Dr. Anthony Fauci and basketball: A look at the coronavirus expert’s ties to the sport

The man NBA star Stephen Curry recently called “The GOAT” has stood in front of microphones and repeatedly answered questions over the last month. Like many great basketball minds before him, he’s talked about the challenges of defeating the opponent and offered up his gameplan on the best way to do so. When he speaks he’s calm but clear; educated from experience but still learning as the challenges evolve.

The scouting report Warriors coach Steve Kerr provided on him includes skills like “great awareness, excellent communicator, smart decision-maker.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called him “America’s point guard,” which might seem unusual considering he’s a 5-7, 79-year-old man who never played basketball beyond the high school level.

The man all three of the aforementioned basketball icons have fondly spoken of is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leader in the national fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

“Right now we have a team that’s a very powerful team, and that’s the virus, and what we need to do is that we’ve got to play a full-court press,” Fauci said in an interview with Krzyzewski on April 2. “I mean, we can’t let them get the ball on the ground to dribble. We’ve just got to be all over them because that’s the only tool we have right now.”

Fauci has faced stiff competition before. During his senior year at Regis High School in New York, “Fauch,” as he was called then, was the captain of his high school basketball team. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the Regis team took a subway from Manhattan to the Bronx in 1958 for a game against rival Fordham Prep. Regis had only one win in 17 games and Fordham Prep had easily won the teams’ first matchup a few weeks prior. 

“Nobody gave us a chance,” Regis alum John Zeman told the WSJ. “Everyone figured it was going to be a blowout.”

To make matters worse, Fordham Prep was led by Donnie Walsh, an all-city guard who went on to play collegiately at North Carolina, coach the Nuggets and run the Pacers and Knicks in the NBA. The 62 years since have muddied the details of the game but nobody on Regis has forgotten the result: a 64-51 victory for the Tony Fauci-led team.  

“I don’t remember this game at all. I don’t remember Fauci,” Walsh told the IndyStar. “I’d like to say ‘I remember him and he’s a tough little guy,’ but I just don’t.”

The Regis players sure remember Fauci, even if Walsh doesn’t. They remember the leadership that was more impactful than the 10.2 points per game he averaged. And six decades later, they haven’t forgotten Fauci leading them to take down Goliath. 

“He wasn’t a yeller, and he wasn’t a rah-rah-rah guy, but everybody looked up to him,” Tom McCorry, a classmate and future college-basketball coach, told the WSJ. “He worked hard and he was very unselfish — kind of the way he shows now. He really is the same person.”

Fauci got his bachelor’s degree from Holy Cross, then graduated first in his 1966 medical class from Cornell Medical College. He took over as director of NIAID in 1984 and has advised six U.S. presidents on HIV/AIDS and other global health viruses like Ebola and Zika. He’s turned into an unlikely celebrity whose gameplan on defeating COVID-19 has become trusted by Curry, Krzyzewski and millions of Americans watching him from home. 

At a White House press briefing on April 1, a reporter asked if Fauci had security. 

“He doesn’t need security. Everybody loves him,” President Donald Trump said. “You know he was a great basketball player. Did anybody know that? He was a little on the short side for the NBA but he was talented. I read this story, he won a game that was unwinnable against a great team and his whole team said, ‘We can’t beat this team’ and he went in and they won the game.”

The coronavirus pandemic has no winners, but Fauci believes there can still be a lot fewer losers.

“We’re not even at halftime,” Fauci told Coach K. “What would be really nice, to continue the analogy, is that if we can just hold our own and then when we get back in the second half, just come out, like, blazing. And that’s what we really need to do; otherwise, this stuff is going to be really, really very harmful to us as a society.”

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