Sunday Spotlight: North Salem native Michael DePaoli leads Fordham men’s basketball program

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Photo courtesy of Fordham University Athletics

When the Fordham University men’s basketball team takes on Virginia Commonwealth University today, they will be led by one of North Salem’s own. Michael DePaoli, who graduated from North Salem High School in 2003, took over as interim head coach for the Fordham Rams last week after 11 years as assistant coach. In this role he brings with him the years of lessons he learned growing up in Tiger Country.

In middle school, DePaoli was both an athlete and a troublemaker. He could have found himself spiraling down an increasingly dangerous path were it not for discovering a love of basketball and with it, the mentorship of Coach Henry Sassone. In 7th grade DePaoli became team manager for Sassone’s varsity boys’ basketball team, soaking up every opportunity to hang out in and around the court.

“He was a sponge. He had some natural talent, but more importantly, he had an open mind and wanted to do it,” said Sassone. “Even as a seventh grader, you knew he was going to do something special with basketball.”

“Coach Sassone helped me establish a good moral compass and changed the direction I was going in,” DePaoli said. “He was the world to me at that age.”

By 8th grade DePaoli had made the JV boys’ basketball team. By 9th
grade, he was a starter on the varsity team. Over the course of his high school career, he earned three-time All New York State honors and graduated as the Tiger’s all-time leading scorer with 1,767 points.

DePaoli is now 15 years into a coaching career that has included stops at Pace University and Hofstra University before landing at Fordham University. Still, big moments from his high school career remain crystallized in his memory. “I have a lot of great memories of playing at the County Center,” DePaoli said. “I still remember how packed the gym was for senior night at the high school.”

DePaoli, Sassone and their families have remained close over the years. Throughout his own coaching career, DePaoli made it a point to come back to North Salem to either practice with or speak to Sassone’s team. DePaoli has also invited North Salem players to come down to Fordham to catch a game and meet his team. “That was my very small way to give back to what Coach gave to me,” he said.

Coaching through struggle

This past Tuesday, DePaoli and other coaches were discussing a defensive drill ahead of the day’s team practice when Jeff Neubauer, Fordham’s now former head coach, approached with the news that he was leaving the program. DePaoli would be interim head coach. DePaoli was shocked; he had had no idea this was coming. It was 11:30AM, and the team had practice at 1PM.

“My immediate focus went to—and has been—making sure the guys were doing okay,” DePaoli said. The players were able to pull it together for that day’s practice, but the effects of the upheaval showed in their game the next day, their first without Neubauer. “We didn’t play well, and the guys were not themselves,” DePaoli said. Wednesday’s loss to Duquesne added to an already tough season for the Rams; they’re currently 1-8 in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

DePaoli hopes to use the team’s struggles as motivation. “We need this situation to galvanize us and bring us together,” he said. One thing he stresses to his players is that “failure is not an end result; it’s just a guidepost,” something to learn from and get past.

Despite everything, DePaoli tries to help his team maintain focus and perspective. At game time, he tells them to “be where your feet are,” a reminder to be in the moment. He also sets context for the bigger picture, noting how many people are going through a hard time right now, whether dealing with covid themselves or, worse, mourning the loss of a loved one. DePaoli tells his players, “we are on the court today. We are playing basketball. Focus on what you get to do, not what you have to do.”

What lies ahead

DePaoli himself is grateful for what he gets to do these days. The kid who spent his early childhood growing up in a small apartment next to Kingsley’s Deli is now married, a father to a little girl and a contender to be the permanent head coach of a Division I men’s basketball program.

For Sassone, his student has become the teacher. “Now, as a head coach at the college level, he could be a mentor to me. What [DePaoli’s] been able to accomplish just goes to show that if you work hard and do the right thing, you will find success.”

When Fordham University announced that DePaoli would be interim head coach, it also announced a national search for the permanent head coach job. DePaoli’s hat is in the ring, but he stresses that his priority is continuing to guide and develop the young men who represent Fordham University men’s basketball.

“If it happens, man, I’d be ecstatic. I’d be through the moon,” DePaoli said. “It’s a tremendous job, and it'd be a dream come true. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn't happen. I'll be able to look back and say the focus was on the kids, as it should be.”

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