Greg Herenda refused to die in Texas.
Two blood clots and a high fever would not kill him. The basketball lifer just told himself that he had to get back to his team.
The 15 days he spent in a San Antonio hospital – including eight in intensive care – are now just a part of his story, not the end. It will continue Tuesday when Herenda leads Fairleigh Dickinson back into the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to believe that he’s off to Dayton, less than a year after having a serious medical condition.
“I was in a bed, I was in a wheelchair, a walker, a cane,” Herenda said. “And now we’re dancing.”
As Herenda danced through Rothman Center on Sunday afternoon, hours before hearing his team’s First Four matchup with Prairie View, there isn’t much of a trace of what he endured. There are only the team warmup shirts with “Family” written out in big letters. It’s a common word used by players, but more than a hollow catchphrase for the Knights.
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They had to watch Herenda battle to get through the day-to-day job of running a Division I basketball team. And they rallied around their sixth-year coach, whose raspy voice and boundless enthusiasm make him a natural.
“Everybody knows he’s crazy on the sideline, but I love him to death,” senior forward Mike Holloway Jr. said. “He’s pushed me since Day 1.”
Herenda’s health scare began last spring on a trip to the Final Four. He was taking a walk with his son Trey and felt like he couldn’t continue. He was then sent to the emergency room and admitted almost 2,000 miles from home. Friends tried to text him, but the wave of messages went unanswered.
“I just thought of my team in a TV timeout,” Herenda said. “Every time I talk to them about getting back and working hard and chipping away at it. That’s how I got out of this.”
The transition back to basketball wasn’t easy for Herenda.
There was a game against Providence when he needed Darius Stokes, the director of basketball operations, to hold him up during the National Anthem. Herenda often felt weakest when standing still. He said it was hard for the team to watch him use a cane, and compared it to a child seeing a parent cry.
“It was practice one and I’m like, where’s coach?” said Holloway Jr., who averages 12.5 points per game.
“He would die to be out there on the floor with us. That honestly motivated me as a player. Coach doesn’t even know that. He motivated me with him going down because I love that guy.”
College basketball has taken Herenda around the country, but his story starts and remains in New Jersey. A native of North Bergen, Herenda played at St. Peter’s Prep and briefly worked for Seton Hall during a 22-year run as an assistant coach. He worked at eight schools in six states – even landing at a community college in Illinois – before getting the job in Hackensack.
Fairleigh Dickinson was at a low point when Herenda took over. The Knights had lost their last 15 games under the previous regime and went seven years without a winning record.
There were modest gains in his first few years, then a big jump in 2016 when the program reached the NCAA Tournament. It returns this season after going 20-13 and beating St. Francis (Pa.) in the Northeast Conference final. This is only the second time the team has made two NCAA trips in a four-year window.
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“To be in this position now, I really owe that to (Herenda),” said junior forward Kaleb Bishop. “We dedicated that to him because he’s the one that got us here.”
Herenda likes to do a two-minute drill where his team has to take 50 threes and hit at least 30. The Knights made 31 on both tries at Sunday’s open practice, and their coach beamed with pride. He explains to the crowd that a passing score should translate to over 40 percent in a game environment. The Knights happen to be one of five teams above that mark this season.
“Not in Bergen County,” Herenda said, after getting a subdued applause. “In America.”
Fairleigh Dickinson could be a matchup problem because of its balanced offense. Five players average at least 10 points per game, and any of them can be the leading scorer on a given night. It could be versatile guard Jahlil Jenkins or senior Darnell Edge, who was hot in the Northeast Conference tournament.
If the Knights advance, it would be the first NCAA Tournament win in program history and set up a date with top-ranked Gonzaga. Herenda knows the challenges that would present, but reminded his team that Maryland-Baltimore County shocked the world last year as a No. 16 seed.
For now, he is just grateful to worry about his team instead of his health.
“It’s amazing,” Herenda said. “It’s not real. It’s like it couldn’t happen. It would be a fantasy book, a fiction, if someone were to write it. But I’ve lived it and I’m cherishing this moment.”
“I just told my wife that I didn’t want to die in Texas. And guess what? This is the reason I didn’t want to die in Texas.”