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Oliver Ames boys’ basketball coach Don Byron dies of cancer at age 68

Don Byron, shown in 2009, coached boys' basketball at Oliver Ames High for 13 seasons.
Don Byron, shown in 2009, coached boys' basketball at Oliver Ames High for 13 seasons.Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Don Byron, who led the Oliver Ames boys’ basketball team to the Hockomock League Davenport Division title during the abbreviated 2020-21 season, died Saturday after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 68 and is survived by his wife, Christine, and children Michael and Jennifer.

A star player himself at Watertown High and Westfield State, Byron went on to coach boys’ high school basketball at Mansfield, Walpole, Abington, and Oliver Ames, and was inducted into the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018.

Byron was a gym rat and his fearless style of play was reflected by his teams throughout his coaching tenure.

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“Whether he was coaching or playing, he couldn’t be in the gym enough,” said Cardinal Spellman coach Mike Perry, who was Byron’s teammate at Westfield State. “His kids all played the same way as him. He always had kids who could shoot the ball and they were real go-getters. You could tell they had the confidence they got from him. They played the same way.”

Even as his health worsened this winter during the pandemic, Byron continued coaching his 13th season at Oliver Ames.

“He insisted that he would not step away from coaching for his battle with cancer,” said Oliver Ames athletic director Bill Matthews. “One of the grittiest people I have ever met. He was also one of the most passionate coaches I have ever met. He loved the game. Respected and loved by his players, opposing coaches, officials, and all of us who had the opportunity to work with him. He was special.”

A 1970 graduate of Watertown High, Byron starred for the Raiders before helping Westfield State to its first ECAC Tournament appearance.

He started coaching at Watertown High as an assistant under John Myers, and then took the varsity girls position at Mansfield for one season. After five years as the junior varsity boys coach at Mansfield, Byron became the boys varsity coach for six seasons and continued his coaching career at Walpole (eight years), Abington (13 years), and Oliver Ames.

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Byron recorded more than 400 wins as a head coach and during the 2008-09 season, his Abington team rattled off 23 consecutive wins before falling to Watertown in the state semifinals at TD Garden.

“He was always there for you and never turned anyone away,” said Perry. “He really had a heart of gold. Always in a good frame of mind and laughing.”

Oliver Ames girls’ basketball coach Laney Clement-Holbrook formed a close relationship with Byron and the two often chatted about Xs and Os and shared coaching ideas.

Clement-Holbrook called Byron a fighter for coaching this season, saying “he was going to keep going, he was not going to walk away.”

She often worried about Byron throughout the season and that his immune system was being compromised.

“I’d yell, ‘Hey Donnie, pull your mask up’ ... just to be safe,” said Clement-Holbrook, who has the most wins by a girls’ basketball coach in state history. “As unique a season as it was, I am so grateful that he was able to win the Hock in his last season. He lived for the game.”

Clement-Holbrook fondly recalled postgame gatherings at Maguire’s Bar and Grill in Easton — Byron and his staff at one table, Clement-Holbrook at another with the girls’ coaches — swapping ideas in a cooperative effort.

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When both Oliver Ames basketball teams won Hockomock titles this season, Clement-Holbrook made a request to Matthews: when ordering the banners, could a heart could be placed in the spot for the ‘0’ in 2020-21, to represent all those who contributed during the pandemic.

Now that heart carries new meaning.

In the past week, the Oliver Ames players delivered the banner to the ailing Byron at his home.

Oliver Ames players delivered the championship banner from their 2021 Hockomock League championship to the home of coach Don Byron (front), who was battling cancer.
Oliver Ames players delivered the championship banner from their 2021 Hockomock League championship to the home of coach Don Byron (front), who was battling cancer.Oliver Ames High

Byron taught eighth-grade math in Mansfield for 35 years and was a devoted family man.

His son, Michael, was an 1,000-point scorer at Oliver Ames (one year before Byron arrived) and played in college at WPI. He now works as engineer and assisted his father on the Tigers’ staff this season. His daughter, Jennifer, played for Clement-Holbrook on the Tigers’ 2010 state championship team and attended Boston College. She is a teacher in the Framingham school system.

“His family was first,” said Perry. “He was there for his kids at all their games and Chris would always come to the OA games. It was just a nice basketball family he had. Everybody was involved in everybody’s life. It was a nice family situation and you hope every family could be like his was.”

Visiting hours will be from 4 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday at Kraw-Kornack Funeral Home in Norwood and a funeral mass is at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Catherine’s Church in Norwood.

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Craig Larson of the Globe staff also contributed to this story.