tampabay.com

Generations merge

Conner Fenlon is no stranger to state tourney, but this is the first year he'll play for his father there.

By JOEY KNIGHT
Published March 1, 2007


TAMPA - The basketball junkie from Wisconsin is mired in middle age, supporting two teenagers and bearing down on the quarter-century mark as boys coach at Tampa Prep.

For him, fatherhood and coaching always have been distinct, delicate roles, not to intersect or infringe upon each other. For years, in fact, methodical steps were taken to avoid such a clash of duties.

Until now.

The skinny 16-year-old with the freckles and Pete Maravich-style mop top has lived and died with Tampa Prep basketball since he was old enough to waddle onto the court with the team, a snapshot of cuteness in a mini-Terrapins jersey.

He has gleefully scaled his dad's shoulders after big wins, and literally cried himself to sleep after losses. For him, the experience always has been vicarious; those emotional extremes witnessed only through the prism of his father and the older kids he coached.

Until now.

At last, generations have converged in the Fenlon household. The father, Joe, is coaching the son, Conner. For a literal lifetime, they have waited to pool their passion until son was mature enough to deal with dad as coach, until dad felt son warranted varsity status.

Which is to say, until now.

For the fourth time, they're headed to the state tournament together. Only this go-round, Conner won't be Tampa Prep's diminutive water boy. He'll be its point guard.

"I always wanted to coach him," said Joe, who leads his son and the rest of the Terrapins 25-5 into today's Class 2A semifinal against Port St. Joe at the Lakeland Center. "But I wanted to coach him when it was time."

Now is that time. Their time. The son can't quantify the potential thrill of being part of the Terrapins team that gives his dad his first state title in four tries.

"It will be the best feeling I ever had," Conner said. "I can't even talk about it right now. It would be unreal."

- - -

Few doubted Joe ultimately would coach his kid. From the moment Cindy Fenlon gave birth to her and Joe's second child - and only son - at Tampa's Women's Hospital on March 20, 1990, the infant literally appeared destined to inherit his dad's adoration for hoops.

The tiny basketball in Conner Joseph Fenlon's bassinet was tangible evidence.

"All the kids looked alike," Joe recalled. "I put a little stuffed basketball (in the bassinet) so that when I went through, I would know which one my kid was."

Sure enough, Conner gravitated to the sport that consumed his father.

By age 3, Joe and Cindy insist, Conner was dribbling a ball. Shortly thereafter, he was a halftime feature at Terrapins home games, grimacing mightily as he heaved an oversized ball toward the rim's vicinity. Whenever Joe was afforded the chance to visit some of college hoops' most revered shrines (Duke, Kentucky, etc.), Conner always seemed in tow.

Meantime, Conner became heavily involved in organized competition, from Temple Terrace to the Interbay YMCA to the family's Catholic church to middle school. At one stop, one of Joe's former players, current Bradenton Manatee boys coach Brian Reeves, even coached Conner. Joe never did.

Joe "didn't want that pressure," Cindy said.

"I knew there would be enough pressure on him playing basketball for me as it is without me having to up the ante early on in life," Joe added.

"Now, I didn't say it was easy. I still had to face the kid who came home and maybe thought he should be playing more, or wished his role was a little bit bigger. My advice always to him was, 'Then I guess you'll just have to work a little harder. You'll have to impress a little more. Develop your weaknesses and make 'em strengths.'"

The inevitable beckoned when Conner arrived as a freshman at Tampa Prep, where Joe, 45, serves as director of the middle school. As a freshman, Conner played on the Terrapins junior varsity and was promoted to Joe's team late in the season, playing sparingly.

The following year though, a standout Terrapins guard left school, thrusting Conner into a starting role as a sophomore.

"I had always, in the back of my mind, thought Conner would be a one-year starter," Joe said.

Suddenly, Joe began installing the mechanisms he had spent years planning to help he and Conner coexist. While basketball remained a passionate topic among dad and son, the subject of Terrapins basketball rarely was broached in the family's South Tampa house.

"Those are his friends, and I don't want to make a comment that would make him look at his teammates differently," Joe said. "Nor do I want him to feel like he has to give me the insight of what's going on in the locker room because that's not fair to him either."

There also was the potential pitfall of Joe treating Conner with undue harshness, just to avoid any perception of favoritism. To avert that, the job of admonishing Conner during games or practices was given to Joe's longtime assistant, Cory Kosiba.

"I think we just kind of agreed to it mutually," Kosiba said. "Usually (Joe) will start on something, and I'll just pull (Conner) over and word it in a different way."

Though the arrangement hasn't been bereft of awkward moments, the results attest to its success. Conner, averaging 4.2 points and a team-high 5.1 assists, has evolved into an efficient caretaker of Tampa Prep's offense.

"Cory's the one who really coaches Conner," said Cindy, who watches each Terps game alone, on the bottom row of bleachers on the left-hand side.

"Somehow my daughter (Mychael, a 19-year-old FSU student) is the tough one and Conner's the sensitive one. So Cory's the one who really has to make the corrections and suggestions and that sort of thing. (Joe and Conner) have a great relationship, and I never wanted to put a damper on that, if you will."

Instead, they hope to put an exclamation point on it, starting today.

"I think this is the happiest Joe's ever been," Cindy said.

"It's been fun. It's bittersweet," Joe added. "But the thing that's amazing is, I think having him around has made me a better coach, because I see the game in a whole different light."

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@sptimes.com.