John I. Leonard’s girls basketball team entered this season looking for a way to commemorate the life of former head coach Dan Ross.
“The girls wanted to do something special for him,” Lancers first-year coach Lawrence Nixon said.
It started with a pair of orange socks that had “Ross” printed on the back in black letters. It continues on the court with impressive play that resembles the fundamentals Ross taught them in his short two-year stint at Leonard before being diagnosed with cancer prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Just months after Ross died at age 60 from cancer in July, the Lancers are in the middle of a surprisingly strong season. After finishing with just three wins under an interim coach last season, Leonard is 8-7 and a contender for the District 10-8A runner-up playoff spot this year.
“I know that he’s up there watching us,” said Lancers senior Naysa Marrero with tears in her eyes. “I feel like he’s really, really proud of us. We’ve come a long way and we’ve improved so, so much.”
Marrero is one of just three current Lancers players that were on the roster when Ross was the coach. The others are star guard Joshelle Birch and forward Shanice Noble.
The trio remembers when the team was informed Ross would not be its coach just months before the start of the 2013-14 season due to the disease. The result was a 3-17 record that ended without a playoff berth.
“It took a bad toll on us,” Noble said. “It was devastating to know what he was going through.”
There was a chance Ross would return to be the Lancers’ coach if he could get back to full health, but that never happened. After Ross stepped down as the team’s head coach, Noble didn’t see him again.
“It had an effect on the way they reacted,” Leonard athletic director Scott Siegel said. “The interim coach knew basketball, but he just wasn’t coach Ross.”
There aren’t many Palm Beach County coaches that compare to Ross, who was also the head coach at Lake Worth High and an assistant coach at Palm Beach Atlantic and Palm Beach State.
Ross even had an impact on Nixon. When Nixon was a student and basketball player at Lake Worth High from 1997 through 2000, Ross was the Trojans’ girls basketball coach.
“He was one of the coolest guys on campus,” Nixon said of Ross. “He didn’t have a problem talking to you about basketball or life. He’s one of the people I actually remember from my time at Lake Worth.”
Not many could forget Ross’ presence in their lives, as Birch remembers her reaction when she heard the news of her former coach’s death.
“When I got the news, it was bad,” Birch said. “I cried all summer. It touched me because he was more than just a coach to me, he was a friend to me.”
When asked if Ross would be proud of Leonard’s play this season, Birch looked down and laughed.
“He’s smiling right now,” she said. “He probably wants to be here with us.”