A basketball coaching family, dealing with grief, aims at New York and Connecticut state titles

In this photo provided by Sam Zullo, Jim Zullo, left, coaches Northville High School girls at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. March 4, 2024. Jim Zullo will coach Northville in the New York state high school semifinals on Saturday, March 16, the same day his son, Sam Zullo, will coach Simsbury High School girls for the Connecticut state high school title. (Sam Zullo via AP)

In this photo provided by Sam Zullo, Jim Zullo, left, coaches Northville High School girls at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. March 4, 2024. Jim Zullo will coach Northville in the New York state high school semifinals on Saturday, March 16, the same day his son, Sam Zullo, will coach Simsbury High School girls for the Connecticut state high school title. (Sam Zullo via AP)

Linda Zullo would have loved Saturday.

Jim Zullo, her husband, will coach in the New York state girls basketball semifinals. Sam Zullo, her son, will coach in a Connecticut state girls basketball championship game for the first time. They’ve long dreamed of having a day like this.

So did Linda, the wife and mother who died two months ago after a years-long cancer fight. One of the last things she convinced her husband to do was to return to coaching, the family business in many ways. It would be good for him, she said. And as her family mourns, the wins keep piling up.

“If not for her,” Sam Zullo said, “none of this is happening.”

Jim Zullo, 80, already has one New York high school state championship — a boys title in the large-school division in 1987 — and is in the state’s basketball Hall of Fame. Sam Zullo, 37, is the leading scorer at his high school and is the all-time wins leader at Simsbury High in Connecticut.

Sam learned the game from his father and always knew he would follow in his dad’s coaching footsteps. Jim now coaches at Northville Central, a Class D school — New York’s smallest enrollment classification — about 60 miles north of Albany.

“We talk three or four times a day,” Jim Zullo said. “He knows everything about my team. I know everything about his team.”

Jim Zullo originally retired after 34 years of teaching fifth-graders in upstate New York in 1999. His accolades were many: six sectional championships, 12 league championships, the 1987 state title.

As he retired, the power company that Linda worked for offered her a chance to move closer to what was their vacation home. She was a clerk, whose duties included assigning workers to emergency calls. They moved to Sabael, New York, a miniscule town in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Jim worked as a fly-fishing guide and Sam enrolled at the tiny school in nearby Indian Lake. Jim helped with the boys and girls teams; Sam, a freshman, was instantly one of the best players.

The “retirement” was brief. Sam’s skills kept developing and his dad sought better competition. They moved on to a bigger school about 90 minutes down the road, Broadalbin-Perth, where Sam was the point guard and Jim became coach. They won two sectional championships.

Sam went to college and Jim went back to Sabael for another coaching stint. Finally, Jim retired again and he and Linda began wintering in Florida, returning to upstate New York for the summer. He was teaching pickleball, fishing when he wanted, driving to Connecticut to work with Sam’s team sometimes.

Then Linda got sick.

Her cancer fight was brutal over the last couple years. There would be a lot of good days, then a few bad days, then things started to shift toward more bad days than good. She and Jim moved to Northville, New York, near where he grew up, near where their daughter Mary Swart lives.

Sam spent a couple of weeks commuting three or four hours between Northville and Connecticut, trying to be with his mom continuously in what would be her final days. On Jan. 13, he became Simsbury’s all-time leader in wins. On Jan. 14, Linda died.

“She was my dad’s biggest supporter and biggest fan,” Sam said. “She was my biggest supporter and biggest fan.”

Linda is why Jim unretired one more time. Northville — which hadn’t had a girls basketball team get this far since 1997 — needed a coach. He needed something to occupy his mind. She needed to see him happy. So, she told him to coach again.

“She didn’t want me to sit here and just watch her suffer,” Jim said.

He needed it, and evidently, Northville needed him. He can’t go anyplace in town without someone saying hello, someone talking about the team, asking how he’s doing, talking about the next game. He recently stopped in a convenience store a half-mile from the school to grab a pregame cup of coffee. It took him 10 minutes to get out. That’s how many well-wishers there were.

“It has been a beautiful sight watching dad work with the girls,” said Swart, who followed in the other family business — like her dad, she’s an elementary school teacher. “The girls have become an extended family to him. The families have all taken him under their wings.

“He is just truly finding joy in their company, their enthusiasm and their pure love for the sport like he has,” she added. “They have revitalized him and helped him through one of the toughest times any of us has ever had to deal with.”

Jim and Northville play Elba Central in their semifinal Saturday afternoon in Troy, New York. Sam and Simsbury play Holy Cross for their state title Saturday night in Uncasville, Connecticut. There might be just enough time for Jim to coach his game, then get to Sam’s. If Jim wins Saturday, his state final is Sunday.

Sam thinks his mom would have chosen to be in Connecticut this weekend, even with Northville playing.

“But I think she has the best view now,” he said. “She gets to see both of us doing what we love. And she may have never given herself the credit while she was with us, but I think she knows now that we never could have gotten here without her.”

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