Josh Czerski tried his best to keep composed, but a couple of tears leaked out and slowly rolled down his cheek.
The Parkville boys basketball coach, 33, excels with the X’s and O’s as the defending Baltimore County champion Knights are enjoying another sensational season with a 15-0 record. But, more importantly, he takes great pride in looking after his players on and off the court — a nurturing quality that comes from his mother, Nancy Czerski.
On this night in early December, however, after a season-opening home win, it’s his players who are making sure to care for him and his family. Over the summer, Nancy Czerski, who had fended off breast cancer a month before, died suddenly of natural causes. She was 61.
One of the team leaders, junior point guard Sincere Barfield, spoke to the family on the team’s behalf inside an otherwise quiet locker room, while other players handed out shirts the team now wears during warmups in a season dedicated to her. On the back, inside a big pink ribbon, are the initials “N.B.C” for Nancy Beck Czerski.
“It was a very great moment for the family, the team and Parkville,” said Barfield, who was honored to be the player chosen to speak in front of the coach’s father, Dave; Josh’s sister, Brooke Kerr; and his 3-year-old son, Daniel.
“With Coach and his family, knowing that they just lost a vital part of their family, I know it’s very easy to feel alone in those moments. What I said in the speech was we have all been through those moments of losing somebody that is very important to us, so we just wanted them to know that we are here for them no matter what, that we’re going to be strong together and do our best to be great examples.”
For Josh Czerski, the reminders of his mother are everywhere. When he looks at his son. The sunshine. Her smile in photos he cherishes. Her favorite color, teal blue.
On Jan. 11, shortly after waking up on a potential special game day, the seven-year coach looked at his calendar and came to a realization that inspired him. Should the Knights win later that day, he would be celebrating his 100th career victory on the six-month anniversary of his mom’s death. His team did its part with a decisive victory over Baltimore County foe Sparrows Point, coming two points shy of scoring 100.
“Looking at the calendar and realizing that, I got really emotional about it all through the day,” Czerski said. “You know six months and then on such a historic day as far as my professional career as a basketball coach, I think it was just kind of meant to be.”
A Towson Catholic and Penn State York basketball player and graduate, Czerski has always put family and friends first, though basketball hasn’t been far behind. While Nancy Czerski didn’t know all the ins and outs of basketball — she once cheered “Touchdown!” during one of his games as a player — she was always there supporting him and plenty proud.
Now, basketball is serving a greater purpose for Czerski as he navigates through a difficult time. His basketball family provides support. Practices and games — often with his son by his side — provide a sense of normalcy.
“It’s been real hard for Coach, so we’ve been trying to help him as best we can as a team,” junior guard Cayne Woodland said.
“For me, it’s had a real big impact because I know how it feels to lose somebody close to you and also knowing the strong relationship I have with my mom. So that really can’t be understood. I really can’t imagine how I would feel losing my mother, and it just makes me try to go even harder for Coach.”
The locker room was more raucous after Czerski’s milestone win earlier this month — he gladly accepted a cooler of water dumped over his head. He has been even more grateful for all the times his players have lifted him up.
“It’s been key, the team just being so supportive and simply checking in,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand how intuitive teenagers are and they can tell if I’m having a rough day when I first walk in, and just being with them gets me going. After my mom passed, they checked in on a consistent basis, and I think the average person wouldn’t think a teenager would be worried about that.”
Parkville is taking a similar path as last year’s team that won 24 straight games before falling to Prince George’s County power Eleanor Roosevelt in the Class 4A state semifinals. The No. 3 Knights are talented and deep, but, most of all, they are committed to taking the final two steps to bring home the program’s first state title.
“This has brought us closer together — makes us play more as one to get stuff done,” said Tre Worsley, a senior wing and glue player on defense. “It gave us an extra chip on our shoulder in that we’re doing this for Coach and his mom. When Sincere spoke those words, it was just a lot of emotion and it was good to get that out, especially around a group of people you trust and love. That was good because, yeah, Coach, he means a lot.”
At a recent early-morning Saturday practice, the Knights were grinding, as Coach Czerski and his staff shared their knowledge while his son was having fun with his own whistle. It’s apparent that Czerski and the Knights have already won big.
“This is our seventh year here and we’ve established that culture of being a family and that turns over into winning and success,” Czerski said. “And not only winning on the court, but winning in life and being able to be there for each other and instilling the right principles so they can be successful young men. It’s all been a ton of support.”