Panella finds escape in coaching streetball team

Photo by Joseph Staszwski
By Joseph Staszewski

Mike Panella leaves his mother’s side mostly to shower, sleep and coach basketball on New York City’s streetball circuit.

The former St. Francis Prep and Manhattanville College standout spends the bulk of his days in the hospital visiting his mother Marie, who is slowly recovering after she was in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway over a month ago. She was in a medically induced comma for two weeks, and when she came out of it, she was left unable to speak after a tracheostomy.

“I’ve basically been living in the hospital,” said the 27-year-old Panella, a Flushing native. “Other than these games I’m in the hospital if I’m not home taking showers.”

Coaching High Ground, the name his mother picked for Panella’s personal hoops training company, is the only thing that brings him respite from worrying about her well-being. When he is around the courts at West 4th and Hoops in the Sun at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Panella is surrounded by friends and former teammates from Manhattanville and St. Francis Preparatory in Fresh Meadows. They appreciate his being out there coaching them with the encouragement of his family.

“His mom is sick and we are all pulling for her, but sometimes you have to get out and be out in the sun and doing what he loves, and this is what he loves,” said former St. Francis Prep star Bryan Geffen, who played a season professionally overseas.

Normally Panella, an assistant coach at Manhattanville the last three years, would be playing alongside Geffen and fellow SFP teammate and close friend Mike Marin, as he had in years past. A torn ACL in December has relegated him to the sidelines. The three’s former Running Rebels AAU Coach Mitch Eisner has been acting as an assistant coach. It has created a much different dynamic, but one all are comfortable with because of Panella’s knowledge of the game.

“When I take them out of the game, they can’t say anything because they asked me to do it,” Panella joked.

Marin added, “We feel like he is the sixth man out there.”

Marin and Geffen, who Panella played in grammar school, joined Higher Ground for the last two seasons in hopes of finding better competition after playing in the RPSA and Island Garden basketball leagues. Higher Ground is one of the top teams in the West 4th league, where it has played the last four summers, but the group has struggled at Hoops in the Sun. That hasn’t taken away from the experience.

Panella and Higher Ground wanted to test themselves against the best after winning titles in other men’s leagues.

“We said why don’t we play in one of these leagues that we hear about where these guys have all these nicknames?” Geffen said.

But Panella and Higher Ground aren’t there for the hype and attention. They just love basketball and love competing. Recently, though, hoops has become about something a bit more. It’s a way for Panella to forget about the pain his mom is going through by being around his passion and friends.

“It’s the only thing I’ve been able to do to take my mind completely off that,” Panella said. “From the time I step on the court to the time I walk back to the car, it’s been an awesome release.”

More from Around New York