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Kennedy legend Johnny Mathis happy to be back on sidelines

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For most basketball coaches, seeing their team mired in a 27-point deficit would be cause for some angry barking, a clipboard fling, and a swig or two of Mylanta.

For John F. Kennedy head coach Johnny Mathis, it’s his medicine.

Mathis, a fixture at JFK since 1987, has had more to deal with than the average coach. Health issues have thrown him a curve the past several seasons, which has enabled the legendary coach to put subpar play by his team in its proper perspective.

So when his Knights were down 49-22 with just over six minutes left in the third quarter in last week’s game against Truman, there were no sideline histrionics. Just a calm timeout, and a chance to get his players’ heads back in the game.

“They’re young,” Mathis said. “Most of them are inexperienced so I just tried to settle them down.”

Kennedy responded by shaving their 27-point hole to a single point with 16 seconds to play. But Kennedy’s miracle comeback came up just short when Emmanuel Sarbah’s putback off Isaiah Malave’s missed free throw with 0.3 seconds to play came a fraction too late as Truman held on for a 69-67 victory.

“We dug a hole that was too deep to come back from,” Mathis said. “We got down 8-0 to start the game, and we just let them shoot and we weren’t playing any defense. But we did exactly what we were supposed to do in the second half, which allowed us to come back from 27 down. If we had done that from the beginning, we would have been all right.”

But all the while Mathis was talking postgame, a smile was ever present. Thirty-one years on the Kennedy sidelines has done little to diminish his love of basketball and his teaching of young players. Even if last year was his hardest season to date.

“I’m starting to lose track how long I’ve been here,” Mathis said, laughing. “I started here in 1987, and I’m still enjoying it. I was really sick for a while. I was out for a long time last year. But this is what made me get up and come back. I had all the arthritis you can have as a human being. I had gout, I had rheumatoid arthritis. It all hit me at one time.”

Mathis’ health issues, which also include diabetes, led to him missing the entire second half of the season last year.

“I thought I had seen pain,” Mathis said. “Man, I hadn’t seen pain until then. I was in New York Hospital for six weeks, and then I went to a rehab for a while. I couldn’t even walk. But to be honest with you, this is what keeps me going. It got me up and out of that bed.”

Kennedy (3-7, Bronx AA) shaved a considerable amount of points off its deficit, but still trailed by 15 points with 5:15 remaining in the game. That’s when the Knights went into overdrive on their comeback attempt. 

Malave knocked down a three-pointer to trim the Truman lead to 64-52. Omar Gardner followed with back-to-back buckets sandwiched around a Truman basket, and suddenly the Mustangs’ lead was just 10 points. 

And while Kennedy’s defense kept the clamps on Truman — which scored just six points in the final 6:30 — the Knights continued to chip away. When Justin Dabarez scored eight straight points over a span of a little more than two minutes, Kennedy was within 67-64, and Truman needed a timeout. 

Truman turned it over on its next possession before Gardner’s lay-up with 16 seconds remaining pulled the Knights within one point. Truman’s Chaz Sang converted a pair of free throws, but Kennedy had one final chance to send the game into overtime. 

Malave missed a three-point attempt, but was fouled on the shot with 0.3 seconds to play, giving him three free throws. Malave missed the first, made the second and then intentionally misfired on the third in hopes of a rebound and putback by Kennedy.

And it almost worked as Sarbah’s potential game-tying putback came just a shade late.

“This is a team that’s inexperienced and they play late,” Mathis said. “Once they learn to play early, I think we can make a run. I hope it’s not too late that we can get into the playoffs and do a little something.”

It was a heartbreaking finish to what looked to be a storybook ending in the making. But even with the loss, Mathis remains smiling.   

“I didn’t think about retiring,” Mathis said. “I just thought about getting back here. That was my motivation. It made me have to work in rehab to get me back here. I’m happy here, and it keeps me going. 

“God has been good to me.”

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