DANBURY — Jackie DiNardo pulls out an aging folder and under the tab marked “basketball,” there are numbers.
Some are in blue ink. Some are in black. Some are whited out. On the other side, as the years and victories mount, there is an onslaught of red and black magic marker.
“I have had this piece of paper in my hand for 32 years,” DiNardo said. “I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I should rewrite it. It’s sloppy. It’s old.’ But I can’t throw it away. Too many memories.”
If the Danbury girls basketball team qualified for the state tournament, it is noted. If one of her girls made All-State, it’s there. And when the numbers are added, they will show DiNardo on the cusp of becoming the second female Connecticut coach to win 500 girls basketball games.
It could come Wednesday at home against Stamford (the game was postponed from Tuesday, due to weather). No. 499 arrived in the most dramatic fashion Friday. Susana Almeida hit a 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds left to lift the Hatters over Fairfield Warde in their annual Coaches vs. Cancer game to honor DiNardo’s late husband.
Please join us on Tuesday night, 7pm at Danbury HS as the Lady Hatters take on the Stamford Black Knights. The Lady Hatters are currently on an 11 game winning streak and their next win will be Coach Dinardo's 500th win. Let's pack the gym! pic.twitter.com/N58igGxF10
— Lady Hatters Basketball (@lady_hattersGB) January 28, 2019
When DiNardo was named National High School Coaches Association finalist last January, Warde coach Dave Danko brought flowers for Jackie to the game. He has the biggest heart, DiNardo said, and the friends love to exchange playful digs.
Almeida’s 3 dropped Danko to the floor and he just lay there. DiNardo is in mid-laugh at the memory when she is interrupted Monday. She is the principal of the REACH Alternative school in Danbury. These are at-risk kids.
“They say you save one, you’re doing your job, but I’ve got a lot more pride than only one,” DiNardo said. “We save more than we lose. We have kids who graduated, are parents and productive members of society. Once you get through all the gunk and knock some walls down, in most cases you find a pretty good kid.”
This is what Jackie DiNardo, one of the state’s coaching treasures, is all about. Yes, numbers count wins. They also count young lives touched.
“Bobby was about kids, too,” DiNardo said. “It’s why we hit it off so well.”
He was a member of the Danbury Police Department for 29 years, 20 as the community police officer at Broadview Middle School. He was a youth coach and, for 22 years he also assisted his wife. He was national DARE Officer of the Year.
“He was the guy who saw a kid getting made fun of and took him shopping for clothes to stop the taunting,” Jackie said.
Before any of that, Bobby had gone to live in Beaumont, Texas, looking to get his own life in order. He had moved back north after putting together an AAU tournament for post-college players when his boss asked him to return to run an event. Bobby was there to greet a pioneering women’s star named Jackie Swaim at the airport.
“I walk off the plane and I go, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” she said. “That’s a wannabe cowboy.”
Jackie’s team won the tournament. Afterward, her friend encouraged Jackie to dance with Bobby.
“We ended up talking the whole night,” Jackie said.
Jackie did a lot of traveling with USA Basketball. She went to Russia and China and South Korea. She went to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
“Through all that, I never saw the Statue of Liberty,” Jackie said.
Bobby invited her to New York. They crawled to the top of the Statue. As they made their way down, they stopped at one of the pedestal levels.
“I really love you,” she told him.
“I love you,” Bobby said.
“The rest,” Jackie said, “was history.”
When Bobby died of cancer in 2009, the outpouring of love in Danbury was something to behold. The wake started at 10 a.m. and didn’t end until nearly midnight.
“There was this little boy who knew Bobby from the DARE program,” said DiNardo, fighting back tears. “He goes, ‘It’s OK, Mrs. DiNardo. Don’t be sad. God just needed another angel.’ ”
There’s a mural of Bobby, a graffiti tribute, painted on a wall near the police station on Main Street. Some days Jackie drives past on the way to work, nods and says breezily, “Good morning, honey!”
She grew up on a farm in Azle, Texas. Pigs, cattle, horses, rabbits, chickens. When they told Jackie Swaim that a girl couldn’t join Future Farmers of America, she wouldn’t hear it.
“Legally, they had no right to say no,” DiNardo said. “I was the first girl that opened the doors for FFA.”
Jackie didn’t become a farmer, but the seeds of a determined female athlete were sown. She went on to become an All-American at McLennan Community College, an All-American at Texas for Jody Conradt and played for her country for Pat Summitt. She played on a team with Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers that won the 1979 FIBA world championship in South Korea.
“The neatest thing was we went up to the DMZ,” DiNardo said. “We had to sign this paper that if we got shot we weren’t going to hold the U.S. government responsible. We’re at the windows (making faces). We’re like immature kids having fun with guys with rifles on their shoulder. We didn’t get shot.”
DiNardo would craft her coaching style from Conradt and Summitt, two of only nine women’s college coaches to win 900 games.
“Jody could be hard — she kicked me out of practice for pouting — but did things in a compassionate way,” DiNardo said. “Pat made you do better because you got so mad at her you wanted to prove to her you could do it.”
Conradt is the one who told DiNardo her brother had died. When DiNardo’s dad died in 2005 and his funeral was on a Thursday, Conradt was there on Friday when Jackie was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame to make sure she was OK. Texas ties run deep.
“I learned a lot from Pat, about how hard I can push a kid and when enough is enough,” she said. “With Jody, I learned that once I knocked them down I’ve got to make sure I pick them up. I always wanted to do it for Jody, because I loved her. I’m a hard coach, but kids need hugs and someone to talk to.”
DiNardo would go 39-24 her first three years at North Salem, N.Y. When she returned from giving birth, the Danbury job opened. Thirty-two years later, she’s still here.
“I think the thing I’m most proud is I never walked away,” she said. “A lot of coaches get their wins and when the talent is gone they go to another school. I didn’t do that. I stayed.”
She gave birth to three children. She got her master’s degree. She raised a family, cared for her husband and mom. Female coaches face many challenges. Never once did DiNardo say, “I’m done.”
“I think that strength came from Jody and Pat,” DiNardo said. “They are my role models. If anything (the 500th win) is paying it forward. Getting kids to play ball in college is not what drives me. Getting them to go to college and be productive citizens is. I’ve got kids who went to Yale and Harvard grad school. I’m every bit as proud of them as Casey Smith who played at Fairfield and overseas in Germany.”
DiNardo is able to retire from her job as principal after this year. Decisions are to be made. She is sure she’ll continue to coach, continue to walk the sidelines where Bobby once chased after her to make a point.
“You need a time out!”
“OK! Go sit down!”
She laughs and says, “People loved the Jackie and Bobby Show.”
On Wednesday night, DiNardo will look up at the American flag that hangs on the wall of the Danbury gym.
It was there for No. 499 and will be there for No. 500. It is the flag the police honor guard presented her at her husband’s funeral services.
“Bobby will be there,” she said.
And when this season is over, Jackie DiNardo will mark the numbers on an aging folder.
Editor’s note: Due to weather concerns, Danbury’s game vs. Stamford has been postponed until Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Danbury HS. The story has been updated to reflect this.