With the basketball season over without the Tournament of Champions even beginning for South Jersey - the first year a boys or girls team from below Trenton didn’t win a state title since 1971 - it’s important to remember, or realize, that life doesn’t end with the last competitive shot of the round ball.
Actually for T-John Casiello, life only just began after his final assist playing college hoops last year.
The Wildwood Catholic graduate followed his coach’s advice and his own heart after playing his senior year at the University of Sciences and applied for a Victory Scholarship. The former point guard was one of 23 winners of the selective honor, which is a partnership between the Rory McIlroy Foundation and Sport Changes Life that sends the Victory Scholars to nine universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Its funny where basketball can take you,” Sciences coach, Dave Pauley said last week from Ireland.
Casiello is attending Letterkenny Institute of Technology in County Donegal. He is studying for his master’s degree, so he is moving forward in life, and as part of the scholarship he is also coaching youth basketball in North-West Ireland.
However, in going forward and giving back, he also played ball for Letterkenny. And he led his team to Ireland’s Division 2 college championship, earning Most Valuable Player honors, so he found a way to continue his playing days through academics.
“This is the classic example of using basketball instead of basketball using the player,” said Pauley, who called from Letterkenny, a 20-minute drive from the historic city of Derry.
The ubiquitous Pauley, who lives in Barrington but is seemingly everywhere, just spent a week supporting – and enjoying - his former player.
The 5-foot-10 Casiello, who scored over 1,000 points at Wildwood Catholic, was a three-year starter running Pauley’s offense. As good as he was and as much as he loved the game, Casiello knew he wasn’t going to play pro ball overseas.
So he achieved even more.
"It is an honor to call myself a Victory Scholar for the Sport Changes Life organization,” said Casiello. "Looking at myself before I came out here, in August, to now, it is amazing to see how far I've come and grown as a person.”
While playing on the Division II level in the competitive Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, Casiello still made time to be a five-time Dean's List member, carrying above a 3.2 GPA throughout his playing career of 114 games. He was named to the National Basketball Coaches Association Honors Court, the D2ADA Academic Achievement list and the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) All-Academic Team.
As a junior, Casiello was the nation’s leader with a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio as Sciences stormed to 25-6 for the best record in school history and into the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament.
He knew, though, the end of playing collegiate sports didn’t mean the end, but actually a new beginning, for him and for others.
“My purpose out here is to use sports, particularly basketball, as a way to develop or raise the aspirations of Ireland's youth,” Casiello said. “It is very rewarding to see the positive impact I've had on the people here and in turn this experience has changed my life drastically.
“Coming out here, I was expecting to give more than I would receive, however that's not the case. I have gotten so much from giving my knowledge to the kids here.”
Casiello is sharing what he has learned, just like Pauley shared his vast knowledge of the game, and more importantly in life, with him.
"A very large reason I am out here is Coach Pauley,” Casiello said. “He pushed me to go after this opportunity and I'm so fortunate. Having a coach that truly cares about not just his current players on and off the court, but also former players in life is so beneficial.
“I remember the first time he was recruiting me he mentioned that at USciences, the relationships here last 40 years, not just four. That was huge for me. I didn't experience that with any other coach or program.”
Pauley wasn’t talking blarney. The gregarious coach can talk the talk with the best of them and tell even better stories, but Pauley also walks the walk.
“I was able to see that being carried out when he came all the way out here to visit me last week,” Casiello said.
“During his time here he was able to catch my college team winning the All-Ireland final and me winning MVP for the game. Then, we had an awesome opportunity to run a clinic for both coaches and players from all over North-West Ireland.
“The people here could not thank him enough, this part of Ireland is remote and to have the opportunity to have a college coach come run a clinic was just huge for the area.
“I don't know many coaches that would do such a thing. Coach Pauley is definitely unique in that respect. I'm very lucky to call him my coach."
Not just a globetrotter, Pauley is a local legend, too. He is a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.
“We had a great experience teaching basketball, in Letterkenny and Derry, the North-West basketball club,” Pauley said. “That was exciting, working with the players and coaches and having the parents there.
“The day before I watched T-John win the college division,” Pauley said. “Last year his college didn’t win a game and this year they win the championship and he is the MVP. I mean how great is that? How special is that moment?”
Over the years, Pauley has developed a pipeline from South Jersey to the University City section of West Philadelphia. He has crossed the bridge to recruit Eric Cangelosi, Pete Adams, Anthony Tassone and Matt Crawford and current player of Camden Catholic, Colin Harrington, Flo and Sho DaSilva of Bishop Eustace, Garrett and Tanner Kerr from Middle Township and Wes Kerr of Moorestown, Billy Kurtz from Shawnee, Sean Gorman of Gloucester High, Chris Bratelli of Highland, Mike Mullane of Cherokee and Hal Lanier from St. Augustine.
Continuing a relationship with his former players is genuinely enjoyable and special for Pauley.
“Its just terrific, now it’s a different thing, you are equals, go out and have a few pints,” Pauley said. “And the nice thing to hear is what a positive experience they had playing and going to school at our place and sharing some of the memories from practice and games and sharing teammate stories.”
Don’t be surprised if Pauley books a trip to see Garret Kerr, the University of the Sciences all-time scoring list with 2,434 points, who is playing his second professional season in the Czech Republic.
He understands how the experience has pushed the horizon for Casiello, saying, “an expanded global perspective of the world, getting out of Wildwood Catholic, going to our place and then going to Ireland.”
Casiello is the son of Steve and Rosemary of Wildwood Crest. His mother is one of the Famous Feracos, including Tom who retired last year after three decades as the coach of Middle Township boys’ basketball.
“With him, you get the value of family, faith and education through his family,” Pauley said about Casiello. “And he is now giving back to the youth working with the club team’s boys and girls. I mean how great is that?
“And he is working toward his MBA in international studies.”
Pauley was able to put in some basketball work, too, on the Emerald Isle in between studying his heritage and enjoying his former player.
“Hopefully,” Pauley said, “I haven’t sent basketball back to the Stone Age over here.“
This is set in stone: Pauley certainly is helping to set up his players for their future after playing college basketball.
“Its not four years,” Pauley said, “its 40 years,”