Of the millions of people who couldn’t wait to turn the calendar page on 2020, count Hibbing boys basketball coach Joel McDonald chief among them.
The longtime Bluejackets coach found out in May that his bladder cancer had returned, ultimately requiring him to have his bladder surgically removed and a new one made from his small intestine put in its place.
The recovery wasn’t all smooth as blood clots forced McDonald back into the hospital and he needed a catheter inserted into his jugular vein down to his heart.
No sooner had he recovered and received good news on his first cancer checkup, his father Bob, the legendary former Chisholm boys basketball coach, died at age 87 from COVID-19.
So when 2021 began and Minnesota high school athletes were allowed to take the court, McDonald couldn’t have been more pleased.
“I know it’s possible but I don’t think 2021 can be any worse,” McDonald said earlier this week. “It was a challenging, brutal year but the main thing was to stay positive for myself and for the people closest to me. It’s an angry world that we’re living in right now and when I reflect on 2020, I would have every reason to be angry. But I don’t think anyone would benefit from that at all.”
One of the main positives was getting back on the court.
“Take the x’s and o’s out of it and it’s just good to be back where you love,” he said.
The Bluejackets have been practicing since Jan. 4 and opened the season Friday at home against Duluth Denfeld.
“We were waiting for the green light to get back into the gym like every other team across the state of Minnesota, and now that it’s here it’s been great,” McDonald said. “It brings with it its own challenges with all the guidelines — no locker rooms, all the sanitizing, the social distancing, the masking — but we are, collectively, where we love to spend our winters, on the court, so we’ll take it.”
His players are glad to be playing again, and they’re glad to have McDonald on the bench for the 22nd consecutive season.
“It’s been nice being coached by him again and watching him coach my teammates,” said junior guard Ayden McDonald, Joel’s youngest child. “He’s really happy when he’s on the floor — well, he is all the time because he’s always positive — but being able to see him coach again is pretty cool.”
Senior Parker Maki said ever since McDonald first began alternating coaching with trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, not much has changed with the affable 48-year-old who graduated from Chisholm High School in 1991 as Minnesota's all-time leading scorer.
“He’s been the same old Joel,” Maki said. “He did a really good job balancing out his trips to (the Mayo Clinic) last year at the same time as coaching us.
“He’s always motivating us and getting us better each day. He’s really encouraging.”
McDonald, who was first diagnosed in October 2019 with the same affliction that in 1997 killed his mother, Darlene, received his neobladder last July when surgeon Igor Frank made seven incisions via robotic surgery to remove McDonald’s bladder, prostate and portions of his lymph nodes and urethra and then reattached the new bladder. A later biopsy showed cancer cells had not become invasive elsewhere in his body as did McDonald’s three-month checkup in October.
In fact, doctors told McDonald he is no longer considered a cancer patient.
Still, studies show COVID-19 affects those with co-morbidities on a greater basis and McDonald needed to decide whether to return to the classroom, where he teaches senior world geography and sophomore world history.
Hibbing started out with in-person learning in September but that didn’t last a week before switching to a hybrid model until around Thanksgiving. Since then, the Hibbing school district has been in full distance learning mode but will soon return to hybrid.
McDonald didn’t have any qualms about re-entering the classroom and he didn’t about returning to the court either.
“I do feel like our district has taken the steps necessary to protect our staff,” he said. “For the most part I feel comfortable in my classroom. I like being in my classroom. Rather than seeing a gridview of my students, some of whom don’t like to turn their camera on, I’d rather see them in person. I know that elevates the risk but I feel confident.”
His son says the team is cognizant of adhering to all of the enhanced COVID-19 protocols, both as a way to ensure the team doesn’t get shut down during the season and to keep his dad safe.
“We definitely need to be more careful and cautious when we’re off the floor so we can stay on the floor as much as we can,” Ayden said.
The Bluejackets, who return four double-digit scorers and about 75 points a game from last year, are hopeful that this is their season. Staying healthy for a potential state tournament is paramount.
“These guys have had that as their outcome goal for years,” Joel McDonald said. “Hopefully, the experiences we’ve had in the last couple of years are ones we learn from. Bring a new level of maturity in those very heated and tense situations you get into in the section semifinals and finals.
“I’d be lying if I said the state tournament was not something we want.”