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Putting Always Kids First

McLean basketball community mourns the loss of John Micocci.

John Micocci, 59, Dies

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John Micocci

“If there is one thing people will remember about him it is that he always put the kids first.”

— Daughter Maria Micocci Pike

Both the first time and last time I saw John Micocci, I was reffing house league basketball in McLean.

The first time was in 2002. I was a new ref, which is to say a ref who has not learned the limits or extent of the “power” of the position. John was the age-group coordinator for the high school girls’ house league in McLean.

The teams kept calling timeouts. John kept telling them the timeouts were over, and it was time to resume. He knew high school girls could become chatty for extended periods of time if left to their own devices, and besides, he had cupcakes to share when the games ended.

But it’s the ref’s job to say when timeouts end, I told him. “I’m trying to help you,” he responded. I learned a valuable lesson from that moment – when John Micocci wants to help you, which was almost all the time, just let him.

The last time I saw him was Saturday, Dec. 14. I was reffing a boys’ B league game, and John popped through the door, as he almost always did on house league game days in McLean. He checked on the refs. He discussed and addressed any problems. Most importantly, he shook their hands and said thanks for helping the kids. To every ref. Every weekend. Every season.

MCLEAN YOUTH BASKETBALL is a huge organization – more than 2,000 kids, more than 200 teams, hundreds of volunteers. John took it upon himself to make sure the refs knew someone in the organization personally knew, kept up with and cared about what they were doing.

That was John Micocci, who died Jan. 2, in his sleep at his home on North Rochester Street near the McLean-Arlington border. He was 59.

Among numerous other posts within McLean Youth Basketball and McLean Youth Athletics, John was chief commissioner of McLean’s house basketball leagues. House leagues are for the regular Joes of kids’ basketball. There are no outside trainers. There are no fancy uniforms. There are no tournaments in the big facility at Disney World.

There are just volunteer coaches, an hour and a half of practice a week and 10 games, plus a tournament that concludes with a pizza party and awards ceremony at McLean High.

That was John’s world … making sure the regular kids of McLean had a program that served their interests and the volunteers to make it successful.

He’d always had a knack for seeing the big picture – he was chosen from among dozens of U.S. Postal Service employees to move to Washington and join the government relations team, a position he held until he retired in 2011 – and soon he found himself volunteering to become an age-group coordinator.

After that, he was named chief commissioner of all house league basketball. He was uncommonly valuable in this position. He knew how to keep meetings on point and egos in check. Joel Stillman, longtime president of McLean Youth Athletics, the umbrella athletic organization in McLean, said John was indispensable in finally getting the Spring Hill Rec Center gym project under way.

Unlike the brash new ref he encountered back in 2002, he knew the limits and extent of the power of the organization. He knew how to help guide it to proper ends.

Once, I was tasked with doing a survey of coaches to see how the program could be improved. One of my questions pertained to the quality of the gyms we use. I asked John to review the survey. “So, if it comes back that everyone hates our gyms, what will you do?” he asked. “Can you get them other gyms? If not, that may not be a good question.”

Much has been and will be made of the influence he had on his players and the thousands of other kids he helped. But, with John, it was more than an encouraging word after a tough loss.

HE CHALLENGED kids to take control of the program. No one knew better than them how to strengthen its strengths and weaken its weaknesses, he told them.

He got older kids involved as coaches, refs, score-keepers. He stretched their capabilities, which gave them confidence, which helped McLean Youth Basketball become the vital, dynamic organization it is today. More importantly, he made sure the adults kept the proper perspective.

“He loved it,” said his daughter, Maria Micocci Pike, who got married last summer and now lives in Fairlington. “Just knowing he was serving the kids … that was always his focus. He was always so protective of all the players and so against anyone being overbearing with them. If there is one thing people will remember about him it is that he always put the kids first.”

There was a John Micocci less-known to the McLean basketball community. He was an Italian who loved to cook, a sports fan who took Maria and his wife, Debbie, to hundreds of baseball games over the years.

Though he and Debbie had grown up as high school sweethearts in Nanticoke, Pa., he was an Orioles fan until “he jumped on the Nats bandwagon,” Maria said. There was also a love/hate relationship with George Washington University basketball.

His family has asked that those who wish to honor John contribute to the John Micocci Scholarship Fund (checks payable to McLean Youth Basketball) at P.O. Box 7637, McLean, VA 22106.

But there will be no funeral for John Micocci. “He hated funerals. He hated funeral homes. He hated the whole thing,” said Maria. But his many friends and admirers are invited to come by the house at 6465 North Rochester St., on Saturday from 12 to 6 p.m. Yes, that’s a long visitation. But it’s a game day in the McLean house league, and John would want everyone to have time to attend without having to miss their games.

His final visit to me came right at the end of a game in which one team staged a big comeback to win at the wire. “Who won?” he asked. “The red team,” I said. “The one with the kids coaching?” “Yes.” “Good,” he said, a wry smile growing over his face. “I always love it when the kid coaches do well.”

With that, he disappeared through the door, out into the cold, bound for another gym to say thank you to some other refs.