Salvation on the hardwood:

Assistant basketball coach James Link turns grief into inspiration

By Michael O’Donnell |

It’s the opening game of the Flagler College men’s basketball season. The booster club has decked the gym in the college’s red and gold colors. The gym is packed. But to Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach James Link, the seat his mother used to occupy at every home game, cheering on the team as the Saints came out in their red warm-ups, remains empty.

Link turned to the game of basketball, the game that he loves so dearly, after his mother, Tina Link, died in 2007, losing her life to bone cancer and leukemia.

“The whole fall semester I knew my mom was sick, but I thought she had been doing great,” Link said. “She just lived every day to the fullest and was really the glue that held our family together. She meant everything to me. She was my number one supporter and the reason I love the game of basketball so much.”

Link’s love for basketball began at a young age when his mother taught him the fundamentals of the game. His basketball career flourished at Buchholz High School in Gainesville under the tutelage of coach Bob Hordodyski.

“Link was never the best player on the team or the most skilled,” Hordodyski said. “He had something that could not be taught. However, he was a tough player both mentally and physically and could out work even the most talented players.”

That toughness led Link to want to play for Flagler, where he played for coach Bo Clark from 1999 to 2003 as a non-scholarship walk-on during his first year on the team.

“He was the ultimate teammate,” Clark said. “In my 22 years of coaching, he is the best defender I ever coached.”

After graduating, Link fallowed in the footsteps of his father, Art Link, who is an art professor at Santa Fe Community College, and his brother Artie Link, who is an NCAA Div. I football coach at Campbell University.

“My brother [Artie] is my hero and anything he says, I take into consideration,” Link said. “So, after graduation, I did not know what I wanted to do, and my brother suggested that I pursue a career in coaching basketball — so I did.”

After a volunteer coaching stint at Flagler from 2004 to 2005, he became a full-time assistant at high-power NCAA Div. III Washington College. Then Link returned for a second go-round at Flagler as a part-time assistant coach.

“I came back because coach Clark needed someone he could trust and rely on,” Link said. “Div. II is a step up for me, but more importantly, I love this school, the program and the players on the squad.”
Since his return to Flagler, Link has faced many hardships. Over the course of a year and a half, Link has lost three of his family members—his grandmother, his sister and, most recently, his mother. After his mother’s death, Link found comfort and salvation in basketball. He could be found on the sidelines next to the team or yelling at the players about the importance of the fundamentals of the game.
“The day after my mom’s funeral, I was right back on the court, figuring out what we could do and who we could recruit to make this team better for next year,” Link said. “My mom was the team’s number one fan, and I came back because I knew that this is what she would want me to do because this is what I love. I love recruiting and teaching the game of basketball.”

Even though Link is doing what he loves, and it is what his mother would have wanted him to do, Benjamin De La Cruz, the team’s center, said Link still agonizes over his mother’s death and is doing all he can to cope.

“Jimmy still has a tough time dealing with his Mom’s death,” De La Cruz said. “He has the support of a very close circle of friends, and he has the basketball team. And if he weren’t coaching basketball, he’d find something else or some other form of competition.”

As much as basketball has brought Link inner peace and the beginnings of normalcy, Clark believes the team has done that for Link as well. Because his mother loved the team warm-ups, when the Link family held the funeral Jan. 10, the team wore its red warm-ups to the funeral to honor her memory. The players all lined up with their hands folded behind their backs and said good-bye to their biggest fan.

“I think this season and the team in general helped a lot with the grieving process,” Clark said. “We want this team to be a second family for him because he is a huge part of this team and our success and we want to be there for him, like he is for us.”

The Saints finished their season with a 20—7 record, and the next basketball season is on the horizon. With a majority of their starters coming back, the Saints are most likely to be ranked among the nation’s top five independent NCAA Div. II basketball teams. But Link still looks for his mother’s support.

“Before every game, I say a little prayer, hoping that my mom can hear it,” Link said. “I think the sadness will always be there. I still hear her screaming from the stands, telling us what to do during a game. But I don’t know what’s ahead. Winning a Div. II title would be a great accomplishment. But it won’t be the same, because I can’t share it with my mother.”

After Flagler beat one of the best NCAA Div. II teams in the country, the University of West Florida, Link visited his mother’s grave. He knelt down and placed flowers at the base of the marker. As he stood, Link patted the tombstone, as if he was giving his Mom a hug and letting her know that he was still there.

Then he walked away.

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