The clock has expired. The game is over. But the score doesn’t tell the story.
Yes, Las Positas College’s men’s basketball coach Tony Costello lost the battle. On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 25, he died at age 57. He succumbed to an aggressive and powerful opponent no defense has yet been able to stop: pancreatic cancer. But before the final horn sounded, Costello had racked up so many victories he’ll always be remembered as a winner.
Not just because he compiled nearly 400 victories as a community college basketball coach but also because of his triumphs off the court. The boys he successfully converted to men. The lasting examples he set with his passion and work ethic. The countless lives he impacted.
His defeat is a punch to the gut to his family and the LPC community. A heartbreaking loss to the multitudes of people whose lives he helped shape.
But the way Costello played the game, he walks off the court one last time to an ovation worthy of a champion.
“He was thoughtful and very passionate about basketball,” LPC athletic director Dyan Miller said. “He was passionate about the student-athletes and their education.”
“He showed up every day. He put in more hours than most, and he fought until the end, and he put up a good fight.”
Basketball is a game of four quarters, each of which has a distinct impact on the outcome of a game.
The first sets a tone. The second carries momentum into halftime. The third puts a team in position to win. The fourth is where you bring it home, separate the winners from the losers and where experience, steely-eyed resolve and focus reigns supreme.
And Costello, whose heart was probably made of leather and had Spalding written on it, believed in playing all four quarters. He didn’t cheat the game by coasting but valued every minute, every possession. It wasn’t just what he demanded such from his players. It was also how he lived his life.
Even as a player, Costello was a tenacious worker.
Tony was the son of Anthony Sr. and Joan Costello. When Tony was a senior, his family left Hagerstown, Md., and relocated to Pleasanton. He graduated from Amador Valley High School in 1974.
Costello played for Amador Valley High School, under Skip Mohatt, a bigger-than-life personality who won the league championship 10 out of 13 seasons. Per Costello’s brother, Tom, quoted in a Contra Costa Times article, Mohatt had a strict rule against first-year seniors joining the team.
That was until he saw Tony playing basketball. By himself. Every day.
Costello graduated from Amador Valley in 1974. He went on to get an A.A. degree from Chabot College and a bachelor’s in history from San Jose State. He got a master’s in physical education from St. Mary’s.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all he learned came sitting on the bench next to Mohatt.
“I wanted to coach, and that’s something I took from Skip, ” Costello told the Contra Costa Times in a 2001 interview. “You have to take what you’ve learned from him, but you can’t duplicate his personality. He was a tremendous teacher so passionate about the game.”
After serving as an assistant coach with Amador Valley, Costello’s respected coaching career began in earnest when he became the varsity coach of Dublin High School.
He took the reins in 1981 and had immediate success as a young coach, all while earning his degrees. He reached the playoffs four out of the six years he was the coach at DHS and made the North Coast Section semifinals in 1983.
The game suddenly changed for Costello.
He pulled off what he liked to say was the greatest accomplishment of his life. Her name was Liane.
Costello got married and started a family. He and Liane had four children: Kelsey, Aaron, Becca and Kyle. They were the primary recipients of his noted dedication to others.
“He dedicated his short life to serve others,” his brother Tom Costello posted on Facebook on Sunday. “As a teacher, a coach, a father, a brother, a husband, a son, a mentor. He always seemed to find the right words to help. His focus was never about himself. He was so humble, kind, and giving to anyone he crossed paths with. I chose to teach and coach basketball because of him. I’ve learned so much and hope to be half the man he was. Even in his final hours he was teaching us life lessons like perseverance, commitment, respect, and FAMILY. He has touched so many lives and built so many relationships. I am humbled to have had Tony in my life.”
Tony would later return to Chabot. This time not as a student but as an assistant coach on the school’s basketball team. He spent three years in that position until he rose to sit in the big chair.
He held that job for 14 more years.
In the almost decade and a half he spent at Chabot, his teams amassed an overall record of 250-179. Costello led Chabot to the regional playoffs 12 times and conference championships in 2003 and 2005. Chabot made the Elite Eight of the state tournament in 2002 and the Sweet 16 in 2006.
But Costello was establishing an impressive track record off the court, as well. Fifteen of his players went on to play at Division I schools. Another 33 at Division II or National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools.
His 1997 team won the State Scholar Team Award after receiving a collective Grade Point Average of 3.3. He was the president of California Community College Men’s Basketball Coaches Association from 2003 to 2005.
He was named coach of the year twice.
“The best part about coach Costello,” LPC men’s soccer coach Larry Aguiar said, “was how many young men from his basketball team over the years that he helped become good role models and good citizens of the community.”
On the back of all that success, a new challenge awaited him after halftime.
In 2005, Las Positas College unveiled its newly minted basketball program.
The school wanted its first and only coach to be a proven winner and someone who could help build a foundation. Costello was an easy choice.
He set the standard for the program early, making it not just a factory for good basketball players but a molder of good men.
He accomplished this by spending countless hours on campus, often staying late into the night to study film or plan for the team’s next game.
“His teams were coached really well,” Miller said. “He was putting us on the map in the Coast Conference. Taking a program from the beginning to where we were before he (became) ill was big. It takes a long time to build a program. He was building it the right way and doing the right things.”
His tireless effort to build LPC’s basketball program resulted in four playoff appearances in his eight years as coach. In the 2011-2012 season, the team went on a memorable run in the playoffs, making it to the Sweet 16 of the state tournament — a major accomplishment for a basketball program in the toddler stages.
Success on the court was a byproduct of Costello’s focus on developing young adults. Not just his players, either. As an instructor on campus, the young men and women he taught also felt his impact.
“What I mostly remember about him is that during drills, he would never let us half-ass our work,” Marc Dorotheo, a student in Costello’s basketball class said. “It didn’t matter to him if it was 20 more times or if it would take the whole class time. He wanted us to play the game the way it was meant to be played. Can’t admire anything more than passion and love for what you do.”
It’s a testament to the impact he had on so many lives that many former players or students speak so highly of him. Many often came back to catch up and chat.
“He was a good coach and a family man,” said former Hawk Cedric Young. “He pushed you out of your comfort zone to make you go hard on yourself, and he always made sure everything was right in the classroom. A caring person who let you come from nothing and have something. In all of my years of playing basketball, my favorite times were playing at Las Positas with coach Costello.”
Crunch time came in July 2012, when Costello began experiencing minor stomach pain.
Initially, he dismissed it as nothing to be concerned about. At worst, possibly appendicitis.
At the urging of his wife, he saw a doctor.
“They diagnosed me in mid-July,” Costello said in a Oct. 26, 2012 article in The Express. “I thought I’d be back for my six-o-clock class, but I didn’t make it.”
The news was grim: pancreatic cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, 23 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live past one year of their diagnosis. Only 4 percent are expected to live past the next five years.
Even when he was undergoing chemotherapy, he was still on campus. Still watching film, maintaining a presence with the team.
It did not look good for him to return to the bench as most of the 2012-2013 season had passed. Costello was present only behind the scenes, in a reduced role.
But, like Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel, Costello beat the odds and hobbled back to coach his team. He was at the helm of the final four games of the season.
“The amazing part was that he was so concerned with working still, even though he knew that the prognosis was not real good,” LPC’s cross country coach Steve Navarro said. “The great thing was when I asked him, ‘Why don’t you just take a reduced load?’ he said to me ‘I really want to coach this team.’ He was still enthusiastic until the very end.”
He spent his summer recruiting to rebuild a team that had had a 6-21 record in his absence. His colleagues couldn’t help but notice his appearance becoming more gaunt.
But they all saw the same work ethic. Costello didn’t believe in backing down, especially not in the fourth quarter. They just saw Tony being Tony, working hard every day to improve his team.
He even counseled with women’s coach Clarence Morgan and fencing coach Sophie Rheinheimer, both who had dealt with their own bouts of cancer.
But on August 19, Costello saw he was down to the final seconds. He knew defeat was imminent. So, finally, he left the school he loved, the program he built and the colleagues who loved and respected him — never to return. He went on a second leave of absence.
He’d given LPC and the game of basketball all he could, until he was no longer able.
“I watched his players just floating through campus,” women’s basketball coach Clarence Morgan said. “You can tell he’s in their hearts. I told them ‘Tony wouldn’t want you to quit. We’ve got a couple of choices: We can get up, everybody can mope around, or we can do what he’d want us to do, to keep getting better at basketball.’ What did they do? They kept working and got better at basketball.”
“Life’s not fair. They always seem to take the good ones. I tell everybody, ‘We’re all just passing through this place.’ Tony is where we’re all trying to get to now.”
He died six days later. He spent his last days surrounded by family. His wife Liane and four children. His seven siblings. Extended family and friends.
“That was part of him and how he dealt with it,” LPC swim and dive team coach Jason Craighead said, “to just keep doing what he likes to do. That’s why he was here until the end because that’s what made him happiest. I think he had to draw the line at the last possible dire moment to spend it with his family. He cares about them a lot. The only thing he cares more about than this college or basketball.”
Several of Costello’s colleagues brought up the word “character” when asked about their overall impressions of him. They mentioned a cartoon which is still taped to the door of Costello’s office.
In the cartoon, a crane is swallowing a frog. The frog is in turn choking the crane to avoid being swallowed completely. And below the illustration are the words: “Don’t ever give up!”
He never did.
They say it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. If that’s true, victory belongs to Tony Costello.