By Joseph Staszewski
Longtime Francis Lewis boys’ basketball and baseball coach Randy James died of leukemia April 25 in Charlotte, N.C., according to his former players. He was 68.
His death came as a shock and out of the blue to those who knew him back in New York. Former players such as Howard Ringer, who was on James’ first basketball team, said they wished they had had a chance to be by his side and say goodbye. James was under hospice care when he died.
“We never got a chance to say bye to him,” Ringer said. “It’s a tough loss.”
James coached both teams for more than 20 years. He took over the Lewis basketball program in 1980 after it changed coaches each of the previous two seasons, according to Ringer. His impact was immediate and lasting. He stayed on the bench for 23 years before retiring in 2004. James won the school’s only boys’ basketball city title in 1995, a Class B crown, in a game played at Madison Square Garden.
“Just a great dude,” Ringer said. “You don’t get many good coaches in your lifetime. It was a blessing to have him.”
James, a graduate of East New York HS and Brooklyn College, also led the Patriots baseball team for 20 seasons before stepping down in 2007 to move to North Carolina and spend time with his family.
“To do it for that long and that many straight months showed the dedication that he had, because he starts in October and goes to June,” Francis Lewis Athletic Director Arnie Rosenbaum said. “For all those years he gave up a lot to do that, but that was just him. He just loved to do it.”
He was a father figure to many of his players, whom he treated like his own kids. James has two daughters but hundreds for sons. He made an immediate impact in his first basketball season, both in wins and the players’ individual performance, Ringer said. He gave them the freedom to bring out the best in their games.
“He allowed us to be the players we were meant to be,” Ringer said. “He didn’t try to handcuff our game. He really allowed us to play.”
Fred Burton, a first team all-city selection as a senior who went on to play at Alabama and LIU, remembers jumping from six points per game as a freshman to 27 as a sophomore under James.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve even had,” Burton said.
He was more than just a coach at Lewis. James was also an English teacher, an assistant principal and dean in the school and part of its inaugural coaching Hall of Fame class last June. He was academic adviser at the famed ABCD basketball camps.
“He enjoyed it,” Burton said. “He really got pleasure out of it, helping kids out. He was really strong on academics and all that stuff, too. He wasn’t all about sports.”
Memorial services will be held May 6 at 11 a.m. at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Charlotte. A memorial in New York is being planned for a later date, according to James’ Facebook account.