On their second date, in September 1964, Joan Foley was “shell-shocked” when her future husband, Bob, told her he wanted to introduce her to his kids.
It was going so well, and she couldn’t believe he dropped the bomb that he had a family. Joan, then a senior at Holy Cross, didn’t want to be rude, so she didn’t pry. At 21, Bob Foley was the boys’ basketball coach at Uxbridge High, and Joan was extremely relieved when they arrived at the gym and she realized what Bob meant by “my kids.”
“I thought he was married, but I found out he was talking about his basketball team,” Joan said. “They become your kids.”
His players were a little wary at first — that an Uxbridge girl would take their beloved coach away —but in fact, it became just the opposite. Bob, who has coached basketball for 59 years and is currently in his 41st year at St. John’s in Shrewsbury, is the winningest coach in New England high school history with 956 victories. Joan, who knew nothing about basketball when they met, has been by his side keeping the book the last four decades. She considers herself “the luckiest person in the world.”
On top of the basketball families they’ve created through Bob’s teams, they’ve also formed their own true basketball family — this one with two kids and seven grandkids. Basketball is life for the Foleys, and the tradition has extended to granddaughters Emma and Olivia Foley, who have helped the Newburyport girls’ basketball team jump out to an 8-0 start this year.
Emma, now a junior, and Olivia, a freshman, still vividly remember traveling to both the Assumption and Worcester Polytechnic Institute gyms as toddlers to watch their grandfather coach. They continued to make the trip over the years and have cherished the chance to see him in his element.
“He’s really stern,” Emma said with a grin. “It’s funny, because around us he’s really nice and soft, but when he gets in the game, he’s yelling at people and standing there on the sideline always with his arms crossed. We joke about it as a family.”
Both grandparents helped them realize that in order to get the full experience on a team, the players and coaches have to feel like a family. Fortunately for the grandkids, one of those connections this season is already built in and is blossoming naturally.
Emma (a team-high 16.5 points and 12 rebounds per game), has established herself as one of the best players in the Cape Ann League. Olivia, who has a slight height advantage over Emma, has earned playing time in year one. Both their grandfather and their father, Sean, have been there to give them pointers, but they’ve let them discover the beauty of the sport organically.
“From a young age, they’ve always encouraged us to play, but we’ve always loved it,” Olivia said.
Just like Bob and Sean — both of whom played at Holy Cross — Emma and Olivia rely heavily on the spin dribble to the middle and the jump hook. Even when opponents know it’s coming, it’s difficult to stop.
“My cousin does it, my dad did it, we do it, my grandpa did it. Everyone,” Emma said.
Newburyport coach Karen Grutchfield paints Emma as “the alpha” and someone her sister looks up to figuratively and down to literally. Emma’s clearly in charge, but they giggle a lot and complement each other well on the court.
Much like her father, Emma attacks the rim and finishes inside. Her grandfather always preferred hearty players who crashed the glass and hustled over flashy scorers, and Emma embodies that mind-set while also putting the ball in the hoop.
“I think they’re very much impacted by the success and the history of their grandfather and grandmother,” Grutchfield said.
Another wrinkle: Karen’s father, the late Doug Grutchfield, coached at Fitchburg High for decades and had countless battles with St. John’s. Karen attended Holy Cross and often made the short drive to watch. Her brother, Kevin Grutchfield, is currently the coach at Leominster High.
“I think it’s so unreal that we have this shared history, and it’s just by happenstance that we ended up in Newburyport together and we have this connection,” Karen Grutchfield said. “It’s six degrees of separation, and it’s serendipitous.”
With their shared history in mind, Emma proudly sports a decades-old St. John’s varsity jacket to school, and they’re all equally thrilled whenever Bob and Joan can catch a game in person. Bob typically takes off the coach hat and puts on the grandpa hat, and he’ll only provide his two cents when he feels it benefits his grandkids.
“I try to stay out of it as much as I can,” said Bob, who at 80, was back on the bench Tuesday night against Catholic Conference rival Xaverian after a 12-day absence because of a COVID breakthrough. “I just watch the game. If I see one thing that they could do better, in a nice quiet way I say it to them after the game.”
Basketball is all the Foleys know, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. At family gatherings, Emma said her father and grandfather spend more than half the time talking hoops. It all started watching Bob’s high school games, and now Emma and Olivia are carving out their own basketball legacy.
Said Sean: “The kids watched that, and I think they thought to themselves, ‘Maybe that could be me someday.’ It’s kind of turned out that way.”
▪ Reading senior Jackie Malley set a program record Friday with her 179th career 3-pointer. The 5-foot-8 guard, now at 182, is averaging 23.8 points per game for the 8-3 Rockets.
“I don’t know if Jackie knew; she seemed pretty surprised after the game,” coach Kara Melillo said. “But it’s definitely a huge accomplishment.”
Malley plans to continue her basketball career at St. Lawrence. She’s become much more than a sharpshooter for Reading, developing as a player who can attack the basket and bring a strong defensive presence.
“She’s a well-balanced player right now, which I think has just helped to elevate her game even more,” Melillo said. “But certainly, 3-point shooting has definitely been her strength.”
▪ The Globe released its first unofficial MIAA Power Rankings Friday and will update the the numbers online each morning. As of Wednesday, the division leaders are: Franklin (D1), Norwood (D2), Medway (D3), Cathedral (D4), and Hoosac Valley (D5).
▪ Bishop Fenwick senior Olivia Found eclipsed 1,000 career points Friday in the Panthers’ 74-29 win over Beverly.
▪ Norton senior captain Mikayler Patch announced she’ll play basketball at Elms College.
Games to watch
Friday, Andover at Chelmsford, 6:30 p.m. — There are no nights off in the Merrimack Valley Conference, with Andover (7-0) and Chelmsford (7-2) set to clash.
Friday, Hingham at Whitman-Hanson, 6:30 p.m. — The 10-0 Panthers meet their toughest challenge to date in a Patriot League showdown with the 8-1 Harborwomen.
Monday, Norwood at Bridgewater-Raynham, 6:30 p.m. — Norwood’s Meg Olbrys and Bridgewater Raynham’s Natalia Hall-Rose are two of the top forwards in the region.
Tuesday, Bishop Feehan at St. Mary’s, 6:30 p.m. — The Shamrocks lost their first game this week, but can make up for it in a big way if they strike a blow to the second-ranked Spartans.
Tuesday, Norwell at Rockland, 6:30 p.m. — The South Shore League powers feature another exciting matchup of forwards between junior Grace Oliver (Norwell) and senior Julia Elie (Rockland).
Trevor Hass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.