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Last-minute save leads coach to his hoop dreams

Drained by illness, teen found strength

Sam Doner, head coach of Newton South girls’ basketball team, directs a practice. Sam Doner, head coach of Newton South girls’ basketball team, directs a practice. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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It wasn’t the first time he had these thoughts. End it all? Sure. What the hell.

“Lots of times I decided to give up. Take my life. It wasn’t just the pain, the needles. They told me I’d never play basketball again; I wouldn’t be able to have kids. Never be able to do the things I used to do. I was thinking about taking my life.’’

One February night, about 2:30 in the morning, in his senior year at Newton North High, he’d made up his mind. He drove to a bridge in Waltham, one he had crossed over many times. Crossing it wasn’t his intention this time.

He got out of the car, and walked to the edge of the bridge. He bent down, on hands and knees. Suddenly he was hanging from the bridge, in the dark silence of the morning, waiting to let go. Waiting to end it.

A crossroads
For the first 10 years of his life, Sam Doner lived in Israel. Things were good. He was a happy boy. “People talk about Israel, the war, the Gaza Strip,’’ says Doner. He was from northern Israel. It was different there back then. Normal. No complaints. No fear.

His family moved to Newton. “I’d never been to America,’’ says Doner. “It was extremely difficult at the beginning, the language, trying to share my opinions. I tried getting along with a lot of kids. I tried to get them to play soccer, but they weren’t interested. I tried to play football and baseball, but I didn’t have a feel for it.’’

In the eighth grade, he discovered basketball. “I fell in love with it,’’ he says. “That’s when I started making friends, playing with the kids.’’

Before his senior year at Newton North, Ilana Doner saw a change in her son. He was losing weight. His attitude had changed. Young Sam laughed it off. Moms, they worry, you know? “I was stubborn,’’ says Doner. “I always believed there was nothing wrong with me. I refused to go to the doctor. Refused. Refused.’’

The weight loss came fast, 50 pounds. Only 5-feet-8, 150 pounds, Doner dropped to 97 pounds.

He was trying out for the basketball team. Jerry Phillips was the North High coach. “He told me, ‘You look sick. You’re not the same personality. Better see a doctor,’ ’’ says Doner.

It started to sink in when he was on the basketball court. Doner had been quick. Now, he couldn’t beat the slowest player on the team. The lymph nodes on his neck began to swell. “The size of my neck became wider than my head at one point,’’ he says.

He had Hodgkin’s disease. There are five stages, five being the most severe. Doner was at 4B. He had seven cycles of chemotherapy, from December 1993 to July 1994.

“Those were the toughest days,’’ he says. And that’s when he started thinking about the bridge.

Stellar season
Last season, at age 33, Sam Doner coached the Newton South varsity girls’ basketball team to a 15-8 season and the Division 1 South Sectional semifinals - the deepest any Lions team had ever gone in the tournament - before losing to Needham, 51-47. “The kids worked hard,’’ says Doner, who has guided South to a 3-1 start, the only blemish a 59-51 loss to Lincoln-Sudbury. “They made me look good.’’

From 2003 to 2006, he had coached at Medway High, first at the junior varsity level before taking over the varsity in January 2004 after the sudden resignation of the head coach. Doner coached two more seasons before stepping down in the middle of the 2006 season over philosophical differences with Rob Pearl, the school’s athletic director.

He swore that he’d never coach at the high school level again. Too political, he felt. He stayed on as a math teacher at the school.

Heart and soul
To David Bikofsky, Doner approaches basketball in almost a mystical way. Doner’s ideas are just different. He conducts clinics and fifth-graders will work with Division 1 college players. “There is no class system, based on gender, age, or skill level,’’ says Bikofsky. Doner makes it work.

“He really puts his heart and soul in it,’’ says Bikofsky, a Newton lawyer who is an assistant on Doner’s South staff this season. His daughter, Sophie, is a standout junior forward for the Lions.

“He’ll take the most unskilled player and make him feel like Paul Pierce.’’

When Bikofsky first saw Doner run a clinic, he was blown away. “I was convinced the guy was a genius, the way he could motivate kids, looking at them and giving them the exact dose, the exact skill they needed to improve. It was an amazing thing.

“He was the best kept secret going.’’

Mike Hope agrees. His 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, has attended Doner’s clinics for two years. “I don’t see anybody doing what Sam does. He’s unique. Everything is full speed. Kids wait on every word he says. He always has something new, something different.’’

Hope, from Natick, says girls tutored by Doner have gone on to stardom in college, yet keep coming back to his clinics to learn more. “It’s almost like they don’t want to disappoint him. I’ve never seen anybody like him.’’

Former Framingham High standout Denise Beliveau is a believer after first attending one of his clinics as a sophomore. “I had to leave a Christmas party to go to his clinic, I wasn’t happy about it,’’ said Beliveau, a redshirt sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, where she is averaging 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game this season.

“I wasn’t all that serious about basketball. I was pretty big into soccer. It was definitely one of the best moves I ever made. Sam saw my potential. I started working with him regularly. . . . His workouts are hard but, after, you feel accomplished.’’

The bridge
“I took a little ride that night,’’ says Doner. He’d thought enough about this, kill himself. This would be the moment. All he had to do was open his hands. Let go. “The street was about 100 feet below,’’ he says. Who can say what someone’s last thought might be at a moment like this. Doner’s mother came to mind. It made him hesitate; made his grip tighter. “I couldn’t help thinking of her,’’ he says. “She was always behind me. A strong woman.’’ He thought about how he was never a quitter. And there, he was trying to quit.

He pulled himself back up, his heart pounding. “God had given me a second chance. I wanted to make the best of it.’’ Sure, he’d had some lousy breaks. But he wasn’t a quitter.

When he got home that night, his mother was sleeping on his bed. She’d never done that before. “I don’t think she knew about the bridge. But she suspected it.’’ He hasn’t told her yet.

Doner graduated from Westfield State College and got his first coaching job, as an assistant men’s coach at Mount Ida in Newton. Three years later, a full-time teaching job opened at Weymouth Middle School, where he was also an assistant varsity coach. That’s when he wanted to get more involved with the game. He believed he could help young players, and began working with them individually. “I just said, ‘Want me to train you?’ I didn’t charge anything. It was a good feeling making kids better.’’ He went on to coach an AAU girls’ team.

Bikofsky said it was astonishing to see what he could get out of the kids. “The guy is driven,’’ says Bikofsky. “He’s never satisfied. He can’t turn it off. Sometimes you think, ‘Is that good?’ ’’

His clinics have a name now: Doner Elite Basketball. “I let the kids play free,’’ he says. “Let them believe in themselves. I want to give them a work ethic that will stay with them the rest of their lives. I’ve read more than 30 books about basketball. I learn new things. Strategies.’’

He’s teaching math at Walsh Middle School in Framingham, where he lives. He’s writing a book. It’ll all be in there. Basketball, the cancer battle, the bridge.

The redemption. “I try to be a better man today than I was yesterday. That’s the new me.’’

More alive than ever.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.