Scared and shaken, Carolyn and John Unice sat on their bed and cried.
Moments before, what John’s doctor told them was life shattering. John’s medical diagnosis was unthinkable and exasperating. “He told us to take a six-month vacation because I was going to die,” John Unice remembered, “not words you want hear.”
John Unice, an enthusiastic, “get-after” it type of basketball player at Uniontown High School and Washington & Jefferson College and then later successful coach at Washington and McKeesport high schools and W&J, had amyloidosis – a rare and serious protein disorder with a bleak survival rate.
“I’m not a quitter,” Unice said. “I wasn’t going to give up. We called the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota.
“They offered me two protocols. I asked them to give me the toughest one. It was 18 months of chemotherapy. The fact was I had a blood disease that typically attacks the heart and liver.”
Unice had to rally his faithful and personal forces – his will, toughness and the defensive weapons, that earned him the nickname “Bandit” at Uniontown – to fend off death itself. The devastating disease was about to face an opponent who was so ferocious and fierce on the court, that he would as easily steal the ball from the dribbler than draw his last breath.
“We fought it every step,” Unice said.
In the late 1980s, Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri was diagnosed with amyloidosis. Coincidentally, within a few years in the mid to late 1980s, three of Pennsylvania’s most prominent political leaders were afflicted with the disorder. Caliguiri as well as longtime Erie Mayor Louis Tullio and Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey were all diagnosed with the incurable and usually fatal disease.
They all fought a good fight with amyloidosis but eventually succumbed to the disease.
In 1992, when Unice was diagnosed, the outlook wasn’t better.
After the 18 months of chemotherapy, Unice and Carolyn returned to the Mayo Clinic, they were hopeful of not hearing the worse. What they learned was surprising.
“The doctor said the disease was gone,” John Unice said. “It basically was a miracle.”
The Unices, married 50 years, live out their miracle in North Franklin Township. The couple have three children Stephanie, Lynne and John.
They cherish spending time with their 11 grandchildren and watching them in their athletic and other endeavors.
“I would not give up, not ever,” Unice said. “We have all we need right here.”
John Unice grew up in Uniontown, one of eight children. Their father was the head of sanitation there. John Unice held his own job and contributed his entire weekly pay – $10 from a paper route – for family taxes.
In addition to being a paper boy, Unice was building a reputation as a menacing defender and good shooter on the playgrounds in Uniontown – Lincoln View playground.
“I’d leave in the morning, go to the playground for three hours until noon. We’d go home for lunch and go back and play until about 6 o’clock.
“We played on dirt. You’d shake out your clothes and do the same thing the next day.”
By the time he was in fifth and sixth grade, people knew about the “Unice kid.”
In junior high school – Lafayette Junior High School – Unice’s eighth and ninth grade teams combined to win 42 of 43 games.
“Uniontown was a hot-bed,” Unice said. “I was all about sports. I was also an altar boy. I carried a rosary with me on every bus trip to a game.”
Unice was a standout for the Raiders, helping them to a pair of WPIAL championship games. Unfortunately, Uniontown lost to Farrell in Unice’s junior year and then lost to Mt. Lebanon his senior year. Uniontown beat Mt. Lebanon in the regular season and finished with a 24-1 record.
“I sobbed like a baby,” Unice said. “We all did.”
Unice had opportunities to play at a handful of schools, he decided on W&J.
“It was close to home,” he said.
Unice, who graduated from the college in 1965 was the face of Presidents’ basketball for four decades. He established his legacy as a player and a coach.
He came to W&J as a freshman in 1961 and became the starting point guard in his fifth collegiate game. He played all 72 games during his four years. Unice was a two-time team MVP and a two-time All-Presidents’ Athletic Conference honoree. Following his senior season, he was chosen to the all-district team, averaging 14.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
He was coached by David Scarborough – who called Unice “the finest player I’ve ever coached.”
Unice became the head coach at his alma mater in 1976. He coached 17 years at W&J and led the Presidents to three PAC titles. He was also named the PAC Coach of the Year three times.
In 1984-85, Unice guided W&J to an 18-6 overall record and a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The 18 wins tied a school record and were the most by a W&J squad since 1951. He was selected as the Small College District Coach of the Year.
Through the years, his teams played Navy, Bucknell, Princeton and WVU.
In 1994, Unice was inducted into the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted to W&J’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.
“The Unice family represents decades of successful basketball at W&J,” said Presidents athletic director, Scott McGuinness. “Few people have the honor to be a head coach at their alma mater so that had to be pretty special for John.
“Then, to be able to witness (his daughter) Lynne’s tremendous career as a President only adds to his legacy. He will stop into the gym from time-to-time ad see how things are going and ask if he can help with anything. He loves W&J College.”
Unice lit WHS’ fire
In August of 1968, Wash High athletic director Bob Wagner – who had a knack for hiring the right coaches – brought Unice in to run the Little Prexies’ basketball program.
Unice, just 26 years old at the time, transferred his playing success and spirit for the game to Wash High basketball.
His disciplinary and motivating style meshed well with his Prexies’ individual talent and thirst for success.
His coaching career took off at Wash High. He led the Little Prexies to three consecutive section championships (1971-1973) and to the 1973 WPIAL Class-B championship game. Wash High lost to a talented Midland squad at the former Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. The Little Prexies won two PIAA games to advance to the PIAA Western finals before again losing to Midland in that state semifinal game. Wash High finished 25-4 and fourth in the state. “That’s the best team I ever coached,” Unice said. “We played very good defense. Those kids were coachable. We beat some great teams along the way.
“We thought we were the best team. Midland was a great team. I loved coaching at Wash High and those kids. They were motivated to do great things and they did.”
Unice parlayed his success at Wash High to landing the head coaching job at McKeesport, where he would win one section title outright and shared another.
“I’m sorry I left Wash High,” he admits. “I liked McKeesport and we had some good teams. But Wash High will always be special for me.” More than the games won (77 of 120 overall) and the championships captured, Unice started to turn the city on to the Little Prexies’ program. Interest was rising and his era started a love affair between the program and a growing following. Wash High won 34 of 36 section games his final three seasons.
“He taught me the game of basketball,” said Robert (Braymore) Anderson, a member of the ’73 team. “There was no better teacher of the game than John. He understood our backgrounds. He understood the game and had great assistants. He knew how to get the most out of us and he promoted education.
“Seven of us went on to college from that team and got degrees. A lot of thanks go to John.
“Our team and coaches are the reason Wash High basketball had a strong following. It all started in 1971.”
Carl Grinage was one of the standouts on that 1973 team. He remains proud of the accomplishments and the teams the Little Prexies competed against and defeated in the three years from 1971-1973.
“Growing up, we were independent kids,” Grinage said. “He molded us together and kept us together. He was really strict and disciplined. Off his background, he had a real good feel for us.
“We all had individual skills we developed through the years at LeMoyne Center and on the playgrounds. He brought it all together. He had a great system and I give him a lot of credit.” Unice also shaped the careers of those who coached with him and for him. The late Doug Masciola, who became Unice’s successor at Wash High, went on to become a successful high school coach. Bill Watson and Bill Fleissner coached under him. Watson eventually became head coach at the former Immaculate Conception High School and Fleissner followed Masciola at Wash High. “He was extremely dedicated to basketball,” Watson said of Unice. “John is a super good guy. I had the eighth graders back then and Doug had ninth graders. “We’d go there in summer all the time, all of us. He was driven. He was a very good coach. It was a pleasure to work for him.”
Unice’s most successful protege is Ron Faust. He played for Unice then coached for him. Faust went on to lead the Little Prexies to four WPIAL titles and two PIAA crowns. More than 600 wins later over 35 seasons, Faust continues to flourish. He credits Unice for a lot of what he knows and to this day, follows Unice’s strategies and philosophy of the game. “To be honest, he was my mentor,” Faust said. “He took me under his wing. The basis of everything I do today comes from John Unice. “The stuff I use now, I’m talking old-school stuff, is what John used. “John is responsible for me being in this game.”