The Coaches’ Game Plan: Beat Cancer, Get Married10/09/2019
Marc Rybczyk admits that before he met Aloysia Jaques in January 2014, he had some misguided ideas about women’s basketball.
“I didn’t view it as important,” said Mr. Rybczyk, who was a 6-foot-2 shooting guard for Central Connecticut State University from 1990 to 1993. “I looked down upon it.” In essence, he said, “I hated it.”
Ms. Jaques, who goes by Ali, is the women’s basketball coach at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. She not only enlightened Mr. Rybczyk, but when he was stricken with cancer, she demonstrated the devotion and determination she brings to the court.
Mr. Rybczyk (pronounced RIB-zick), 49, is a former assistant men’s coach for Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y. The first time he saw Ms. Jaques, 42, who is 5 feet 10 inches, she was barreling toward him down the hallway of a Trumbull, Conn., Marriott in sweaty gym clothes. Both of their teams were in town for a doubleheader against the home team Fairfield University.
“I had just worked out my women’s team in preparation for a 6 p.m. game, and I was a hot mess,” Ms. Jaques said. “I was walking to my room, and there was this guy at the end of the hall staring me down.”
Ms. Jaques, who won an N.C.A.A. Division III national championship playing at N.Y.U. in 1997, and later was a coach for George Washington University and Northwestern, assumed Mr. Rybczyk was with Niagara, whose team was also playing Fairfield that night. But because he was staring she was hesitant to be collegial.
“I was almost going to walk right by him,” she said. “Then I said to myself, ‘You’re a head coach. You have to be nice to people. You have to stop and talk to him.’”
Seconds later, she was almost sorry she did. “I was like, ‘So we’re both playing the same team tonight,’” Ms. Jaques said. “And he was like, ‘What are you, the director of operations?’ Which is a support position. I was like, ‘No. I’m the head coach. Good luck tonight.’”
With that, she turned and dipped her key card into door No. 404, three rooms away from Mr. Rybczyk in 407, and got down to the business of putting on her game face.
“When I saw her coming toward me, I had to pretend my card wouldn’t work in the door,” he said. He wanted a better look. He also wanted to ascertain whether striking up a conversation with Ms. Jaques was appropriate.
“I was 44 at the time,” he said. Like Ms. Jaques, he has never been married, though he has a 20-year-old son, David Rybczyk.
At the time of their first encounter, he said, “I didn’t want to talk to a player. And then as she got closer I thought, she’s probably 27 and maybe the director of ops or an assistant coach. Then she came up all loud and spunky and said, ‘Hi, I’m Ali.’”
His assessment of women’s basketball was about to undergo a transformation. “I told my director of operations, I’m going to watch this women’s game at Webster Bank Arena,” Mr. Rybczyk said. “First of all, I wanted to see: Is she really the head coach? And second, does she know what she’s doing?”
She was, and she did. “I thought the adjustments she made during timeouts were tremendous,” he said. “I thought as a coach, she might be better than me. That’s when the respect really started kicking in.”
Their romance began the night of their awkward introduction in the hallway. After her team lost in overtime to Fairfield, she said, she was glad to run into him at the hotel bar. She bought him a beer, which led to flirting, which led to a kiss. “But the next day, she disappeared,” Mr. Rybczyk said.
A day later, thanks to some strategic loitering, Mr. Rybczyk managed to run into her again in the hotel lobby (both of their teams were to play nearby Quinnipiac University that afternoon).
By the time he boarded the bus for the six-and-a-half-hour ride back to Niagara, he had her phone number, though not many opportunities to strike up a get-to-know-you-better call.
Ms. Jaques, the daughter of Stephen and Deborah Jaques of Rosemont, N.J., understood all too well. “Coaching is not a job, it’s who you are,” she said. “A lot of guys don’t really understand the lifestyle, how I could be out from 8 in the morning until midnight watching high school kids play.” Recruiting, she added, often devours the entire month. She has watched promising romances wither around it. “Some guys think it’s cool to date a coach at first,” she said. “After a while, when you’re not around much, they don’t think it’s so cool anymore.”
Mr. Rybczyk, of course, knew the drill. When Ms. Jaques and her team came to play in his hometown Buffalo on Valentine’s Day, three weeks after they met, he planned to make the most of an opportunity to see and impress her. He arranged for four dozen roses to be delivered to her hotel room. The next day, he added another dozen, and threw in some candy, ruining Ms. Jaques’ attempts to conceal the budding romance from her players. “I didn’t want to give them anything to talk about,” she said, “but you can’t sneak five dozen roses onto a charter bus.”
Instead of teasing her, the Siena women were happy for their coach. The next several years would become an exercise in figuring out how to combine coaching with a relationship.
“We’re both independent and in our 40s and career driven,” said Ms. Jaques, whose Waterford, N.Y., home was four hours away from Buffalo.
Marriage, Mr. Rybczyk decided, was the answer, though one he hadn’t always anticipated.
Mr. Rybczyk’s father, David Rybczyk, died in 2000. His mother, Francine Guzzardi, lives in New Britain, Conn. They divorced when he was young. “My father was a coach at Central Connecticut, and my friends are coaches,” he said, “and I was like, why get married? This is how my life is going to be.” But “then Ali came along.” On a July 4, 2018, during a vacation in Miami, Mr. Rybczyk, who had bought an emerald-cut diamond ring with baguettes at Northeastern Fine Jewelry in Albany proposed at the patio bar of the Edition Hotel on Miami Beach.
“We had talked about it, but I didn’t know when it was going to happen,” Ms. Jaques said. “I was sitting there with my mojito, and he came up behind me and pulled out the ring and said, ‘Are you sure you want to be Mrs. Rybczyk?’”
She said she was. “It was the one time I was really not expecting it. It was really sweet.”
An unexpected announcement of a different order soon followed. “My back started bothering me,” Mr. Rybczyk said. On July 18, 2018, Ms. Jaques flew to Udine, Italy, for a series of International Basketball Federation events. Mr. Rybczyk went as her guest.
“It was supposed to be a fun week of being in Europe, but Marc was in a lot of pain,” she said. “He was trying to watch the games, but he couldn’t.” When they got home, she insisted he get an M.R.I. Insurance complications caused a wait of two months before the scan was approved.
In the meantime, he was in agony. “I fought through it, but one night I couldn’t move my legs,” he said. “It was getting worse and worse.” In October came the diagnosis: stage 4 cancer. Mr. Rybczyk had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He worried first about his team. When the president of Niagara arranged an appointment for him at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Center, he tried to cut the visit short. “I told my director of ops, I’m going to go there for an hour and then I’m going to go to practice,” he said. The staff at the cancer center thought better of that plan. “They told me: You have to be admitted today, otherwise, you’ll be dead in two months.”
Ms. Jaques remembers the Friday afternoon Mr. Rybczyk called with the news. “I left practice and got in my car and went 90 miles per hour” to Buffalo, she said. “I didn’t put music on. I just prayed to God to give him a chance.”
Her parents are cancer survivors. That gave her some leverage in persuading Mr. Rybczyk to accept her help. In November 2018, he began four months of chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan. He lost his hair, 35 pounds and his ability to walk. Ms. Jaques became his full-time caregiver, enlisting her N.Y.U. teammate and best friend, Jennifer Cullert, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to open her home to them between appointments. Wedding plans were put on hold.
“Ali was on the phone all the time, researching his medicines and scheduling his appointments,” Ms. Cullert said. “She was just like, ‘We have to get through this. There’s no other option. I want to live my life with this man.’ That’s how she is as a coach, too. She’s positive about everything and so strong.”
This was evident through months at Mr. Rybczyk’s bedside. “Cancer is such a mental thing,” Ms. Jaques said. “If you believe you can beat it, you’re going to have a much better chance. So for me that meant being like, ‘O.K., this is our plan. Here’s how we’re going to execute the plan.’”
This past spring, Mr. Rybczyk felt his strength returning. He is hoping to return to coaching. (The Niagara staff was let go after last season.)
By summer, a scan at Sloan Kettering detected no cancer. Somewhere in between, “I got tired of calling her my fiancée,” he said. “I was like, ‘Let’s get married.’”
But don’t count on them coaching together anytime soon. “We are both pretty intense people so I’m not sure that would work,” she said.
On Aug. 24, at St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn., Father Mark G. Reamer, Siena’s vice president for mission and a Roman Catholic priest, performed the ceremony. Eighty guests attended, including a cadre of especially tall former players and coaching colleagues.
Ms. Jaques, wearing a strapless white gown hurriedly bought at a David’s Bridal in Albany and a long veil, walked alone down an aisle strewn with white rose petals by a quartet of flower girls.
Stephen Jaques, who had wanted to walk with her, watched via FaceTime from a hospital bed; he is in long-term care for a variety of health issues. The groom, flanked by his best friend and best man, John Reiser, wore a tuxedo. Ms. Jaques’s sister and matron of honor, Sidney Berry, held her bouquet of white roses as the Rev. Reamer led them in vows to be faithful to each other in sickness and in health for the rest of their lives.
ON THIS DAY
When Aug. 24, 2019
Where St. Thomas More School, Oakdale, Conn.
The Reception Guests drove to Water’s Edge Resort and Spa in Westbrook, Conn., for an outdoor cocktail hour overlooking Long Island Sound, followed by a formal reception in the grand ballroom.
Their Song The couple’s first dance was to Anthony Hamilton’s “Do You Feel Me.” “That song is just us,” Ms. Jaques said.
Slam-Dunk Fashion Ms. Jaques changed from the glittering stilettos she wore with her wedding gown into glittering Converse Chuck Taylors for dancing.
Standing Tall R.J. Rutledge, one of Mr. Rybczyk’s former coaching colleagues at Niagara, described Mr. Rybczyk as “one of the toughest, strongest people I’ve ever met.” In Ms. Jaques, he said, he had met not only his soul mate, but his match.
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