It’s not as if Darren Fenn was hanging around at the end, playing out the string and collecting a paycheck. Far from it. In the 2014-15 season, Fenn averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds a game for Wurtzburg, Germany, in the European ProA basketball league.
Fenn had played 14 seasons and found a niche as a modern, versatile big man at the top levels of European hoops. At 6-10, he could take smaller men into the post or venture out to the arc and knock down threes. At 35, he still had plenty of game.
But the Buffalo native figured it was time to come home, and to move on to the next phase of his life. Fenn had studied biology at Canisius College, where he starred for four years, but only recently had he given much thought to a career after basketball.
“I didn’t know,” Fenn said with a laugh. “That’s probably why I played 14 years. There’s not much you could do with a biology degree at that age. Coaching and training were in my mind. Going into the business world was in my mind. So it kind of became a hybrid between the two.”
Fenn wanted to coach basketball players for a living. In a sense, he had been preparing for his entire career. During all those years as a pro, in Germany and Japan and Russia and spots in-between, he had studied the game. He had taken mental notes and jotted them down on paper, too.
Over the last couple of years, he had been working with young players, both in Europe and while back home in Buffalo. Before his final pro season, in the summer of 2014, his former college coach Mike MacDonald asked Fenn if he’d work out a struggling young big man who was hoping to play in college: His son.
Patrick MacDonald had been a bench player at Canisius High, which dominated the Catholic league at the time. His older brother Matt was a star on those teams. Pat never scored 10 points in a high school game.
But that year, after working out with Fenn over the summer, Patrick blossomed as a player at SUNY Maritime. He started as a freshman in ’14-15, then made all-conference his last three years at Division III Maritime, where he finished with over 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Not bad for a high school bench-warmer.
“Darren was great with him,” said Mike MacDonald, now the head man at Daemen. “He gave him confidence. I think he fostered Pat’s love for the game.”
Of course, confidence comes with skill, and Fenn knew all about playing as a center. He taught Patrick, who was 6-8, how to be a more versatile offensive player. Patrick watched old films of Fenn’s career to see how Fenn had widened his basketball repertoire over the years.
“It was really special for me to see a big guy from Buffalo play at that level,” Patrick said. “When I started to see the results from what we were doing, that built confidence naturally. Every time I worked out with him, there was something I was doing really well.”
Today, they joke that Patrick was the first one, Darren’s first big project. Seeing Patrick improve helped confirm to Fenn that training players was his future. So after that 2014-15 season in Germany, he moved home for good with his wife, Kimberly, an Orchard Park native, and two girls (now 15 and 11). They also have a 4-month-old son.
Fenn threw himself into basketball coaching when he retired. He was head coach at the Nichols School for a year, then took a job as director of basketball operations at St. Mary’s — which became the headquarters of his Premier Basketball Training business for a time.
Training hoop players was his true calling. Eventually, Fenn changed the company name to XGen Elite. About two years ago, he and a partner bought an indoor floor hockey facility on Mineral Springs Road in West Seneca and turned it into the XGen Elite Sports Complex.
The complex has three courts, an upstairs weight room and meeting and mezzanine lounge areas for players and their families. Fenn and a staff of five operate a busy basketball gathering place, which he describes as unique in the area. They train players and run tournaments and house leagues for all ages.
“In normal times, hundreds of kids and adults flow through here on a weekly basis,” Fenn said last week at XGen. “Tournaments are great, because every court’s running on the hour. Seventy or 80 people hang out up here (in the mezzanine area). Teams are going morning, noon and night. Everybody’s into it. It’s loud, it’s hot, it’s a lot of fun!”
Of course, that’s in “normal times.” Nothing has been normal since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, near the end of the basketball season. Things have been severely restricted at XGen Elite since then. This month, Fenn would have run a November tourney for the fourth year in a row.
“We were really hitting our stride in March,” Fenn said. “Things were looking great and everything came to a grinding halt. I can’t wait for some sense of normalcy, so we can get back to playing basketball. I know a lot of our kids can’t wait, either. They want to be in the gym and playing.
“We’re very Limited by anything with contact. We’re not running scrimmages or five-on-five. Everything is socially distanced training.”
The pandemic allowed Fenn to spend more time with a special pupil — fellow Buffalo native Jordan Nwora. For the last six months, Nwora has been working with Fenn at XGen. Nick MacDonald (Pat’s brother), who plays at Niagara, also worked out with them over the summer.
Last week, Nwora was drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks., becoming the first Buffalo native drafted in 10 years He didn’t know what to expect at first, but realized he was becoming a more polished prospect under Fenn’s tutelage. He began coming to the gym every day.
“He has the experience,” Nwora said. “He played overseas and was a great college player, too, and he pushes me every day. There’s things he knows I don’t want to do, but he pushes me and makes me better every time I come in here. That’s what I needed.
“I think I’m getting stronger. My ballhandling has definitely grown a bunch. I think I’ve gotten quicker, so I’ll be able to defend better. I think my all-around game has gotten a lot better.”
Both MacDonald and Nwora profited from Fenn’s wide array of hoop knowledge. He grew up as a center in the post, then gravitated out to the three-point line during his career overseas. Most of all, playing in Europe exposed him to many styles and philosophies of basketball.
The big misconception, Fenn says, is that there’s a singular “European” style of hoops, distinctive from its American cousin.
“I don’t think people realize,” Fenn said. “When players come here to the NBA from Europe, they’re lumped together as European. But the game is played completely differently in different countries.
“France plays a completely different game from Greece or Germany. France is super athletic. Greece is very physical. So there’s all different styles and schools of basketball within those countries. It’s amazing how different the game is played at times and how many variations there are.
“This one little game, with 10 people and a ball and two hoops, there’s a million different ways to play it. It’s a very creative game.”
One notable change over the last 25 years or so is the advent of the versatile big man who shoots from the perimeter. Fenn doesn’t know if he was ever true NBA material, but his game would translate better today. He might have had a shot.
He picked the brains of a lot of coaches when he was a pro, including Dirk Bauermann, who coached Fenn in Germany — and also coached the German national team — and was the first coach to give Darren the freedom to shoot three-pointers in a regular basis.
Fenn realizes he was preparing to be a coach and trainer along the way. He says it was his minor in psychology that wound up being more useful than his biology degree. He long ago gave up the dream of being a doctor. Nowadays, he operates on young people’s games.
There’s a mental side, of course. Any good teacher allows students to discover the possibilities that lie inside them. That’s what Fenn did as a player. Life was an ongoing discovery and he never stopped learning — while seeing the world with his family.
Patrick MacDonald looks back and realizes that Fenn saw the untapped possibilities in an underachieving Buffalo kid a few years ago.
“Hundred percent,” MacDonald said. “I remember him playing for my dad when I was 3 or year years old. When I was 19, 20, 21, home for summers, I’d look up videos of him playing in college and overseas. It was a huge inspiration and source of confidence, seeing someone like him could do it.”
“I think getting that confidence on the court carried over to the rest of my life. It’s a big part of the reason for where I am right now in my career.”
MacDonald got his commission in the US Navy and is currently training to operate nuclear-powered aircraft carriers after two years learning to navigate a naval vessel in San Diego.
“It’s a lot different from basketball,” he said. “But just like being an athlete it requires a great amount of patience and confidence, the same stuff you do day after day as an athlete, getting yourself better and getting the team better. It carries directly over.”
That’s what any good teacher longs to hear, that the lessons sank in and that in life, the education is ongoing. Fenn is 40 now, and it must seem like the mission has only just begun..