The name Will Starks instantly evokes images of squeaky shoes on a gym floor, the “General” putting his pupils through another basketball workout.
But, Chuck Tolo said, the sport alone didn’t define Starks.
“People know all about his passion for basketball, but he was much more passionate about kids and about his family,” said Tolo, who coached the Duluth East boys team for 11 years, ending with the 2011-12 season.
Starks died early Thursday at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., after battling complications related to a heart defect first discovered in December 2013. He was 49.
Starks was awaiting a heart transplant and had been at the Mayo since March 2. A spate of surgeries this spring weakened the father of three, but it was a recent bout with pneumonia that decimated his oxygen levels and ultimately became the tipping point, according to his son, Dyami Starks.
“His body never got as strong as it needed to be (for a transplant),” Dyami said.
Will Starks was an assistant at East for much of Tolo’s tenure, including when the two coached Dyami, who recently completed his college career at Division I Bryant University. He was, however, just as well-known for the Duluth adult league bearing his name, as well as working tirelessly with countless players from around the region.
Standouts like brothers Anders and Bjorn Broman often credit Starks for their success. He never found a gym - or an outdoor court - he didn’t like. That included the Washington Community Center downtown, where he was a regular. When healthy, Starks could be found there all hours of the day overseeing methodical, sweat-inducing workouts.
Talent level didn’t matter to Starks. A desire to learn the game and improve was what really appealed to him.
“He helped a lot of kids that really needed help and didn’t have a lot of direction, but he’s helped a lot more kids than that,” Tolo said. “I saw him help anybody who wanted to learn something about basketball and about life. He would help anyone.”
Regardless of who they played for.
“He used to help players who were opponents that we would go against,” Tolo said, laughing. “I’d be sitting on the bench and one of those guys would make a shot, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, way to go, Will. Nice job.’ ”
Tolo said his longtime friend helped kids reach their potential.
It was April 2014 that Starks learned he needed a heart transplant. He initially was placed on the “B” list, which meant his situation wasn’t as desperate. In May, though, he was upgraded to the “A” list.
Starks attended Dyami’s last regular-season home game at Bryant in Smithfield, R.I., in late February. Rather than returning from that trip to Duluth, he headed directly to the Mayo, his condition having worsened.
Starks died around 12:30 a.m. Thursday. The family, Dyami said, has taken solace in the number of lives Starks impacted.
“It’s crazy how many people have said the words, ‘He was like a father to me,’ ” Dyami said.
By Thursday morning, Starks’ Facebook page was teeming with similar messages. “Thank you” was the common theme.
A service for Starks, who attended Wisconsin-Superior, will take place in Milwaukee, his hometown. Dyami said an informal get-together in Duluth, for friends and family to congregate and celebrate his life, is in the works and likely will occur in the next couple weeks.
The stories shared are sure to center around basketball.
“I profess myself to be a tremendous lover of basketball - I’ve coached that game for 38 years,” Tolo, a phy ed teacher at Ordean East Middle School, said. “And I didn’t know there were too many people out there (with a similar intensity), but I definitely met the man when I met him.”