Matt Bradshaw has admired Nichols School basketball since he was a kid. As a starter on Lewiston-Porter’s great teams of the mid-1980s, battling against the Torgalski brothers and Christian Laettner, he developed an abiding, competitive respect for the private school in North Buffalo.
Bradshaw spent more than 40 years around Lew-Port hoops, if you count his time as a ball boy for his step-dad, the legendary Jim Walker. He coached there for 30 years, the last 22 as head man after taking over for Walker. He was a fixture, like the lights and bleachers in the gym.
But like any ambitious coach, he aspired for a new challenge. He never lost his fondness for Nichols, and he longed to try his hand in the best high school basketball league in the area, the Monsignor Martin Association. He thought about going twice, but it didn’t work out.
“I wasn’t ready the first time,” Bradshaw said Monday in his office at Nichols. “That was about 13 or 14 years ago. Second time, I interviewed, then I heard Roddy Gayle was coming to Lew-Port so I backed out of it.”
Gayle was one of the best prospects this area had seen since Laettner. How could Bradshaw leave? In 2019, with Gayle as a freshman, Lew-Port won its first NFL title since Bradshaw played in ’85 and its first sectional crown since 1978. A year later, the pandemic hit. With the local high school season in jeopardy, Gayle transferred to a prep school in Utah for his junior year.
A year later, Bradshaw was ready to leave, too. Joe Mihalics had stepped down as Nichols head coach after three seasons — the last two in which the Vikings went a combined 10-31. Nichols was the one place he would leave for after more than 40 years around Lew-Port hoops.
“This time, I was going to kick the door down and make sure I got the opportunity,” said Bradshaw, 53. “It was time.”
Nichols felt the same way. Rob Stewart, the long-time athletic director at Nichols, hired him as head coach this past May.
Bradshaw relished the challenge of rebuilding a power at Nichols, which won five state championships between 1986-2010. It was the best league, a school with strong academics. He was confident he could win there. It would help, of course, that he brought guard Jalen Duff, one of the top players in the area, with him from Lew-Port.
Still, it’s always tough to begin anew with different players, to rebuild a stagnant program. Bradshaw got advice from his good friend and former Lew-Port teammate Dave Clawson, who has been the head football coach at Wake Forest for eight years and revived several struggling programs on the way to college football’s highest level.
“We talk all the time,” Clawson said from his car while on a recruiting trip in Washington, D.C. “I told him, it’s more important in the first year to establish the culture and the work ethic and the priorities of the program, and not to be fixated on the win-loss record. If you focus more on the process and the culture and what you want, Nichols basketball to be known for, the wins will follow.”
Clawson said there are three types of coaches: Those who enjoy it, those who love it, and those who live it. It becomes part of their soul, an obsession. It’s who they are. Bradshaw is one of those guys who live it.
Living for the game is one thing. But just as he was getting started, Bradshaw got some news that had him worried about living, period. In September, he found out he was suffering from thyroid cancer.
He had medullary thyroid cancer, a rare form of the disease. That was jarring enough. A few weeks later, he began having chest pains. Imagine that, discovering you have cancer and a bad heart in a month’s time.
“They were originally going to get to the cancer in November and then the heart after that,” Bradshaw said. “They tried to give me some heart medication to get me through the cancer surgery, but it wasn’t happening.
“So, they flip-flopped them. They put the stents in first, in early November and then went in and took the cancer around a week before Christmas.”
Up until the cancer operation, he kept coaching. How could he abandon the kids in his first year at Nichols? They started out 4-0, averaging 88 points a game. Things were going much better than he could have imagined on the court.
Bradshaw had to miss two games in mid-December for the cancer surgery. He has a solid assistant in Jody Crymes, the former LaSalle star. But the Vikings lost both without him, to Tapestry and Canisius.
“I was in the hospital for a week,” he said. “I had tubes coming out of me. The idiot that I am, I’ve never really sat down and healed from this procedure. As much as I look rejuvenated, I’m shot right now.”
He came back after the New Year and Nichols won four in a row over nine days in early January, all in the league. The last two, against Timon and O’Hara, were in overtime. So, at that point they were 8-0 with Bradshaw and 0-2 without him. They’re now 9-4.
“If you would have told me before the season started we’d be 4-2 and second place in the Monsignor Martin league, I would have looked at you cross-eyed,” Bradshaw said. “I didn’t expect it so soon.”
The players have taken to his wide-open style. Sophomore Jakye Rainey has been a revelation, averaging 27 points a game. Duff, who led the NFL in scoring last season, has been equally dynamic as a junior, averaging 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
Bradshaw said Duff has lifted the players around him. He said senior guard Makai Horton has raised his game, averaging 13 points and playing with new-found confidence in his shot.
“Coming in, I thought we were going to be getting used to each other,” Horton said. “I didn’t know it would come to this. I didn’t expect all this to come so far, to be this good and jell so fast. It was definitely hard work. We’ve been in the gym every day since he came.”
Bradshaw admits he pushed himself too hard through his illness. But how could he feel sorry for himself and take it slow when he was asking his players to put in the extra work? He told his seniors this season would be their legacy, the revival of a great program.
“I’ve always believed sports is a mirror of life,” Bradshaw said. “I rely on all the things I learned playing sports. You have adversity, you work harder, you have ups and downs, the ebbs and flows. All that stuff you learn in sports that you don’t learn in the classroom. I’ve always believed that every kid should play a sport because of the life lessons it teaches.”
He said the prognosis was good. They caught it early, which is vital with medullary thyroid cancer. The doctors told him on day before Christmas, which was a heck of an early holiday present.
Bradshaw said his players were a comfort. So were his “two beautiful daughters,” one a teacher, the other a nursing student.
“The Nichols community was phenomenal throughout all this,” he said. “They gave me a lot of well wishes, a lot of prayers, ‘we’re here for you, Coach. Do what you got to do.’”
The cancer and heart issues gave him perspective, as illness tends to do. When he told the players he had cancer, he told them not to take anything for granted. Life is precious.
“It was heartbreaking to find out,” Horton said. “I don’t want to lose him. I don’t want my teammates next year to lose him. He’s a great coach. We don’t want to let him down.”
Bradshaw felt he was letting the team down as he lay in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of him. He knows now that he came back too soon. Last Friday, after a home loss to St. Joe’s, he told the team he was crashing and would have to take the rest of the weekend off.
Clawson said he worries about his old friend. He said basketball is what sustains Bradshaw, that and the kids he coaches. Not being able to do the thing you love most makes a physical recovery that much harder.
“I do worry about him,” Clawson said. “They’re telling him to stay away. I don’t know if staying away is the best thing for him.”
But when he sat with the doctors last weekend, they asked what was more important, the rest of the basketball season or the rest of his life? The key word, of course, was ‘rest.’
“I was not resting, and I was not giving myself the adequate amount of time to heal from what I’d gone through,” said Bradshaw, who still teaches at Lew-Port and lives in North Buffalo. “The doctors did some lab work, nothing severe, but told me to shut it down for a little bit here and heal.”
He decided to step away for three weeks. After Monday’s practice, he left the team to more fully recuperate. His scheduled return will be Feb. 14, the day before the Vikings play at St. Joe’s.
“Valentine’s Day,” Bradshaw said. “You want to be here with your team when they go through the ups and downs. When we lose, more so than when we win, I want to be there to console the players. We’re not going to win all the rest of the games. We’ll lose a couple. I won’t be here for that. That really hurts.
“I am sad right now, because we’re starting something and I can’t be here for awhile to see it through. But there is a bright, bright future here.”
How could it not be, when the man is just getting started?
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.