Sacred Heart names gym for longtime CYO basketball coach Paolini
As an eighth-grade student at Sacred Heart School back in 1971, Michael Paolini developed a love for basketball as a good defender and strong rebounder on the B team, under the tutelage of the late coach, John “Jerry” Campbell.
The team played at home in the then-new school gym, and traveled around Burlington County to parochial schools like St. Peter’s in Riverside.
“I learned two major things from Coach Campbell,” said Paolini, who coached Sacred Heart CYO basketball for 47 years. “One was to work with all the players and not just the best. I was not one of the best players, but I improved. The second and most important is that the league is around for the kids to have fun and learn how to play the game.
“Winning is nice, but no one but the team that won remembers in five years,” he added. “All of the kids remember that they had a good experience, they had a safe place to make mistakes and learn, they made friends and they supported each other and received that support in return.”
Paolini coached generations of young players from the Sacred Heart bench.
“You never know what is going on in a kid’s life,” he noted. “Our team is a safe space for a kid to be a part of and have fun.”
In recognition of his service, Sacred Heart recently renamed its older facility on Thomas Avenue in Riverton the Michael Paolini Gymnasium.
“To tell you the truth, I was embarrassed,” the coach admitted. “I am not the type to crave attention. I have coached all these 47 years because I enjoy it and for the kids. I enjoy seeing them improve and have fun. It is the same reason I run the Riverton summer league at Riverton Park.
“I do it so the kids have something to do instead of staying inside with video games.”
Paolini grew up in Palmyra and now lives in Cherry Hill. A certified public accountant, he started coaching at Sacred Heart in 1975 after graduating from Holy Cross High School in Delran. In 1980, he married Denise, who is thrilled about the gym dedication.
“There have been so many long hours he’s spent at the gym with being the athletic director of Sacred Heart,” she recalled of her husband. “Coaching many teams at the same time, running Christmas tournaments, hoagie sales, buying product and administrating the concession stand and other fundraising events to keep all of these programs running.
“There are yearly league fees, uniforms to buy, equipment to replace, referees to pay and tournament fees,” Denise added. “Parents pay a fee for their children to participate, but it doesn’t cover the program.”
No child is denied a spot on the team due to financial hardship. Paolini keeps the gym clean and often helps set up for other parish events after basketball games.
“I served on the Burlington County CYO board all of the 1980s and part of the early 90s,” recalled former St. Casimir School coach Vince Malecki. “There was no stronger force in making it one of the best organizations. Michael thought things out and made the best decisions possible in the interest of the organization.
“I was truly honored to serve with him. Michael’s dedication to Sacred Heart Parish as basketball coach is unprecedented at any level of coaching,” Malecki added. “Not only was Mike a good coach and dedicated to his players and the parish, but he is (also) a better man.”
Paolini credited the people around him for the success of the basketball program.
“It really does take a village,” he explained. “I have had the support of so many people over the years. My assistant coaches and other coaches in the program are a great help to me. Vern Jenkins, who has been my right-hand man for the last 20 years, has been invaluable. “I always say, if Vern ever retires, people will find out how little I do,” the coach continued.
Paolini also cited his wife and daughters for their help over the years.
“As for my family, I would not be able to pursue this dream if not for their support,” he pointed out. “My daughters Megan and Chrissy hung around the gym with me and helped as they were growing up …
“My biggest supporter is my loving wife Denise,” Paolini added. “I know it is hard to have your husband be away helping others so much. Sometimes, when I am running a tournament and working crazy hours at my office and then at the gym for over a week, it is really hard for her. But we have agreed that coaching is my therapy.”
When Paolini took over the Sacred Heart program 47 years ago, it consisted of a seventh and eighth grade team and a high-school age team, both for boys. Now there are more than 100 players.
“We now have fourth grade and under, fifth grade, sixth grade and seventh and eighth grade teams both boys and girls,” he said.
More important to the players’ success are the values Paolini has passed on to them.
“The values I try to instill are to always work hard, do your best, enjoy what you do and have fun,” he observed. “And always give back to the community.
“Of all the games I’ve won and lost, and all of the players that went on to play high school and college,” Paolini added, “the thing I am most proud of is that players have come back to the program and coached.”
Paolini’s lifetime journey as a coach will continue this December, when the Sacred Heart CYO players lace up their sneakers for games in the Michael Paolini Gymnasium.