAC, 17-8)

6. Memorial (CMAC, 23-4)

7. Bakersfield (SWYL, 16-9)

8. Buchanan (TRAC, 14-13)

9. Centennial (SWYL, 16-12)

10. Clovis East (TRAC, 18-9)

11. Clovis West (TRAC, 16-8)

12. Roosevelt (NYL, 21-7)

13. Fresno (NYL, 24-4)

14. Mission Oak (EYL, 19-6)

15. Hanford (WYL, 17-7)

16. Hanford West (WYL, 21-8)

17. Liberty-Bakersfield (16-10)

18. Independence (WYL, 17-6)

19. Bullard (CMAC, 13-15)

20. Granite Hills (E. Sequoia, 24-2)

DIVISIONAL RANKINGS

Division I: 1. Central; 2. Clovis North; 3. Buchanan

Division II: Ridgeview; 2. Lemoore; 3. Memorial

Division III: Roosevelt; 2. West (SYL, 19-8); 3. Selma (CSL, 20-6)

Division IV: Immanuel; 2. Granite Hills (E. Sequoia, 24-2); 3. Rosamond (HDL, 18-4)

Division V: 1. Kern Valley (HDL, 17-2); 2. Caruthers (W. Sequoia, 17-9); 3. Tranquillity (W. Sierra, 18-8)

GIRLS TOP 20

1. Clovis West (TRAC, 25-3)

2. Edison (CMAC, 24-3)

3. Garces (SWYL, 14-9)

4. Central (TRAC, 19-7)

5. Redwood (WYL, 21-4)

6. Hanford (WYL, 21-6)

7. Mission Oak (EYL, 22-6)

8. Clovis (TRAC, 19-9)

9. Centennial (SWYL, 12-11)

10. Orosi (E. Sierra, 22-4)

11. Independence (SYL, 18-6)

12. Ridgeview (SYL, 22-5)

13. Clovis North (TRAC, 11-12)

14. Buchanan (TRAC, 15-12)

15. Lemoore (WYL, 16-8)

16. Immanuel (CSL, 16-8)

17. Tulare Western (EYL, 18-8)

18. Madera (CMAC, 16-11)

19. Exeter (CSL, 20-7)

20. Kingsburg (CSL, 20-7)

DIVISIONAL RANKINGS

Division I: 1. Clovis West; 2. Edison; 3. Garces

Division II: 1. Redwood; 2. Independence; 3. Lemoore

Division III: 1. Mission Oak; 2. Madera; 3. Exeter

Division IV: 1. Orosi; 2. Kingsburg; 3. Immanuel

Division V: 1. Memorial (CMAC, 15-6); 2. Caruthers (W. Sequoia, 18-7); 3. Minarets (W. Sequoia, 13-5)

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