GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Oct. 1, 2017 was a day supposed to be filled with joy and excitement for the Polakovich family.
Jacob Polakovich, a senior basketball standout at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, was on an official recruiting visit to Ferris State University.
“We were at breakfast that (Sunday) morning and everything was normal,” said Jacob Polakovich. “He was joking around.”
That’s when things changed very quickly. Jacob’s dad, Jimmy Polakovich, suffered a massive heart attack.
“We’re sure he passed away there in the cafeteria,” said Missie Polakovich, his wife of 25 years. The two had been together for 32 years.
Jimmy Polakovich was better known by his nickname “South Side” Jimmy. He was 51 years old when he died.
“I just have to get out of bed every day and figure out what life is going to be next,” said Missie Polakovich.
The family said the most difficult challenge now is finding the strength to move forward each day.
Missie, Jacob and sister Alex Polakovich all find strength in each other and their memories of husband and dad.
“I’m not going to be defeated,” said Missie Polakovich. “We’re a family and this is what Jimmy would want us to do.”
“My dad was, I hate saying that word was, he was just the epitome of tough love,” said Alex. “It was like, ‘You know you have to do these things, why aren’t you doing them?’ Then it was like, ‘I love you anyways’ and a big bear hug.”
Jimmy Polakovich was the “Jimmy” in South Side Jimmy’s, a restaurant and bar he and his wife owned together in the early 1990s on Grand Rapids’ south side.
“He was a really hard worker,” said Missie Polakovich. “He’d do anything for anybody.”
Alex Polakovich said that was a quality people loved about him.
“People appreciated that about him. He was very up front and forward,” she said. “You knew if you were asking him something you’d get the right answer; I think people really hold onto that.”
Jimmy Polakovich was a well-known and respected man.
“Someone would almost always stop me and ask if I was South Side’s son and tell me a story about the restaurant and how he helped them,” said Jacob Polakovich. “I just think he really enjoyed helping people.”
That drive to help others never more evident than this past summer. South Side and “Mama P”, as the players know Missie Polakovich, rented a team van to take the Cougars to all their summer basketball camps.
“It really was a bus. It was a bus,” said senior guard Austin Braun. “That’s really our best memory of him. Saying funny jokes and just all of us, he was taking care of all of us.”
Many players appreciated what the couple did for them over the summer.
“He and Missie rode up front and packed all kinds of food,” said coach TJ Merreman. “That allowed us to do a lot of bonding together by not having us ride down in separate cars.”
South Side was doing his part to bring this group of young men closer. Despite his passing, it continues.
“Every time we break it down, we say South Side,” said Braun. “That’s what we’re playing for. We’re really dedicating the season to him.”
The team wears T-shirts during warmups and recite a prayer during the national anthem honoring Southside. Jacob Polakovich uses some time just before the opening tip to pray with his father.
“I say a little prayer,” said Jacob Polakovich. “It’s something I’ve found comfort in.”
There’s one more place during home games the Polakovich family can find comfort.
“I can remember seeing him up here,” Braun said as he turned and pointed behind him to a corner of the gym.
One of the Polakoviches’ closest friends hung a banner in the corner where Jimmy Polakovich always sat to root on any Catholic Central team. It reads “Jimmy’s Corner”.
“It’s everything to me,” said Missie Polakovich. “It just shows me that we’re going to be okay.”
The banner means a lot to the whole family.
“I just kind of looked up in the stands to see if my mom and sister were there yet and saw that,” said Jacob Polakovich, referencing the first time he saw the banner. “Our team, coach, all my friends, the whole Catholic Central community. They’re all just showing us that everyone is here for us.”
Just like Southside was and still is for them.