The coach, his princess and his city

This is a city where his mother would whip up soft, deviled eggs for her youngest son whenever he was sick. It's the same place where he returned the favor and temporarily left his post at Murray State in 2005 to come home and care for her as she wrestled with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, in the final days of her life.

He starred in a local Catholic youth league that allowed teams to play zone only because they couldn't stop the young, shifty Cronin with man-to-man matchups. He spent his teenage years searching his hometown for the hottest pickup games with his best friend and current Dallas Mavericks assistant Monte Mathis. They'd start at La Salle, Withrow or Purcell high schools in the afternoon. Then, they'd join the older cats at Indian Hills prep in the evening.

But the scrappiest matchups were held in Mathis' backyard. "There was a lot of bumps, bruises, broken bones, blood," Mathis said. "There was a lot going on in that backyard because we had kids from three towns over coming to play games in the backyard. It was pretty brutal at times."

The hardwood and asphalt around Cincinnati are stained by Cronin's blood, sweat and tears.

"Somebody had enough gas in a car to get there," Cronin said. "That was my life. That was my whole life."

Cronin had game, but he didn't have any cartilage in his right knee. One misstep in a high school game during his junior season at La Salle ruined ligaments and any dreams of playing high-major college basketball. Doctors told him that he'd face knee replacement surgery by the time he turned 30 if he tried. It was a devastating verdict.

"That was his only sport," said Hep Cronin, who coached his son at La Salle and was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Hall of Fame last year. "He only played basketball. That was it. He was anticipating going to college on a basketball scholarship."

Bad knees, new dreams

A few minutes into a Cincinnati practice, as the Bearcats prepared for a midweek trip to UCF, everything seemed fluid and sleek. Cronin never raised his voice or stomped his feet as he directed his squad in the intense defensive drills -- three players clunked their heads during one hectic scramble for a loose ball -- that condition a program rated fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

It was all smooth until something happened that observers along the sideline missed. Some breakdown, some lapse.

Cronin abruptly interrupted the session for a brief motivational chat.

"We're trying to win the national f-----g championship!" he growled.

Like his peers in the profession, Cronin has a little crazy in him. It's a good crazy, though -- birthed by an unyielding passion. And it's an attitude his players love.

"That's my best friend," senior forward Justin Jackson said. "That's like my mentor. He's hard on you just because he wants what's best for you."

In seconds, Cronin can switch from berating his players for allowing "Peyton Manning" passes to poking Kilpatrick about the time some guy named George "busted you in the lip last summer." That's why they trust him when he tells them he's more interested in their quality of life than their ability to help him win games.

"He's someone that cares about you," Kilpatrick said. "He cares about your future and really cares about what happens with your future besides basketball. That's all you can really ask for from a coach. He's never changed on me. He's someone I actually look up to."

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