MONTVILLE — Stretching his legs from a rocking chair in his St. Thomas More office, Jere Quinn said he had allowed himself a small perk for an upcoming flight from Boston to San Francisco.
“I knew it would be a couple of extra bucks, but I need the exit seat, a little extension for my legs,” Quinn said. “I got to keep moving them. You can hear how stiff they get in seconds. I’m going to be an active passenger, which will probably drive some people nuts.”
This was Quinn’s first flight since spending 109 days in the hospital and rehabilitation facility with Guillain-Barre Syndrome that had virtually paralyzed his entire body for six weeks last spring.
Across from him in his office earlier this week stood his ankle-foot orthosis. Sneakers attached to the braces, AFOs ready when necessary to serve a coach in his 42nd year. A man who has coached the Chancellors in six different decades, winning more than 1,000 games, winning a national prep school title and for the second time, recently, nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Ahead of him was a Thursday flight with his son Matt to the West Coast, a Friday dinner with four of the six St. Thomas More players currently in the NBA, a game between the Warriors and Andre Drummond’s Pistons Saturday and a return home Sunday. Eric Paschall, Damion Lee and Omari Spellman all play on Golden State.
“I don’t know in the history of the game if there have ever been three kids from the same prep school on the same NBA team,” Quinn said.
On May 9, Jere Quinn awoke up in the middle of the night. Both his legs were asleep.
“Like any good wife, mine said, ‘Roll over and go back to bed,’ ” Quinn said.
He got up the following morning, worked out, felt OK, although his legs still had those pins and needles.
Within 24 hours, Quinn couldn’t walk.
“It went from A to Z rapidly,” Quinn said. “You hear the doctors in the emergency room mention Guillain-Barre. I went right on my phone. What is this stuff?
“You find out your immune system thinks you’re sick and you’re not. It attacks your nervous system by eating up all your myelin (insulation) around your nerves. It stops any communication with your body.”
The cause is unknown. Quinn does know this. The disease started at his toes and worked its way up. He was treated with intravenous immunoglobulins, but within two more days the only thing he could move was his head, neck and hands. He was hoisted in and out of bed.
“I was pretty much paralyzed, couldn’t raise my arms, couldn’t raise my legs,” Quinn said. “That was pretty much May and June. Toward the end of June, I started getting enough strength in my hands to use my phone and turn the (television) clicker on.”
From Backus Hospital in Norwich to Central Connecticut in New Britain to Gaylord in Wallingford to Yale New Haven and Aaron Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation in Chester, nearly four months in all.
“The nurses and the therapists were rock stars,” Quinn said. “It’s funny. I was wheeled into Central Connecticut and they asked if I was still at 107 Willow Street in New Britain.”
That was his college address in 1977 when he played at Central Connecticut State. That was a long time ago. Quinn took over at St. Thomas More in 1978 and turned the tiny, all-boys, rural Catholic school on Gardner Lake into one of the premier prep basketball powers. He has put nearly 400 players on college scholarships, including Christian Vital of UConn. Quinn had a lot of time to consider all this as he lay in bed day after day.
“You do research on Guillain-Barre, they always say there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” Quinn said. “Whether it’s 100 percent or 85 percent, there are no guarantees. I thought I’d be one of those guys in and out of the hospital in four weeks.”
“We always tell kids who have been injured to stay the process, stay positive, do your therapy,” Quinn said. “Set short- and long-term goals. Those were all things I had to do.”
When people came to visit, he tried to have the most energy in the room. Still, the first time they put a one-pound weight in his hand, it dropped to the ground.
“Needless to say, there are moments when you’re by yourself and you’re thinking, ‘What the heck?’ ” Quinn said. “But I always said I’m going to remain upbeat. I’m going to get through this.”
And so he did. He did his therapy. He’s still doing his therapy. The kids on the team stuck with him and he repeated a number of times how thankful he was. Quinn returned to campus in a wheelchair. He got his AFOs. When he doesn’t have to walk too far or stand too long, he is now going without any support.
“I’m 13-1 with those AFOs,” Quinn said. “I think the kids will be mad if I take them off. It’s interesting, you look at things differently when you’re in a wheelchair, a walker, a cane. You see the topography different. You reinvent how you live.”
In the school gym, one redone and refurbished with alumni donations led by Drummond — who insisted the court be named in Quinn’s honor — there are bars to hold. A few chairs are strategically placed. He limps. He crackles. He coaches.
“I told my kids if anyone is uncomfortable with me grabbing an arm or shoulder don’t stand next to me,” Quinn said. “They couldn’t have been more supportive.”
Quinn’s philosophy has always been to get out there and show players what he wanted. Without mobility, he used a chalkboard more. When the season started in early November he could only stand for a few minutes at a time. With the AFOs, he can stand now as long as he likes, although he jokes, “I clomp around.”
A few weeks ago, Quinn made his first free throw. His players got a charge out it. There was someone to stand behind him in case he fell.
“For years, I’d tell them I’m the best shooter in the gym,” Quinn said. “Life has changed a little.
“The one thing about coaching is you never think you age. When you work with young people you always have a tendency to remain young. With the handicap I have, my every intention is for it not to remain one.”
So he works out on his own and with a physical therapist two-three hours a day. Foot exercises, arm exercises. He has moved to the stationary bike and elliptical. He works on his balance. His goal is to get his walk all the way back. In the meantime, he uses it as a teaching tool for his players. These are the steps he needs to do to walk quicker than people expect. These are the steps you need to do to become a Division I player.
“Kids will always rise to the level of expectation you give them,” Quinn said. “Kids will always be more interested in how much you care than how much you know.
“St. Thomas More, in this world of college prep schools, we do things a little differently. We always have. I’ve never left the facility to recruit. We don’t offer scholarships like other programs. It still word of mouth and kids taking chances on themselves.”
In other words, he isn’t retiring.
“Oh, no, I haven’t even thought about it,” Quinn, 64, said. “When you’re lying in bed for four months, you’re thinking, ‘OK, do I need to do this?’ But when I get back, it’s so enjoyable. I just don’t think I’m ready to golf five days a week and go to Florida yet. I like golf. I like Florida. I love doing this, as long as the school will have me.
“My biggest reservation was if I couldn’t give the kids my best I shouldn’t be doing it. I don’t think I have given them my best yet.”
Quinn is being modest.
Charlie Brown of the Hawks and Yuta Watanabe of the Grizzlies also are former Chancellors in the NBA. There are four more in the G League. Although Drummond and Spellman are exceptions, Quinn ordinarily does not land the biggest names. He has developed hundreds of hard workers and disciplined young men.
“They all have stories about St. Thomas More and they’re pretty funny,” Quinn said. “Single-sex school, not a democracy, there will be study halls, they will be held accountable. And we’ll open the gym at 6:30 a.m. Let me tell you, the wind chill off that lake is something in the winter.”
So is the coach awaiting them in the gym.