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In his battle with grief, Borcia's coming up big
 

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In his battle with grief, Borcia's coming up big
  • Joe Borcia of Libertyville is developing into an very impressive player as one of the better big men in the North Suburban Conference. Sports became a refuge of sorts for Borcia as he coped with the tragic loss of his younger brother Tony, who was killed in a boating accident in the Chain of Lakes two summers ago.

    Purchase Photo | Joe Borcia of Libertyville is developing into an very impressive player as one of the better big men in the North Suburban Conference. Sports became a refuge of sorts for Borcia as he coped with the tragic loss of his younger brother Tony, who was killed in a boating accident in the Chain of Lakes two summers ago. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  •  Libertyville center Joe Borcia listens to coach Scott Bogumil talk during practice.

    Purchase Photo | Libertyville center Joe Borcia listens to coach Scott Bogumil talk during practice. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  •  Libertyville center Joe Borcia goes in for a dunk during practice. Borcia is developing into a very impressive player. He's one of the better big men in the NSC.

    Purchase Photo | Libertyville center Joe Borcia goes in for a dunk during practice. Borcia is developing into a very impressive player. He's one of the better big men in the NSC. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 

Baseball was Tony Borcia's best sport.

But he had a passion for basketball that was fueled by the connection it allowed him to have with his older brother, Joe.

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"I remember all the times Joe and his friends would play basketball on the (mini) rims in the basement with Tony and his friends," Jim Borcia, the boys' father, said with a chuckle. "Joe and his friends would play on their knees."

About five years separated Joe and Tony Borcia. Joe, now a 6-foot-10 star center for the Libertyville boys basketball team, was Tony's idol. Tony was thrilled that Joe agreed to share a bedroom with him, even though both could have had their own rooms.

"Tony was fun-loving and positive and we played sports together all the time," Joe said. "He loved to look up to me and play the same sports as me, and I loved having him hang out with me. I looked after him."

Two summers ago, though, there was nothing Joe could have done to protect his little brother. Tony was killed in a horrific boating accident on the Chain O'Lakes that generated countless headlines.

The Borcia family was out for a day of boating and tubing. Tony, who was 10 years old at the time, fell off his tube while he was riding alongside his sister Erin, who was on her own tube. As Jim Borcia began to turn his boat around to pick up Tony, the family noticed that a huge powerboat was charging right at Tony.

The boat was traveling so fast that the front was lifted out of the water, which prevented the driver from seeing Tony, who was waving his hands.

Tony was run over and killed instantly as Joe and his family helplessly watched in horror.

"I dove in the water, looking for Tony and I couldn't find him," Joe said. "It was horrible."

The painful heartbreak from that awful July day in 2012, which yielded a prison sentence for the powerboat driver, found to be driving under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, still has a strong hold on Joe.

Most days, his only refuge is the basketball court.

"Every day is different. Some days I lack motivation to do anything," Joe Borcia said. "Some nights it's hard for me to get sleep. Some days I'm sad, some days I'm angry.

"But when I play basketball, it's like I don't feel the stress. I've always loved basketball. It's always been my favorite sport. When I'm sitting around at school or at home, I find myself thinking about what happened to my brother. When I'm out playing on the court, I don't go there as much."

Borcia is going places, though.

In an amazing display of strength, determination and resiliency, Borcia has done exactly the opposite of what many do in the face of tragedy and personal loss. He hasn't retracted. He hasn't turned away from his dreams and ambitions.

Instead, Borcia has immersed himself in improving his game, and in turn, himself. And now, he's seeing the benefits.

Borcia, whose dad is 6-foot-5, whose mom Margaret is 6-feet and whose cousins are 7-feet and 6-foot-5, has become one of the best big men in Lake County. He is leading Libertyville in scoring at nearly 20 points per game.

"Joe did a great job in the off-season," Libertyville coach Scott Bogumil said of Borcia, who grew 2 inches since last season, when he logged a ton of minutes as a promising sophomore. "He's got really good footwork and he's a good passer and he can shoot.

"But to me, the biggest thing is his unbelievable focus. He's had to be so focused to get through everything with his brother and still improve as a player. It's been good for him, though. Basketball gives him a sense of belonging to something where there's not a constant reminder of what happened to his family."

But even basketball can't offer a constant shield.

As much as Borcia can lose himself and his pain on the court, he can't do so without fail. Emotions and memories and triggers can be unpredictable, and can pop up at inopportune times.

"Sometimes I struggle, even when I'm playing basketball," Borcia said. "I know for a fact that stuff with my brother has come out on the court, and that's hard for me."

Borcia admits to losing his cool last month in Libertyville's heated loss to Stevenson, in which he was hit in the mouth and suffered damage to his teeth that was so severe a root canal was required.

At one point, a weary Borcia was tagged with a dead-ball foul, which is an automatic technical. Later, he says he had a snippy exchange with an official that resulted in a second technical and automatic ejection.

Borcia was forced to sit out Libertyville's next game against Lake Forest.

"Stevenson's game plan was clearly to deny me the ball at all costs and then flop to the ground if I did get it," Borcia said. "I got frustrated, probably more frustrated than I would have gotten in the past. I never used to act like that.

"I can see anger like that come out sometimes, and that's something I'm working on because I don't want to make excuses. I know I have to deal with my frustrations and anger better and not let it affect my game."

Another thing Borcia wants to improve is his strength and weight. Slender and wiry, Borcia is trying to get serious about working in weight room and eating right. At 225 pounds now, Borcia wants to get up to 250 pounds to have even more of an impact with college recruiters.

Already he's getting plenty of Division I looks.

"No offers yet, but I'm hearing from multiple coaches every day," Borcia said. "I'm looking for a school that is right for me, though. I want to go to a school that will accept me for me and everything that has happened to me."

Borcia wishes his little brother could be part of the process. He says Tony would have loved all the attention that recruiting brings.

"He was always so proud of me and would always be telling his friends, 'My brother is doing this, my brother is doing that. My brother is really good at basketball,'" Borcia said. "He loved to brag and he'd be at every game. He was my biggest fan."

Of course, the feeling, Joe says, was quite mutual.

Remembering Tony: The Borcia family created the Y-NoT (Tony's name spelled backwards) Project in memory of Tony.

The foundation's mission is to educate boaters about the dangers of excessive speed and operating boats while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For more information, visit www.ynotproject.com.

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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