ST. PETERSBURG — Donte Barbery greeted each morning with an air of unbounded celebration.
He rose early and got his kids up by jumping on their beds. Before he left for his construction job, Mr. Barbery paid tribute to Kendra McCray, his recent fiancee, with a special dance.
"He danced like he was a stripper," McCray, 30, said with a brief giggle.
Mr. Barbery died July 7. He was 38. Besides McCray, to whom he proposed three days before his death, he leaves behind children ages 10, 11 and 16.
Besides his ebullience, he will be remembered for his passion as a volunteer coach who motivated young basketball players at Roberts Recreation Center.
Someday, he hoped to make a living counseling kids. But for now, coaching was his life. Since the 1990s, Mr. Barbery coached boys, girls and coed teams of 10- and 11-year-olds at Roberts. He also coached the St. Pete Grizzlies, a high school girls team that travels the state.
"He was a sought-after coach," said Dan Kelly, the basketball director at Roberts. "When they got involved with Donte, that's where they wanted to stay. They didn't want to move on to any other coach."
"Coach Donte" pushed his teams with practices three times a week. He screamed at the refs so much, he started biting on a towel instead.
He was famous for his tearful postgame speeches, praising the team's effort if it lost and asking for just a little more.
The intensity paid off. Teams coached by Mr. Barbery played in seven league championship games, winning four, said Kenneth Powell, Mr. Barbery's stepfather and fellow basketball coach.
His impact was even greater off the court.
"One boy had trouble in school," said Kelly, 73. "We thought about having him sit home during games and practices."
That idea didn't sit well with Mr. Barbery. He approached Kelly with an alternate plan. "He said, 'I found a way to get the boy working. I hired him a tutor.' "
The tutor showed up an hour before practices. "If you don't come for the tutor, you don't play," Mr. Barbery told the boy.
"Needless to say, the boy never missed a practice. His grades improved, and he was able to play," Kelly said.
The center made Mr. Barbery its coach of the year.
He grew up mostly in St. Petersburg and played guard for the Northeast High Vikings. He studied psychology at St. Petersburg College for a year.
Mr. Barbery wanted to return to school and become a counselor, perhaps a motivational speaker. First, he wanted to marry McCray, his partner of 13 years. He waited for this year's Fourth of July family cookout to propose.
"He got down on one knee and asked if I wanted to marry him," said Barbery, 30. "There was a lot of applauding and a lot of crying."
Over the years, Mr. Barbery influenced hundreds of young players. One of those was Benjamin Martin, who played basketball for two years at Roberts.
When his sixth-grade teacher asked the students to write about someone who had inspired them to greatness, Benjamin selected coach Donte.
"I just said he made me a better person overall," said Benjamin, now 13 and living in Chapel Hill, N.C. "He taught you how to win and lose with respect."
Mr. Barbery woke his children July 7 in the usual manner, bouncing on their beds and singing silly songs. Before he left, he complained of pain in his leg. Then he did his Chippendales dance for McCray and was out the door.
At work, Mr. Barbery told his foreman he could hardly breathe. Emergency workers arrived, but it was too late. The Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office found that Mr. Barbery died of a pulmonary embolism.
Overflow crowds, including many players, streamed into his wake at Smith Funeral Home on Monday. Mourners also packed Reach the Unreached Church of God in Christ on Tuesday for his funeral service.
"I just accepted it," said Judith Powell, 53, Mr. Barbery's mother. "He's up there doing something else."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]