By Harold Abend
Just as it will be for the remainder of this basketball season, the seat Mike Gragnani seldom occupied during his four-plus years at the Lincoln boys helm, was kept empty on the Mustangs bench in Friday night’s Academic Athletic Association opener against visiting June Jordan.
Gragnani, the Lincoln head coach who passed away on Tuesday of an apparent heart attack, may be physically gone, but his heart and spirit lives on with the team and assistant coaches.
The familiar stomping and trademark scowl that led Gragnani to 287 wins in 15 years of coaching at Redwood-Larkspur, Berkeley and Lincoln, were visibly absent, and the way the Mustangs came out in their first game since his death, showed the boys and new head coach Matt Jackson are not immune to emotions.
After spotting Jordan a 9-8 lead at the end of one quarter, Lincoln (8-8, 1-0) ran off 20 straight points en route to a 64-30 victory.
How can anyone fault the Mustangs players and coaches for coming out a little tight? Losing a mentor to his assistants, and a father figure to many of the players, combined with a canceled AAA opener with Mission, and one day of practice this week, Gragnani’s absence was apparent early on.
“It’s been a tough week,” said Lincoln principal Barnaby Payne, who led the players and crowd in a moment of silence for Gragnani prior to the tip-off. “We want to recognize the young men that have hung together as a family and dedicated their season to their coach.”
In memory of Gragnani, the Mustangs wore black socks and black ribbons attached to their jerseys, and the coaches had black ribbons on their lapels.
Emotions evidently zapped the team during a sluggish first quarter.
“I almost broke out in tears when the kids ran out on the court,” said Jackson, a financial services consultant in Walnut Creek who will now coach both the Lincoln JV and varsity teams for the remainder of the season.
“We weren’t ready to play and I wasn’t ready to coach. The moment of silence turned into a quarter of silence.”
A steal and a basket by Chris Young, followed by two Young assists and another bucket by the 5-foot-10 junior, gave Lincoln a 17-9 early second-quarter lead and all the momentum.
“We weren’t nervous to start but just anxious to play,” said Young, who led four Mustang players in double-figure scoring with a game-high 14 points. “Coach Mike wasn’t there, but we knew what he wanted from us, and we’re going to do it all season for him.”
Two players who stepped it up after slow starts were seniors Anthony Henderson and Robert Davis.
“It was totally different without Coach Mike yelling at us,” said Henderson, who scored 11 points. “We may be missing some things without him but we know we need to pick up the slack.”