The nice thing about having a son on your team is there’s always someone out there watching your back.
Just ask Cape Elizabeth boys basketball coach Jim Ray, as his youngest son Tommy is set to graduate in the spring after four years on the varsity team under dad’s tutelage, and he’ll tell you that’s true.
It was during a close home game against Yarmouth this past season when Tommy really helped his dad out.
“We came out of a pretty intense timeout and I stood up,” Jim Ray said. “Tommy comes over to me and says, ‘Dad?’ and I said, ‘What?’ I thought he was looking for clarification on what we were doing. And he said, ‘Your fly’s down.’ I started laughing uncontrollably and said, ‘Thanks for having my back, Tom.'”
When the Capers’ season concluded with a 56-46 loss to Maranacook in the Class B state finals, Jim Ray not only closed out his most successful season in his 14 years as Cape head coach, but also closed a more personal chapter. Since youth travel basketball, he’s coached sons Nick (now a sophomore studying engineering at the University of Maine-Orono) and Tommy, a recent finalist for the 2007-08 Robert E. Butler Award as the Western Maine Conference’s top senior player/sportsman (Freeport’s Reid Christian and Waynflete’s Lucas O’Neil were announced as co-winners of the award Monday).
Tommy’s stats were solid during his senior campaign – 7.5 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals a game – but the box score only tells part of the story.
“He’s what made us tick,” Jim Ray said. “He does so many of the little things.”
Tommy was the Capers’ defensive stopper, usually drawing the opponents’ top player. His contributions and consistency helped Cape to a 19-3 record that included a 16-game winning streak and the school’s first Western Maine championship in 20 years.
Jim Ray was a standout player himself at Cape Elizabeth, graduating in 1980. He went on to play at the University of Southern Maine where he remains the all-time assists leader, scored over 1,100 points and is a member of the Husky Hall of Fame.
After graduation, Jim taught for a year at Fryeburg Academy before taking a position at his high school alma mater, where he teaches industrial technology today. He’d heard others talk about how tough it is to coach your own kids (and teach them – he also has Tommy in class). But Ray said he hasn’t had any problems.
“No way,” Jim Ray said. “Best thing in the world for me. I have basically been there everyday growing up with my kids. I don’t think that a whole lot of parents can say they’ve done that.”
His wife Susan coaches as well, so she is understanding of the men – and the importance of basketball – in her home, even if she’s outnumbered.
“She’s pretty patient,” Jim Ray said. “We tend to gang up on her at home,”
The father-son coaching dynamic hasn’t always been easy for Jim. While Tommy worked his way onto the varsity midway through his freshman year, Nick didn’t make the team until he was a junior.
“I remember talking with Nick about a certain instance when we were selecting teams and he wasn’t going to make the varsity team that year,” Jim Ray said. “I talked with him and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m OK with it.’ And he was. That was the most difficult time I had with my boys and he made it easy on me.”
Basketball has always been important for the Rays, but Jim said he made sure his boys chose to play, that it wasn’t something they were forced into.
It was an easy choice for Tommy and he became deeply involved early on. When dad’s Capers lost four straight regional finals from 1999-2003, Tommy, now 18, said it hurt.
“I’d see them lose and see how upset they were. I’d tear up a couple times when I was young,” Tommy Ray said. “For my dad to get over that hump my senior year is just a great feeling.”
Not so much the win, but sharing it with Tommy is a memory that Jim will have for a lifetime
“I’ll never forget the bear hug we had when we won the Western Maine finals,” Jim Ray said. “I’ll never forget Tommy’s tears when we lost the state championship. I’ll never forget senior night for my son Nicholas. How many parents get to share stuff like that with their kids? And that’s part of my job. I’m pretty lucky.”
Tommy, a wide receiver on last fall’s football team, is still undecided about where he’ll attend college next fall, but said he’s looking to play basketball wherever he ends up. He’s looking at the University of Maine-Farmington, Colby-Sawyer and St. Joseph’s.
He added that he and fellow senior teammate Ian Place are already talking about coming back to hit the hardwood as alums.
“We always talk about coming back to play in alumni games,” Tommy Ray said. “We can’t wait to come back and play, just go out and have fun.”
When Place comes back, Jim Ray might also poke a little fun at his former center. When your players are also your son’s friends, those relationships tend to be a little closer as well.
“One day after practice we were playing some music,” Tommy Ray said. “We were fooling around, dancing around. Ian was dancing and dad comes into the locker room and around a corner and most of us were facing him so we all stopped. But Ian didn’t see him. He had his back to him, and kept on dancing. My dad goes, ‘Ian, why don’t you have moves like that on the court.'”
The elation of victory fades, as does the sting of losing. But for Tommy and Jim, the memories and the lessons are well engraved. Tommy said he’d like to one day become involved in coaching. Whether he’s playing in college next year or teaching his own kids how to play help-side defense, his dad’s message will resonate.
“He always taught us that no matter what the score is, whether you’re up 40 or down 40, play like it’s a tie game,” Tommy Ray said. “Just always play hard and good things will come your way.”
Jim plans to keep coaching the Capers even though he knows it will make it tough to catch Tommy’s games. He’ll go when he can, but said he’s got to follow the advice of his own dad.
“Something my father taught me a long time ago is as long as you’re having fun, keep doing it. If it becomes a job you’re not having fun at and don’t enjoy more days than not, it’s time to stop,” Jim Ray said. “I’m not there yet.”