When one inspiring high school basketball story hits close to home
I'd split my pants. I didn't know if it was the spread eagle-style jump I'd executed in the bleachers of The Pit at the University of New Mexico after a player on the St. Pius boys' basketball team made a steal and layup in the second quarter of the 2013 New Mexico State High School Basketball Championships. Or if it was the lunge I'd fallen into when St. Pius fell behind 35-34 the third period. But what was clear for all to see was this: My outlandish underwear, with its constellation of glittered, stars in reds and blues that I thought no one would see but me, now peered out from the severed seams of the seat of my pants.
For more than 12 years as a professional sportswriter, I've learned to vacate any emotional connection to the games I've watched in the pursuit of objectivity. But last March, with my pants ripped and my voice hoarse, I allowed myself to cheer for the one team I still actively rooted for -- the high school team in Albuquerque coached by my brother, Damian. I sat in the upper reaches of the arena as my brother paced the sidelines where Jim Valvano stood 30 years earlier, looking for someone to hug. On that same court, Damian, grease board in hand, tie knotted perfectly, attempted to lead St. Pius to its fourth state championship in eight years.
As I cheered, all sense of reason dignity and appropriate vocabulary escaped me. I let a string of expletives leave my mouth on a bad play. "Stop it," my 12-year-old niece and Damian's daughter, Karina, pleaded with me. "I'm trying to pray."
In our family, praying at a basketball game seems like a perfectly normal request of the Almighty. We're Catholics by faith, basketball by religion. We've measured our lives not so much in years but in seasons; our milestones marked not so much by dates on a calendar but by games on the schedule. Basketball has dictated everything in my family from where we eat on a Friday night (must be within a five mile radius of tip-off) to when we eat Christmas Eve dinner (can't conflict with practice) to when we schedule our vacations. Last March I took a week off from my job scouring around for the best sports stories, completely unaware that the best one I could tell was unfolding on the court below me.
New research reveals that no relationship exerts more influence over us than that of our siblings. They have a greater influence over many of the decisions we make, including in my case, career paths.
Being Damian's little sister meant watching episodes of Up Close with Roy Firestone after school every Monday through Thursday, Hoosiers every Friday, The Sports Reporters with every Sunday morning, and in the wee hours of every Christmas morning before we'd wake mom and dad to open gifts, Inside the NFL. Because of my brother, there's no other sound I'll more closely associate with the holidays than ... Harry Kalas' rasp.
Being Damian's little sister also meant being the recipient of a bag full of stuffed animals he won shooting free throws at an amusement park. It meant having a brother who popped a Vivaran and drove through the night after his final exams at his college in San Antonio to make a surprise appearance as I pitched in the quarterfinals of the state softball championships my sophomore year. And in high school it also meant having suitors vetted, not only by my big brother, but also by the frontcourt of his basketball team he'd invited to sit on our couch, arms crossed, to greet the young blokes.
As adults, I understood my brother loved basketball but couldn't comprehend the lengths he went to coach it. For years he arrived to work as an engineer by 6 a.m. in order to make it to practice by 6 p.m. I watched him on the sidelines, shooting his fingers in the air to call plays, knowing he'd stayed up most of the night breaking down film, and wonder why.
Why spend most of your nights drawing up plays for a team that no more than two hundred people at a time would watch? Often there wasn't even a local reporter to cover his games. Damian loved this world and was successful in it, parlaying all those hours into wins, including three consecutive state titles in just five years. But what did it all mean? Was all the lost time, sleep and stress worth the rhinestone rings he'd won with each state title?
And now, the back pain. Sitting hurt, standing hurt, everything hurt in what I figured must have been a dislodged disc in his back caused by one of his impromptu defensive squats on the sidelines, when he lowered his knees and raised his arms in coach's box as if he could stop an opposing player's drive through the paint. Was his an empty pursuit of plywood and plastic trophies ... and pain?
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2011 -- Day 1 of the Gallup Invitational -- Damian sat in the examination room of a doctor's office. He wore a St. Pius basketball sweatshirt and compulsively checked his cell phone, awaiting minute-by-minute updates from the first game of a tournament tipping off 120 miles west.
Damian, 36, had only missed two games in his career and this doctor's appointment made it three. But it couldn't wait. One day earlier, the doctor who Damian had seen about his nagging lower back pain called to tell him that slightly to the left of where his coach's whistle dangled above his belly, he'd discovered an eight-centimeter cancerous tumor. Though this would be his first appointment since the diagnosis, my brother -- bouncing on and off the patient's table, fidgeting with nervous energy -- couldn't focus so much on radical nephrectomies or clear cell carcinomas or any of the other scary phrases added to my family's vocabulary. He was at the edge of his examination table worrying about a basketball game. "I hate not being there for my guys," he said as we passed the minutes that seemed like months waiting for the doctor. Everyone, it seems, copes in his own way. Breaking Bad's Walter White focused on the yellow mustard stain on his doctor's coat during his initial cancer consultation. My brother thought about an orange ball.
After the doctor told Damian he would lose his kidney, I rode with him to the tournament as he pondered how to break the news of his illness to a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old boys more concerned with girls and sports than life and death. Mostly blank faces and disbelieving eyes looked back at him as he gathered his team in a hotel room to break the news.
The next morning I went into reporter mode, alternating between frantic calls to physician friends and desperate Google searches, trying to find the best surgeon we could afford for my brother. The only thing that halted my relentless search through medical journals and doctor ratings was the tip-off of his second-round tournament game. That game -- and the others that followed it -- became my family's 90-minute salvation from grief and worry; normalcy parceled out in eight-minute quarters. Most of all, the seriousness of his situation put in sharp relief just how fully alive he was on the sidelines.
After taking third in that tournament came a slate of games that kicked off the district season. The first home game for St. Pius since his diagnosis happened before the end of most college holiday breaks. That meant that when the first game ended, a slew of his former players awaited him in the lobby after the game. I watched as players from his past eight years descended upon him, hugged him, and told him what most 20-year-old boys only tell 20-year-old girls in miniskirts and tank tops: "I love you." I heard of a former defensive stalwart receiving a text message with news of his Damian's cancer, then throwing his cellphone, locking himself in his room, and crying for the rest of the evening. I learned of the former player who struggled with an alcoholic father and called to thank Damian for fulfilling a paternal role in his life. I watched a graduated center's mom call around, trying to schedule a rotation of families to drop off home cooked meals when my brother got out of the hospital. I read the notebook parents passed around, writing messages of thanks and gratitude for teaching their sons not about basketball, but manhood and life. Most of all, I saw just how badly I'd misunderstood what my brother had spent all that time in the gym doing.
On Jan. 28, 2011, after the final game my brother could coach before his surgery, Mike Aragon, the father of the starting point guard, invited former players and their families to his home for party. The white-frosted cake on the kitchen counter read "Good Luck, Coach" and a group of former players reminisced about how my brother used the phrase "Jiminy Christmas" instead of cuss words ("How can I expect my players to have self control if I don't," he later explained); and about the time after a poor showing when Damian corralled the boys -- who didn't have a proper locker room at the time -- into a men's restroom for a stern dismantling. When my brother finished yelling, there was a momentary silence, broken only by the sound a second later of a toilet flushing. A man meekly emerged from the stall without saying a word and left. The boys couldn't help but laugh.
But the laughter turned into an uneasy silence toward the end of the night, when Aragon offered a toast. He and another former parent, Martha Garcia, talked about their gratitude for my brother's mix of authority and humor, demanding nature and compassionate heart. Then the crowd looked to my brother, in the center of their circle.
"Thank you for everything you've done," he told them. "And most especially for being there for my family. Imagine if this were your son. This is happening to theirs," he said as he pointed to my parents.
I don't remember much after those words. The emotion, the fear, still clouds my memory years later. But what I do recall was the hands that grabbed mine, and the circle that formed around him as we recited The Lord's Prayer. I locked hands with people who before his diagnosis had been virtual strangers to me and now stood hand-in-hand with us through what was one of the most difficult times in our lives. It was then -- sometime after the "here on earth" part of the prayer -- I saw that though the stones in the rings he'd won weren't real, the connections he'd forged were.
Three cancer-free years later, Damian was on the court at The Pit and I was in the stands, having split my pants acting like a fool as I cheered for my brother's team in the state championship game. With 9.8 second remaining, the team's senior point guard hit the second of two free throws to seal a 57-53 victory. As the clock struck zero, Damian, unlike Valvano in The Pit all those years ago, didn't need to look for someone to hug.
Following his fourth state championship in 2013, Damian was nominated for the National High School Federation's National Coach of the Year award. He also notched his fourth Albuquerque Metro Coach of the Year Award for Class 3 and 4A. Despite graduating four of five starters, the 2013-2014 St. Pius Sartans are currently ranked No. 3 in New Mexico Class 4A, with a 17-6 record. Recently, Damian celebrated three years of remission.