Harry Friesleben spent decades coaching, teaching and helping students develop at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School, eventually becoming an icon in the community and on the basketball court sidelines — even when it wasn’t the one the Rocks competed on.
“When we would go watch other teams play, whenever he walked into the gym, it was like Don Corleone walked in,” said Joe Lores, the winningest boys’ varsity basketball coach in ERHS history, comparing his colleague to the character from ‘The Godfather.’ “Everyone came to pay homage. It was incredible.”
Friesleben died on Aug. 11, at age 83, of cancer, but he leaves behind a legacy in the village of dedication to coaching and teaching. He was born in East Rockaway in 1938, and became a community fixture. He graduated from ERHS in 1956, and taught science and phys. ed. there while serving in various roles, including girls’ and boys’ varsity basketball coach and athletic director. In 2003, the high school gym was named in his honor.
Lores first met Friesleben in 1982 when he was the athletic director at ERHS and Lores was looking to become a volunteer basketball coach for any grade. He noted that he knew of Friesleben when he coached the ERHS varsity team when Lores played for Lynbrook High School, but didn’t meet him until he sought the job.
Upon their meeting, Friesleben offered Lores a job coaching junior-varsity boys’ basketball, a position he held for three years. When Lores got the chance to coach varsity boys’ basketball at Lynbrook High School, Friesleben didn’t want to lose him and offered him a position to coach varsity girls’ basketball at East Rockaway, but Lores declined because, he said, he thought he was a better boys coach. Friesleben then offered to become the girls’ varsity coach and give up his role of boys’ varsity coach to Lores after serving in that position for 27 years.
“I was blessed,” Lores said. “He took me under his wing from the very beginning. He’s always been in my corner.”
Lores went on to lead the boys’ team to 222 wins — more than any coach in school history — and five titles, including a Long Island championship when his son, Joseph, was on the team. In 2019, Lores was inducted into the Basketball Coaches Association of New York Hall of Fame, and he said he was proud that Friesleben stood beside him as he was enshrined.
William Kienkie recalled that he met Friesleben in 1967 when he was just a “skinny seventh-grader,” and former Athletic Director George Faulkner told Friesleben, then the junior-varsity boys’ coach, that Kienkie and Steve Hefele would be a good fit on the team. Kienkie described his former coach as “tough,” but said he helped him develop his game when he played for him from 1970 to ’73, and that they quickly grew a strong bond as Friesleben helped him hone his skills.
He added that Friesleben was there for him on and off the court, even in the years beyond when he played. When Kienkie’s second son, Gregg, died at 10 weeks, Friesleben was among the first people there to console his former player. Friesleben went on to coach Kienkie’s sons, Bryan and Mike, in later years, Kienkie said, noting they kept in touch and played golf with each other well after his playing days. Kienkie said he marveled at his former coach’s skills on the court.
“He used to sit in a chair at half court and make shots,” Kienkie recounted. “He was one of the best players in ERHS history . . . He was known all over Nassau County hoops by coaches and referees alike. He will be missed.”
His daughter, Janice Yale, fondly recalled how much her father loved basketball and helping to shape youth.
"Dad was a true student of the game of basketball," she said. "He kept a playbook by the side of his recliner and would draw up plays after reading the latest book or watching a great game on TV. His enthusiasm for the game was so clear whether he was studying the art of coaching or reminiscing about great plays, players or coaches at all levels of play. As a coach, he wanted to share a love of the game which went beyond the Xs and Os. "
She added that he emphasized setting goals, working hard to achieve them, being a good teammate, treating everyone (including opponents) with respect, knowing when to shoot and when to pass the ball and bouncing back from a loss are important life lessons he instilled in student-athletes.
Friesleben is survived by his wife, Patricia; his children, Janice Yale (Scott), Diane Friesleben and Khristen Lettiere (Vincent); his grandchildren, Kaitlyn (Matt), Timothy, Brandon, Zachary, Amanda, Lauren (Isaac) and Matthew; his great-grandson, William; and his sister, Marjorie Friesleben (Antoinette Deluca).
Friesleben’s wake was on Aug. 14 at Donza Funeral Home in East Rockaway, and his funeral was held there on Aug. 16. He was buried at Pinelawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Farmingdale.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be sent to the American Cancer Society.
Lores said Friesleben’s effect on East Rockaway would not be forgotten. “When you think of East Rockaway basketball, you think of him,” he said. “When you think of just that person who was larger than life in the building, it was him. He just commanded respect all through the county.”