Stand outside Joe Lewinger’s office long enough and you’d see why he was the heart and soul of The Mary Louis Academy.
His office — basically a large sports closet with a desk and refrigerator — is located just outside the small gymnasium at the all-girls Catholic high school in Jamaica Estates, Queens. There, however, was nothing small about the man who inhabited it and the impact he had on everyone around him.
The room and the space around it were always a hub of enthusiasm, smiles and joy during his 20 years at the school. Many of the girls would spend time at his office just to be around Lewinger, the school’s athletic director, assistant principal and former basketball coach. Either that or he’d often be popping in and out, sharing an inside joke, or motivating one of the athletes passing by, regardless of sport.
Lewinger died late Saturday night as a result of complications from coronavirus at the way-too-early age of 42, just a few days after the school lost assistant basketball coach Dave Edwards to the same virus that has become a global pandemic.
Lewinger, who built the school’s athletic program from the bottom of the CHSAA into one of the city’s most respected, may have coached basketball, but he connected with everyone — one of those special people who knew how to walk that fine line between mentor and friend.
He didn’t have any of the health conditions that would have left him vulnerable to COVID-19. It’s a sobering reminder that no one is invulnerable to the pandemic. He is survived by his wife, Maura, and three children.
Lewinger’s family had already lived what felt like a lifetime of anguish, dealing with serious health issues. His twins, Madison and Jack, both beat cancer as young children and are healthy and now thriving. Madison was diagnosed in 2008 with Stage IV Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidney that affects about 500 children in the United States each year. Jack was tested later that summer and a Stage II tumor in his left kidney was found.
Lewinger stepped away from coaching basketball multiple times to focus on their health. He and Maura needed to find the best or next treatment, especially as Madison’s cancer kept coming back. There were days you could see the exhaustion in his eyes, but it never tempered his enthusiasm around the kids.
“You see what he goes through every day and you never see it on his face,” guard Aislinn Shevlin said at the time. “He’s such a pillar of strength for his family, for his team and for the school.”
In February of 2010, when they were 4, both Madison and Jack were well enough to attend one of their dad’s games — a Mary Louis win. Jack was in remission and Madison still needed to wear a mask and gloves to be safe. There was no hugging the players because both were still extremely susceptible to germs due to their weakened immune systems.
Madison relapsed a month later and the team rallied around Lewinger, who was unsure if he would finish the season on the bench. Maura told him to keep going and Mary Louis beat Bishop Ford by one point to reach the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens championship game.
“She said, ‘You live every day as much as you can,’” Lewinger recalled then. “That’s what we have to do now — live every moment. She said, ‘It could be a nice evening for you.’ ”
It was Lewinger who received a standing ovation from his team in the locker room after the win. He stepped away from coaching for good in 2012.
“We all wanted this for Mr. Lewinger and Madison,” guard Jackie Kresse said following the game. “It was amazing. I just wanted to put a smile on Mr. Lewinger’s face.”
Lewinger, who also served on the Board of Education of the Franklin Square Union Free School District since 2015, spent his life putting smiles on others faces. He had plenty of accomplishments as a coach, winning a Class D New York State Federation championship in 2002 and a Class A crown in 2007, but his greatest accomplishment was the impact he had on the lives of others. It was Lewinger’s positivity and energy that got so many others through their own personal struggles and created bonds far beyond coach and player.
“Aside from my grandpa, he was a second father-figure to me,” former TMLA and St. John’s guard Amanda Burakoski said. “He took me under his wing before I even got to TMLA and made sure that I was always taken care of and looked out for. We argued like a father and daughter would, but forgave each other because we loved each other and knew that nothing would break our bond.”
There was never an ulterior motive with Lewinger, just love and a general concern for the well-being of others. Often you’d be interviewing him on a topic, and he’d end up asking you questions to get to the best answer and outcome for the kids. That’s what it always was about, his kids, Mary Louis’ kids or those in the CHSAA and his school district.
“He changed the lives of every person he came into contact with by giving them the tools to be successful and genuinely believing in them,” said former TMLA forward Maral Javadifar, now an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He cultivated a culture at TMLA and created a foundation that is everlasting.”