Written by Peter Cappiello Friday, 25 January 2013 00:00
If you thought a brain tumor would stop Bobby Nagelberg, you’d be wrong.
The 21-year-old Levittown native currently stands behind the bench alongside coach Eric Rubin as assistant coach for the MacArthur boys basketball team, but it was a journey in getting there.
Averaging 14 points per game during the 2010-11 season while playing basketball at Suffolk Community College, Nagelberg redshirted in 2011, following his freshman year, while working to achieve his goal of getting a scholarship to play Division II hoops.
But on Jan. 27, 2012, after suffering from neck and back pain, Nagelberg, then 20, underwent an X-ray and MRI, which uncovered a cancerous brain tumor.
Getting a suspect call the next morning while getting ready for work, Nagelberg was told there was a mass growing in his brain.
“I wasn’t sure what it meant — I don’t know if I didn’t want to believe what it meant,” Nagelberg said. “It’s kind of like the movies when someone hears bad news and the whole world stops, that’s really what happens. Everything stops around you, you don’t know what to do, but I go from one day getting ready to play college basketball to the next day thinking if I’m going to live or not.”
In sync with his competitive nature, Nagelberg took on recovery as if it were any other challenge, backed by overwhelming support from local communities.
At the same time that doctors were guaranteeing an advantage heading into radiation treatment because of his athletic background, events like a charity 3-on-3 basketball tournament called Backin’ Bobby, held on June. 22 – 24, 2012 at St. Bernard’s Parish, further stacked the odds in Nagelberg’s favor.
Employees of Fred’s Deli, where Nagelberg works, along with teachers at Wisdom and Salk [Middle School,] as well as Division [Avenue High School,] also sprung into action, raising money for one of their own.
“It’s truly unbelievable,” Nagelberg said. “You watch how a whole town comes together for — me — it brings tears to my eye thinking about it every day. It’s cliché, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without everyone’s help and support and that’s the honest truth.”
Itching to return to the game he loves, Nagelberg wasted no time in rebounding from surgery back to the hardwood, this time re-uniting with Rubin, his ninth grade junior varsity coach at Division, while also leading the Generals’ junior varsity squad.
Having maintained contact with Nagelberg over the years, Rubin had his pupil’s name at the top of a shortlist when a JV coaching position opened up in the spring. “I knew he was a really intelligent player who was passionate about basketball,” Rubin said. “He was probably the smartest player to ever play for me, so I knew he had it in his blood that if he wanted to be a coach, he’d be a terrific coach.”
Rubin said Nagelberg’s intimate knowledge of the game and experience at the collegiate level make him a valuable asset to the coaching staff in making adjustments and suggesting plays.
“For a young person, he knows the fundamentals of the game, the ins and outs, the idiosyncrasies and he’s definitely smarter than his years as far as basketball goes,” Rubin said.
Over the summer, a few months removed from surgery, Nagelberg proved his mettle before being offered the job by coming to three hours of open gyms, twice a week, including four nights a week during summer league games, solidifying himself as a serious candidate.
Eleven games through the varsity season, despite the Generals (1-10, 0-7 Nassau Conference AA-II) only winning one game, besting Nagelberg’s alma mater, 56-27, to open the season, Rubin sees his players changed for the better through his assistant’s coaching.
“Guys are getting better individually, he’s worked with a couple kids, specifically our leading scorer, [senior forward] Andrew Seniuk,” Rubin said. “He really took Seniuk under his wing and he has gotten better by leaps and bounds to where he’s not only one of the best players in the conference, but he’ll be playing somewhere in college next year. A lot of it was Seniuk working hard, but [Nagelberg’s] help has brought him to another level.”
Admitting to playing the former in the good cop, bad cop coaching relationship with Rubin, Nagelberg said coaching the JV team (7-4, 4-1) was uncharted territory, but has been a rewarding teaching experience.
“They’re still at their early stages so I’m trying to teach them the overall picture and concept of basketball, but they work as hard as they can, listen to everything I have to say and never get an attitude,” Nagelberg said. “Everyone’s warning me that parents are going to be horrible and everyone’s going to be complaining to you, but I haven’t heard one complaint.”
Still forming his coaching style, Nagelberg makes it a point to instill a competitive spirit in his team on and off the court, encouraging them to never give a half-hearted attempt at anything in life from getting a job to getting a girl.
Stressing the importance of knowing one’s family and true friends, Nagelberg also shares a message of appreciating everything in what could potentially be a short life. “Don’t try to hide who you are and fit in with the crowd,” Nagelberg said. “Because unfortunately I learned the hard way, in tough situations you find out who’s really there for you and who will do anything for you. Life is short, it’s scary that it can be real short, so you want to always live life like it’s your last day on Earth.”
Recently finding meaning to a phrase his father told him growing up, Nagelberg said the will to win defines his life and coaching philosophy.
“You’re not always going to win everything you do, it’s impossible, but you gotta have the will to win,” Nagelberg said. “You gotta be able to give it your all and have that desire to win at whatever you do and that’s the message I try to send to the kids.”