For the love of the game

Nick Solari

A young Mike Papale sat in a chair on the side of the court during his father’s annual summer basketball camp. Hours after working out with his younger brother John, Papale, who was heading into his senior season of high school at the time, experienced a shock in his body.

The 17-year-old felt his chest get heavy and his breath shorten. Before he could respond to what was happening he was on the ground. He had gone into cardiac arrest.

“Everything felt fine, I was just sitting down on the sidelines and before I knew it I kind of fell over on the ground,” Papale said.

Luckily, a volunteer EMT was working nearby and had gotten the 911 call over his pager. He rushed to the scene and gave Papale CPR for the next eight minutes, sustaining the young adult.

When the ambulance arrived, medics were able to shock Papale’s heart back into normal rhythm with a defibrillator, saving his life.

Papale would later have tests done, learning that he suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the very disease former Boston Celtics budding star Reggie Lewis died from in 1993 at only 27 years old.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, according to WebMD, is a disease that occurs when an abnormal heart rhythm interferes with the normal pumping of the heart, often causing a stroke, heart attack, or blocked blood flow to an extremity.

In a flash, Papale’s career as a basketball player was over.

“It’s hard when you’re an athlete, and your career just ends,” Papale said softly. “You don’t expect it to happen, so I wasn’t really ready for life without basketball.”

Fortunately, life without the game he had come to love didn’t last long.

Papale currently serves as director of basketball operations for the men’s basketball team at Quinnipiac, working internally with head coach Tom Moore and the Bobcats’ coaching staff.

It has been a long road to this current date, however. Papale began building his relationship with Moore during his freshman year at Quinnipiac back in 2007.

Papale was a physical therapy major, but longed to be around basketball once again. He had been advised to contact Moore, who had just landed the Quinnipiac job in March.

Moore heard from the head coach of the men’s basketball team at Trinity, Stan Ogrodnik. Ogrodnik highly recommended Papale to Moore, telling him that he was a special person.

As Papale remembers it, Moore responded to his email in a surprisingly fast manner.

“He got back to me the next day,” Papale said. “I was very surprised with how fast it was.”
Moore told Papale he could start working with the team in September, and from there he became a team manager.

Papale began doing “a little bit of everything,” as Moore put it. He was working in the mail room, sitting in on weight training sessions, and doing anything the coaching staff needed him to do.

“A manager’s job can be a thankless job,” Moore said. “You have to have a deep love of basketball want it to be a part of your future career. It can be very unflattering at times, and Mike handled everything with so much consistency and thoroughness that he really earned my trust at a young age.”

Moore said Papale’s trustworthiness stood out to him from the day he entered the locker room.

“A good test for a college student like Mike, at the time, is when you don’t have to follow up if you ask him to do something,” Moore said. “You can 100 percent trust that he will get it done, and always in an efficient manner.”

Papale spent the next four years devoting all his spare time to Moore’s basketball program. He had always loved college basketball, but was finally getting the chance to experience what it was like behind the scenes.

The best part, as he recalled, was sitting in on Moore’s practices. Those few hours a day helped fill the vacancy that his health issues had left.

“I got to be a part of a college practice,” he said with a smile. “It was filling the void that not playing basketball had left. I loved being around the game, no matter what form.”

Four years went by and it came time for the devoted student manager to graduate. Moore sat Papale down in his office and asked him what he wanted to do with his life.

Papale confidently told Moore he wanted to coach. Moore told the young man he had a bright future in the business, and could use the coach as a reference.

“It was good to hear that from him, it gave me confidence,” Papale said.

From that point on the young graduate began searching for a job. He applied around the Northeast at all levels: Divisions I, II and III.

Papale had a background of working with Moore, and had the former UConn assistant’s recommendation. He also had valuable experience coaching at the AAU level.

Papale coached players who would later commit to high-end Division I programs like Arizona and Ole Miss during his time just out of college. That time helped Papale make more recruiting connections with coaches and players, he said.

Then, a full-time opportunity came that would change Papale’s life. He was offered a job as an assistant coach at UMass-Lowell, a then-Division II program. Papale gained more valuable experience scouting, breaking down film and recruiting players at the college level.

It was all moving toward the most special opportunity.

In the fall of last year, a coveted position opened up at Quinnipiac. Jon Iati, Quinnipiac’s director of basketball operations at the time, had been offered a full-time job as an assistant at the University of Albany. This left a vacancy for Papale, who immediately jumped on the chance to reunite with Moore and come back to Quinnipiac.

“He [Moore] kind of knew I wanted the job if it opened, and fortunately it worked out,” Papale said. “I went in for an interview, and I landed the job.”

Moore pointed toward Papale’s time at UMass-Lowell as an important part of his development as a basketball mind.

“The time at UMass-Lowell was important for him to get a bit of coaching voice,” Moore said. “To get out and recruit, plan a practice, and actually be a coach for a couple years, it made him even more ready to come back here.”

Papale is now entering his second year as director of basketball operations for the Bobcats. Under Moore’s coaching staff, Papale reviews film, works interacting with recruits and helps on the court during practice among other things.

“It’s kind of the next step up from being an assistant manager, but the step below being an assistant coach,” Papale said. “I do a little bit of everything.”

Papale’s work doesn’t go unnoticed. One player, in particular, who appreciates the work Papale puts in is starting small forward Zaid Hearst. Playing in his junior year, Hearst says he has built a bond with Papale he doesn’t have with other coaches.

“He’s a guy you can come to talk to, he’s so young he’s like a player-coach,” Hearst said. “He knows so much about the game, and we can all go to him no matter what.”

Hearst said he has built a routine with Papale, one that helps him improve dayin and day out. After every game, the guard watches film with Papale, learning what he needs to improve moving forward.

“After every game I come to see him no matter what,” Hearst said. “He helps out a lot.”

Moore notices the work Papale puts in, and the way that he related to the players.

“There is a steadiness to his job performance, which is comforting,” Moore said. “He’s one of those people who I can trust and rely on to do their job, and do it well. He truly cares about making the team better every day.”

According to Papale, he’s just taking advantage of a unique situation that he is blessed to have.

“A lot of coaches don’t have the opportunity to come back to their alma-mater and coach,” Papale said. “You kind of have more of a passion for the school that you went to. It means more to you when you succeed.”

Going forward in his life, Papale has many different options. Moore says he can coach, go into administration or even business.

“He’s very bright, comes from a great family, has a great work ethic, is a very high-principled young man,” Moore said. “He has all the qualities of someone who would be a benefit to an organization. The future is very bright no matter which way he goes.”

Hearst thinks Papale will become a very good coach someday, but joked he hoped it wasn’t until well after the guard graduated from the university.

“He’s definitely going to become a coach. I hope it’s not soon, though, because I know Quinnipiac needs him,” Hearst said, laughing.

Still, Papale continues to work diligently and learn all he can under Moore and the other coaches on staff. All the while, he often thinks about the early days of his freshman year as a student manager, and how far he has come since those very moments.

“I have more pride in this program and this building than probably just about anybody. I want us to win more than anything,” Papale said. “I’m just here to try and get us to that next level, an NCAA Tournament.”