Joe Licata had the idea before he ever had the job. One day in March of 2017, he was scrimmaging against the Olmsted High basketball team with a group of former area stars.
One of the players on Licata’s team was Jason Rowe, the former Traditional and Loyola of Maryland star who had gone on to a 15-year professional career in Europe. Rowe still had a lot of game for a guy pushing 40. But it was his mind for the game that struck Licata most.
“Throughout the game, Jason kept stopping the game and explaining how he saw certain things,” Licata said. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘Man, this guy would be a great basketball coach.’ ”
That July, Licata was hired by Bishop Timon-St. Jude as its athletic director and head football coach. On the day he took over, he found out he would be needing a new hoop coach. Des Randall called to inform him he would be leaving his post.
Licata immediately thought of Jason Rowe. People told him Rowe wouldn’t likely be interested. He wasn’t the coaching type. But Licata brought him in, walked him through the hallways and the gym, and told him they could do some special things at the school in South Buffalo.
Rowe said he’d think about it. That night, he called his old friend, Ka’Ron Barnes, who had played one year with him on a pro team in Toulon, France. He said Timon had offered him the coaching job.
“Why are you on the phone with me?” said Barnes, who starred at Turner/Carroll and later at Cornell. “Call them now and accept it.”
Barnes, who had done some assistant coaching after a brief pro career, told Rowe he would regret it one day if he didn’t give the Timon gig a shot. He had been looking up to Jason for years and knew, deep down, that he had the makings of a successful hoop coach.
Rowe wasn’t so sure.
“I had no intention of being a coach,” he said. “It just didn’t interest me. Nothing bad, I didn’t like the emotion involved with being a coach. All the coaches I played for, I didn’t like seeing the ups and downs. One minute you’re happy, one minute you’re sad.”
But he loved the game, and he had done some skills training on the side. Rowe had turned down coaching offers in the past. The Timon offered seemed right. Licata’s pitch had touched some part of his competitive soul. He accepted the job a few days later.
Licata and Barnes were right. Rowe was born for the job of basketball coach. It didn’t happen right away, but Rowe immersed himself in his new role. He soon realized that coaching was meant for him. He absolutely loved helping kids get better.
“It didn’t take long at all,” he said. “Two, maybe three months. I found myself doing things that were organic and natural, things I had done as a player. I studied film and got frustrated with losses. I tried to get better during the wins. I found myself in that same mold and emotionally being tied and locked into it. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it,’ ”
With the help of his younger brother and assistant coach, Jeremy, he has restored Timon to basketball prominence. Ron Bertovich, the school’s director of operations, has vivid memories of a night at Potter’s Field, a South Buffalo tavern, after a big win late in Rowe’s first season.
“It’s a Timon bar,” said Bertovich, who has been a Sabres vice president, GM of the Empire Sports Network and commissioner of three college sports leagues during his distinguished career.
“On one of the walls, there’s a shadow box, a frame with a basketball net in it. It says, ‘Bishop Timon, Monsignor Martin Champions.’ Maybe from the Seventies. He goes in, looks at it and says, ‘I want one of those.’ ”
Early last March, he got one of those. Bishop Timon-St. Jude beat Cardinals O’Hara, 74-66, at the Koessler Center to win the win the Manhattan Cup Class B championship, ending a 19-year Monsignor Martin title drought.
Rowe walked off the court with Jeremy. He was in tears. He remembered growing up in the neighborhood near Canisius, walking to the store with his mom. He thought about his infant daughter, his days in high school at Traditional.
“It was awesome,” Rowe said. “The kids were saying, ‘Coach, you said we could do it!’ That was a special moment. I was like, ‘They’re understanding, they’re understanding.’ ”
Bertovich walked into the jubilant locker room, reached into his back pocket and pulled out a basketball net. There hadn’t been any net-cutting that night, but someone he knew at Canisius had found one. Ron handed it to Rowe, who placed it around his own neck. Jason had it framed later.
“I want the kids to understand, to be part of history,” Rowe said. “Mr. Bertovich has heard me say this a million times — separate yourself. One of the things I try to teach and preach is team. Every year I say it. There’s 200-300 people every year who score 1,000 points. There’s only four or five teams that win a state championship.
“Which one do you want to be a part of?”
Sadly, the Tigers never got their chance. Salesian, their scheduled opponent in the state semifinals, was located in New Rochelle, which had the worst COVID-19 outbreak early in the pandemic. The game was postponed, then canceled when all sports were shut down.
The pandemic stretched into this school year, threatening the 2020-21 high school season. But finally, the shutdown was lifted. Timon picked up where it left off and will carry a 10-2 record in Tuesday’s Monsignor Martin quarterfinal against St. Mary’s.
Timon returned eight starters from last year’s Manhattan Cup champs, including tournament MVP Jamyier Patton, Kevin Thompson and Kamar Goudelock. The Tigers beat Canisius on Friday, avenging an earlier loss and earning a No. 2 seed in the tourney.
All the Monsignor Martin teams are in one bracket this season, so it’ll be a tougher road for Timon to win a second straight title. St. Joe’s is the No. 1 seed. The semifinals are Thursday and the final on Saturday. Rowe said his team is peaking and ready.
“That’s the name of the game,” Rowe said. “As long as you’re peaking during the playoffs when it matters the most. The guys are playing hard, they’re playing well. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.
“With a short season, it didn’t take us a long time to gel and understand each other. Everybody knew what I expected, I know the players. They know me. It helps, especially in a situation like this year when you’re not practicing as much.”
Rowe said the pandemic only strengthened his love for basketball. He’s always been a student of the game. Having less time on the court gave him more time to study, to feed his passion for watching film. He said he drives his brother nuts, calling him at all hours of the day with schemes to make the team better.
“I do what I love,” he said, “and if I don’t enjoy it, I won’t do it. And I love coaching. I really do. I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it. I’m happy Coach Licata and Timon gave me the opportunity to do it. I found a new love in coaching and reaching these kids this way.”
The players are too young to remember Rowe as a player. He’s as good a point guard as ever played in Buffalo. He wasn’t drafted after his college career in 2000, but he played against some of the best in his long pro career and could have played in the NBA if things fell right.
He has no regrets.
“No, I played 15 years,” he said. “Eleven countries. No regrets. I had a great career and was fortunate enough to travel the world. I don’t regret a thing. It’s a blessing. I had a great time. To say I wish I would have been in the NBA, in my head it takes away from the fortunate 15-year career I did have.
“I had a couple workouts. I had one with Washington, one with Cleveland. I didn’t make it. But again, I played 15 years. There’s a lot of people who can’t say they did 15 years of anything. So I’m OK with it.”
Kids don’t want to know how many countries you’ve visited. They want to know how you can make them better. Rowe said it’s about mutual respect and backing up his words with knowledge and commitment.
“I don’t see him as a coach as much as I see him as a teacher,” Bertovich said. “First of all, the kids really respect him. They might not know his career, but they listen to him. I love coaches who teach, and he teaches in a positive way all the time.
“He gets upset with the kids. We talk about it all the time, because kids are kids. But he’s always teaching. He just tries to make them better, and he shows them what’s out there. There’s a ring to play for.”
You play for rings, and for history, and to cut down the nets. Rowe has Timon doing special things again, and they’ll probably have to make more room on the walls before he’s through.