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Longtime Warriors' Head Coach Recognized for Commitment to Local Community
Article/Photos Courtesy of the Eagle-Tribune, Written by Bill Burt
Bert Hammel always loved inspirational slogans over his 36 years as men's basketball coach at Merrimack College. Most of them related to hard work, mental toughness, etc. One, in particular, from former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano at the ESPY's in 1993, who was dying of cancer at the time, was a Hammel favorite:
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
Well, Hammel, the 2017 Eagle-Tribune Sportsman of the Year, was literally on his death bed, air-lifted to Massachusetts General Hospital, and given a "10 percent" chance of surviving after a massive heart attack and numerous blood clots.
While heavily medicated, Hammel was about to be wheeled out to surgery, apparently hearing the low expectations. According to the doctor, Hammel took off his breathing mask and said "Doc, let's do this." Then he fist-bumped the doctor. Hammel beat the long odds last July. He never gave up.
"The doctor said he never had a patient as close to death as Bert was, fist-bump him," said Bert's wife, Jill Hammel. "'Miracle' is the word almost every doctor has used when seeing him, even now." Not only is Hammel alive to talk about it, but the long-time coach returned to coaching, despite the setback.
The Miracle Man has been honored dozens of times for his three decades-plus efforts at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, from his highly-lauded Academic Basketball Awareness Camp every summer for 150 boys, to his Merrimack teams hosting Christmas parties for the club kids, and some of those same kids going to home basketball games, free of charge, sitting behind the bench.
"Bert has made a difference in so many lives at club," said Bill Robertson, long-time director at the Lawrence club. "It wouldn't be the same place if he hadn't come into our lives many years ago. His influence is special."
After the life-saving heart surgery, the tables were apparently turned, according to Hammel. The club he has been connected to for three-plus decades, which includes about 300 boys and girls, made a difference in his life as he was in recovery. In fact, one of Hammel's first recollections after the surgery was seeing a huge poster -- "Bert Strong!" -- signed by a few hundred club members.
"I get emotional when I talk about the club and everyone over there," said Hammel. "Their support for me has always been incredible. They can say what they want about things I've done for them. But I don't think they've understood what they've done for me. They have inspired me more than they could ever realize."
It wasn't the first time the club came through for Hammel. Three days after he left Merrimack, about 400 boys and girls at the club held a surprise birthday party for Hammel, drawing endless tears from him.
Hammel will have completed more than three months of cardio rehabilitation at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen in January, which includes walking on a treadmill and riding an exercise bike while connected to a heart monitor. But the best therapy, has come on the basketball court. He's coaching the sixth grade boys team at the Boys Club.
"He originally agreed to coach the team, but then he had that medical situation," said Robertson. "When we went to visit him during rehab he told us 'Don't give away that position yet.' Honestly, we didn't think there would be any chance he could do it." Under doctor's rules, Hammel started coaching in October.
"When I first walked into the club for the first practice, I see this little one, about eight or nine years old and I say 'How are you doing?' " recalled Hammel. "He realizes it's me and says, as innocent as ever, 'You're Bert. I thought you were dead.' I said, 'No, I'm here.' And he said, 'That's cool.' And I said, 'It's very, very cool.' "
On the court, Hammel has changed it up a bit from his Merrimack days.
"I told them from the beginning that they would learn to defend and on offense there would be no plays," said Hammel. "There would be no clipboard drawing up plays. Just defend, rebound and go. Those are the rules. Share the ball and, when you're open, shoot. I probably should've used that mentality more at Merrimack. It's been really fun seeing them play tough defense, and enjoying it."
Hammel's wife has been there for a few games, just like she did so many times at Merrimack. Only this time, her concerns aren't wins and losses. "I am there to make sure he's drinking enough water and he's not standing too much," she said. "He's exhausted after every game. But he enjoys every day he's at the club."
Hammel said he doesn't look at his coaching 12-year-old boys as a step down from his many years coaching Division 2 All-American candidates.
"I remember listening to [Spurs coach Greg] Popovich answering questions at a coaches clinic," recalled Hammel. "He was asked what's it like coaching in NBA versus college. He said, 'If you love the game, who cares? If you have a passion for the game, I don't care if you're coaching a sixth grade travel team. It doesn't matter.' I understand now what he was talking about."
While it was reported that Hammel's ABA Camp at Brooks School was canceled last summer due to his health scare, it was really only postponed. He's put the finishing touches on the camp's return next July at Brooks, expecting it to be better than ever at the new site.
Some people have told Hammel that he must be happy that 2017 is over an all he went through. Hammel says no so fast.
"I am very humbled by the support I received. I still can't believe the amount of people that have reached out to," said Hammel. "The people at Holy Family, the doctors and nurses, are special people. Many of my former players and coaches reaching out and checking on me.
"They don't realize the strength it gave me during some tough days," said Hammel. "I'm not all the way back yet, but I'm close. I feel lucky in so many ways, more than I've ever felt before." In fact, Hammel's wife recalls a visit to a store recently, when a woman recognized him and his story and got emotional before hugging him.
"I don't think he ever really understood the affect he has had on so many people," said Jill.
He understands now.
As for his return to the bench, Hammel said it's a gift that keeps on giving.
"The boys don't have a clue what they've given me. It's been the best therapy I could possibly have," said Hammel. "I know that when I was in that hospital, the doctor gave my life back. God had a part in it, too. It's called a miracle."
Header photo of Bert Hammel courtesy of the Merrimack athletic communications staff
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