Stuart Scott’s Words at the ESPYS Hit Home

(originally published on More Than A Fan on July 20, 2014)

When used properly, words can be one of the most powerful tools we as humans possess. There have been many examples in the world of sports, with two of them coming from men who stood on the stage at the ESPYS during their battles with cancer.

In his 1993 speech at the ESPYS, Jim Valvano was awarded with the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. When the then-46-year-old he took the stage, he delivered what has now become one of the most famous speeches in sports history. While the entire speech was heart-wrenching as the coach would succumb to his cancer less than two months later, there were seven words that highlighted it all. When announcing the new “Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research,” Valvano said that the foundation’s motto would be “don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”

Mom hospitalThose seven simple yet profound words have been repeated numerous times in the last 21 years, and this year’s ESPYS were no exception, as they were the basis of how Stuart Scott began his speech when he was presented with the 2014 “Jimmy V Perseverance Award” named for Valvano.

“Every day I am reminded that our life’s journey is really about the people who touch us. When I first heard that I was going to be honored with this award, the very first thing I did was (opens mouth). I was speechless. Briefly. I have presented this award before. I have watched in awe as Kay Yow and Eric LeGrand and all these other great people graced this stage. And although intellectually, I get it – I am a public figure, I have a public job, I am fighting cancer, hopefully I am inspiring – at my gut level, I really didn’t think I belonged with those great people.

“I listened to what Jim Valvano said 21 years ago. The most poignant seven words ever in any speech anywhere – don’t give up, don’t ever give up. Those great people didn’t. Coach Valvano didn’t. So to be honored with this, I now have a responsibility to also not ever give up.”

A little while later, Scott gave what to me was the most important part of his speech. In a recorded piece, Scott had said that he was beating his cancer because he was still alive. But when he took the stage, he wanted to amend that statement.

“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like Hell. And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.”

It was then that Scott told a story about the prior 10 days, when he was in the hospital battling complications from his cancer. He revealed that he had undergone four surgeries in his latest hospital stay and had suffered from liver and kidney failure. He wasn’t even sure if he would make it to the ESPYS to accept the award in person. But when he didn’t feel like he could fight anymore, there were plenty of people who stepped up and took part in the battle.

“I couldn’t fight. The doctors and nurses could. The people that I love – my friends and family – they could fight. My girlfriend who slept on a very uncomfortable hospital cot by my side every night – she could fight. The people that I love did last week did what they always do – they visited, they talked to me, they listened to me, they sat silent sometimes. They loved me.”

As I sat and listened to Scott’s speech, I did so with tears rolling down my face. Not just because the speech was so good and unbelievably moving, but because it reminded me of my mom fighting for years the way she did. We would be celebrating my mom’s 65th birthday next week had she not passed away in February 2011. While my mom didn’t pass away from cancer, she did pass away after a long battle with hepatic , and the same principles that Scott laid out in his speech applied in her situation as well.

Scott spoke for a little over seven minutes, with each and every word so perfectly thought out, so eloquently expressed. But it was those few passages that stuck with me because of my mom. She never stopped fighting, even when it was painfully obvious that the fight was almost over. And when the fight was finally over, I felt as if she had come out as the winner, even if the battle took her life.

My mom had a stubborn side, and this fight only brought that out even more. When she left the hospital in January of 2013 after having a diagnosis of COPD added to her cirrhosis and she left the hospital only with the aid of oxygen, her stubbornness shone through like never before. She was determined not to let this get her down, and she succeeded. When we would talk, it was never “IF I get off this oxygen,” rather it was always “WHEN I get off this oxygen.”

She hated that she needed to let me take care of things for her such as going to the store or cooking dinner or cleaning up around the house. While I know she had always complained about such menial tasks, she would have done anything at that time to do them again. But she knew that she had to let me help her fight. Doing unnecessary tasks would only wear her out and slow down her battle, which would make the process even longer and more infuriating.

When what became her final hospital visit turned into a trip from Akron General Medical Center to the Cleveland Clinic, the fight was nearing an end. But that never deterred her from thinking she was going to beat this and get back to living her normal life. She underwent a surgery at the Cleveland Clinic that we were told would take several hours and could be life-threatening depending on how her body reacted. When I saw them rolling her back from surgery 90 minutes later, I feared the worst. The surgery had not lasted long enough to have worked, I thought. However, I was told that she came through the surgery successfully.

I went to see her and while she wasn’t responsive, I told her she was a champion. I told her that WHEN we left the hospital and got her home, I was going to go to the party store and get her a gold medal to wear because she deserved it. I knew that the outlook still wasn’t good and that there would be a long battle ahead to get her home, but I couldn’t let her hear me have doubts. After all, I have that same stubborn side that she did. Unfortunately, she never made it back home.

When my mom was laying in the ICU at the Cleveland Clinic and I had to make the decision to take her off the ventilator and allow her to pass away, I talked to her about the fight. Even though she was non-responsive at the time, I will always believe that she was able to hear the words I was telling her as I held her hand. I told her that I was so proud of the way she fought, how she never gave up even in the darkest moments. I told her that she had kicked cirrhosis’ butt, even if in the end it would be the reason she would no longer be with us. I told her that she could stop fighting now because I was calling the fight. But I also told her something that sounded just like what Scott said at the ESPYS. I told her that just because I was calling the fight didn’t mean she lost. In fact, I told her that I was calling the fight and that she had won by a unanimous decision. She was the champion.

Stuart Scott was right – just because you die doesn’t mean that you have lost the fight. My mom didn’t lose, and Stuart Scott will never lose. No matter what happens from here on out, Scott is and will be a winner. Anyone who didn’t think so before certainly knows it after that ESPYS speech.

Keep fighting Stuart – you have plenty of people fighting with you.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

I Saw A No-Hitter Thanks To My Mom And Her Message

(Originally published on More Than A Fan on July 29, 2011)

My mom was born on July 27, 1949. If 2011 was any ordinary year, I would have stopped by her house this past Wednesday morning with a birthday card and flowers to wish her a happy birthday before making my way to work. Unfortunately, 2011 has been anything but an ordinary year as my mom passed away in February.

Knowing that Wednesday was going to be one of those emotional days, I had already requested the day off work. While I did not have any real plans for the day other than a cemetery visit, I knew work was the last place I wanted or needed to be.

ryan and grandpa 2I woke up and took flowers, balloons and a cup of coffee (mom always did enjoy her coffee) to the cemetery and visited for over an hour. Fighting back the tears, I got in my car and drove out of the cemetery, not sure exactly what I was going to do to keep my mind occupied for the rest of the day.

As I drove off, something kept telling me that I should go to the Indians game since they were playing at noon. At first I was not going to go but something said there would be something special about Wednesday’s game. It was like a scene straight out of Field of Dreams.

I called my grandfather, knowing how much he was struggling with the loss of my mom and also remembering all of those times as a kid that he and I sat down and watched baseball together. I told him the Indians were playing at noon and that I would be there in an hour to pick him up. He seemed excited about the idea, which made me realize it was the right thing to do.

As we made the 45-minute drive to Progressive Field, we talked about my mom and about how strange the day seemed. We talked about baseball, how it is now and how it was back in the day when he was growing up. And of course we talked about Ralph Kiner – there is no baseball conversation with my grandfather that does not somehow come back to his favorite player.

Driving to the ballpark felt like an out-of-body experience. I had yet to tell my grandfather that I had a feeling about the day’s game, a premonition that we were going to see something special. I felt like Ray Kinsella driving Terence Mann to Fenway Park, thinking there would be something amazing but just not sure what it would be.

We arrived at the stadium and I purchased two seats right behind the plate – if something special was going to happen, I wanted a good view.

We watched as the Indians inexplicably scored a run in the bottom of the first without getting a hit. Ezequiel Carrera reached on an error by shortstop Erick Aybar and stole second two pitches later. Michael Brantley flew out to short right and then Asdrubal Cabrera grounded out to second, which moved Carrera to third. Carrera then scored on a wild pitch by Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ervin Santana before Travis Hafner struck out.

Turns out, that was Santana’s only mistake of the day. While Indians pitcher David Huff was working on a good game himself, his defense let him down time and time again, committing five errors. Huff did not allow a base hit until the 4th inning, which was the first hit of the day for either side.

As you know, Santana never did allow a hit. And by the 8th inning, I was fully rooting for him to pull it off.

This was my “Moonlight Graham” moment – a possible no-hitter. This was the reason that something kept urging me to take my grandfather to the game – a chance to see baseball history.

I tweeted before the 7th inning that if Santana got through the Indians hitters (Brantley-Cabrera-Hafner) in the 7th without allowing a hit, I would be cheering for him over the final two frames. 10 pitches and three outs later, I was fully behind the pitcher who started the day as the enemy.

When Santana struck out the side in the 8th (with a walk to Lonnie Chisenhall thrown in), I knew he had this thing in the bag. There was no doubt in my mind that Santana was going to throw the ninth no-hitter in Angels history and the first ever at Progressive Field since it opened in 1994.

Santana easily got the first two outs in the 9th and up stepped Brantley, who promptly took a called strike on the first pitch. As Santana was getting the signs from catcher Bobby Wilson, I took out my phone and snapped a photo just as Santana got ready to deliver. Turns out that picture ended up being of the final pitch of a no-hitter, as Brantley flied out to center and baseball history had been achieved.

I looked at my grandfather and his first reaction was to say that we had just witnessed history. With a tear in my eye, I told him he was right. I then looked up and winked at my mom to tell her we got the message – she was still looking out for us like she always had.

Happy birthday mom – and thanks for the gift!

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

My ACL reconstruction surgery went well, but then…

Medical websites are to the world of health care what Donald Trump is to the world of politics – a source of mostly alternative facts and hyperbole that are far too often used to scare rather than to help.

ACL surgery picAnd yet, I still referred to a couple of those sites when I found out that I would need to have ACL reconstruction surgery to repair a torn ACL I suffered while playing basketball. Just as one would expect, the risks were first to pop up when I googled “ACL reconstruction surgery.” Things such as loss of motion, continuous knee pain, infection, and worst of all, blood clots.

My ACL reconstruction surgery was scheduled to take place on Friday, May 5, 2017 at 7:30 a.m. at the Cleveland Clinic Akron General Health & Wellness Center in Montrose with Dr. Jeffrey Yang performing the procedure. The surgery center called me on Thursday to ask me a few medical history questions and to go over some instructions for the following day.

One of the things they covered was that they wanted to give me a nerve block, which would keep the nerve in my leg numb and minimize the pain I felt as I came out of the anesthesia during the recovery process. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work.

But for me? Yeah, that’s not what happened.

When I woke up after the surgery, I immediately felt an immense pain in my knee. The nurse told me that I did well throughout the surgery and then asked how bad the pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. I responded with “2,000.” She repeated it quizzically. “2,000?” I confirmed the answer with a nod and “yes, 2,000. It hurts a lot.”

She immediately had pain meds administered through my IV, which didn’t really seem to do the trick. After asking me again about my level of pain, she had them give me more pain meds. She was giving orders like one of those medical TV dramas where they are just spewing out names of meds and dosages. It was all happening so fast that something seemed wrong.

I asked when I would be able to see my wife, who along with my in-laws, had accompanied me to the surgery center that morning. I was told I could see her once they were able to get my pain under control. That seemed pretty normal, I thought.

And then it felt more serious.

Next thing I knew, the nurse was taking out an oxygen mask and putting it over my nose and mouth. I had still not 100% come out of the anesthesia so my mind was in a million different places, which made me start to freak me out a little bit over this latest development. While the nurse tried to keep me calm and explain that the oxygen mask was being used to counter all of the pain meds I had been given, my mind started to wander back to those risks I mentioned earlier, specifically the blot clots.

It started to hit me that I could not feel my right foot and I also couldn’t see it because of the blankets that were covering my body. That sent my mind into a dark place and I started wondering if maybe I had experienced blood clots during the surgery and the extent of them forced the surgery team to amputate my foot. I know it sounds crazy, but when you understand the history of blood clots that my father had, it seemed like a fair concern to me at the time.

Once I was convinced that my foot was indeed still attached, I wasn’t quite out of the woods. At the end of the day, it was a simple risk that is associated with anesthesia that made my day miserable, not one that came from the ACL surgery.

Three hours after telling my wife that I had come through the surgery without issues, they finally went out to get her and let her come see me. Once she got back to where I was in recovery, my heart had started racing and now I wasn’t feeling so good. I started to shake and sweat, while also feeling light-headed and dizzy. A few minutes later, I was throwing up.

I continued to throw up for about the next hour before they released me to go home. Despite still showing signs of not getting any better, I was granted my release from the surgery center. Once we returned home, I sat on a chair near the entrance of our bathroom, where I was still shaking and sweating. After throwing up a couple more times, I broke down and started crying. It was a couple of hours before I was finally back to some sort of normal where it didn’t feel like I was going to throw up every five minutes.

The entire ordeal was more than I was expecting and honestly, a little more than I was emotionally ready to handle. I have since tried to remind myself that those side effects were normal and have begun to wrap my mind around the upcoming obstacles I will face.

Now it’s on to what is supposed to be the most difficult part of the ACL reconstruction surgery – the physical therapy. I won’t be looking that one up online.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

The Man. The Myth. The BSK. Remembering Kendall Lewis

This week wasn’t the first time I have cried because of Kendall Lewis. But unlike all of the previous times that were tears of laughter, the tears over the past couple of days have been of sadness.

When I heard of his passing on Tuesday, my immediate reaction was one of shock. I checked with a couple of people who I know had relationships with Kendall to see if they had heard the same news. Once it started to circulate that yes, he indeed had passed away, I cried. Hard.

The BSK 2Kendall Lewis may have been known to most as “The BSK”, the Big Sports Kahuna, a sports radio host and personality who specialized in the NFL Draft. But to me, he was more than that. He was someone I looked up to, a mentor in the radio business and most importantly, a friend.

I have a cornucopia (one of Kendall’s favorite words) of memories of Kendall Lewis. Or “The BSK”. Or “The Big Baller, Shot Caller”.

As I shared on social media, when I was looking to start at The Ohio Center for Broadcasting, I told them I wanted to intern for Kendall one day. And that’s the truth. In my first meeting with the school, I was asked what I would like to do and if I had any ideas on where I would like to intern. I told the admissions person, Kathy, that I wanted to intern for Kendall Lewis at WKNR. Little did I know that her husband, Gary Wenner, happened to be Kendall’s producer at the time.

I got the opportunity I wanted and Kendall (and Gary) treated me like family, taking me in as if I was a sports radio veteran. Kendall taught me so much and as time went along, we had a blast working on stuff together, especially for the NFL Draft.

One thing you learned early on when working with Kendall was that his show didn’t run on Eastern time like the rest of the station. His show ran on BSKT, Big Sports Kahuna Time. If you tuned in at the beginning of the show and thought we were running a lot of commercials and promos, oh we were. That’s because we were still waiting on Kendall. It was commonplace for the show to start late because the host just wasn’t in the building yet.

One of my favorite memories of Kendall running by his own watch was when he and I had set up an NFL mock draft show one evening. The two of us had reached out to a media representative for each NFL city and set up a lineup for each media member to make the selection for their team on our show in the exact order of the upcoming NFL Draft. The trick to this was going to be timing because some of them only had a small window of time in which they could come on. Five minutes before the show, no Kendall. I looked out the front window just three minutes until the show was set to go on the air to see Kendall pulling into the parking lot. He made it with about 30 seconds to spare and then made fun of me for sweating about it. Of course the show went off without a hitch, giving Kendall something to hold over me for a few weeks. And he did, with a laugh of course.

Yeah, that laugh. It was one of a kind. And NEVER did it ring louder than when Kendall thought he was performing on stage and broke into song. Usually it was The Ohio State University fight song, but with Kendall’s own lyrics. There were times that I wondered if he really knew the actual words to the song. But he would break into a LOUD rendition and as he would change up the words, he would laugh. Again – LOUD. If you were on the other side of the glass watching him sing and carry on, your laugh would end up being just as loud as his.

He loved the Buckeyes. And he loved the NFL Draft. So it was no surprise that heading into the 2009 NFL Draft, Kendall said that Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells was the best player in the draft and should be the No. 1 overall pick. He didn’t say the best running back. He said best player. And he believed it. Or at least I think he did. We had many arguments over this leading into the draft and he held steadfast that Wells was his guy. There were times when I thought he was doing it just to get me going but other times I believed that in Kendall’s head, Chris Wells really was that good.

The reason Kendall and I were able to have those kind of discussions was because of our mutual love of the NFL Draft and the work that went into things like his draft guide or draft shows. Even this year, we had talked about players we liked or didn’t like in the draft. I would remind him of the ones I got right in years past and he would fire back with the ones he got right.

And then I would hit him with “Beanie Wells is the best player in the draft” while laughing. His response was as it always was – “SNARK”. He always reminded me that I was full of snark, sometimes out of nowhere just to keep me on my toes.

In fact, my snark was one of the reasons he called me a few years back. Kendall was going to be doing a podcast on More Than A Fan, a site I was writing for at the time, and wanted to see if I would be interested in working on it with him. I am not sure I have ever said yes to something that fast in my life. The podcast was going to be Sunday nights during the NFL season and we would recap each game that day, while previewing the Monday Night Football matchup. While Kendall wanted me on because of my knowledge and insight, he mostly wanted me to be his “snarky sidekick.” It was a role I relished.

Kendall was a big talker and anyone who knew him knew that about him. His biggest talking came when he would talk about how good he was at Madden. Back in the day at WKNR, he would tell everyone that he was the best Madden player at the station. When we got a copy of the latest version of the game, we decided to hold a Madden league to see just how good Kendall was. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize his bark was way worse than his bite. But even when he lost, he would still chirp as if he was the champion. I always sucked at Madden (still do), but those tournaments were some of the best times we had as a group at the station.

Over the past couple of days, I have seen multiple stories of people who were listeners of Kendall’s show who talked about how nice he was to them. And he was. Kendall really was a man of the people. I remember when he did the Browns pregame brunches at The Hard Rock Café for Browns home games. He invited me each week to help him with the contests and to hang out to talk football. The Hard Rock’s general manager, Rick, always took great care of us. He made sure we had plenty of food all morning. The funny thing is that sometimes it would take Kendall a while to finish his plate because he was talking to a fan.

When someone approached The BSK, they didn’t get some pretentious radio host who thought he was better than them like you unfortunately get from some. If you wanted a minute of Kendall’s time, you got five minutes. Ask him about Bootsy Collins and you would get 10 more minutes. That was Kendall. When we did get Kendall out of studio for a remote broadcast, there were times we would come out of a commercial break and not have a host. Kendall was over talking to someone and debating with them about who was the best offensive tackle in the NFL Draft.

I was lucky enough that the two radio hosts I worked with the most were the same in that respect. Kendall Lewis and Kenny Roda have always been more than generous with their time when it comes to their listeners and fans.

Kendall’s loyalty is something I will never forget.

When he was hired at KSUD ESPN Radio in Memphis, he had been telling me about the job for a few weeks and that he had been interviewing. What I didn’t expect was the call I received from him after he accepted the position. He called to tell me he had taken the job and I congratulated him. He thanked me but said that wasn’t why he was calling. He said that he had told the program director he wanted the job but wanted to have a say on who would produce the show. He then asked me when I was available for a phone interview with the program director. I was on the phone the next day with a program director in Memphis discussing the possibility of me going down there to produce for Kendall. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come to an agreement on the financial aspect of the deal. Even though I ultimately ended up not taking the job, I always remembered Kendall looking out for me.

Perhaps that’s why in a way I looked out for him later down the line.

A few years ago, I was contacted about a sports radio producing job that was open in Cleveland and I was invited in for an interview. When I showed up, my interview was with the program director and the two hosts of the show. We went through the typical interview questions and then one of the hosts asked who I like to listen to on sports radio and why. I named a few and when I started talking about Kendall, I told them I liked that Kendall brought different perspectives and talking points to his shows. Condescendingly, the one host looked at me and said “is that because he is African American”?

The way he said it really got under my skin.

I told him that Kendall’s skin color and background wasn’t why I liked his show or what I meant by different perspective. I said that Kendall is one of the smartest sports people in the area and unlike most, he thinks for himself and thinks outside the box. He is someone who can formulate his own opinion based on what he sees with his own eyes, not what someone tells him.  I told him that maybe if more hosts in the area tried doing what Kendall does, we wouldn’t have the same boring shows on every station in every time slot.

It was right then that I knew no matter what, I wasn’t taking the job. I respected Kendall too much to work with someone who thought the way this host did.

Kendall was the one who taught me to question everything, especially the things that seem great on the surface. It’s what led him to having his own line of thinking and it is part of why I have so much skepticism when it comes to certain things in the world of sports. It was also why I loved listening to him on the radio, talking to him off the air when we worked together or the phone calls we shared throughout the years. And it was the reason I answered the question in the interview the way I did.

If you looked at Kendall Lewis and then looked at me, you would see so many differences. One older, one younger. One black, one white. One big, one small. One from Cleveland, one from Akron. But at the end of the day, Kendall and I formed a bond that lasted a lifetime. It was one I will never forget. As I said Tuesday on social media – very few people outside of my family could make me cry with their passing. Kendall Lewis is one of those.

With the first pick in the 2017 draft, heaven selected Kendall J. Lewis, Cleveland, Ohio. While the Browns can never seem to get the draft right, it seems as if heaven did.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

Keith Dambrot’s success goes beyond winning and losing

When you have a consistent track record of success, people will find anything they can to criticize you. This has happened over the past couple of weeks for Akron Zips basketball coach Keith Dambrot.

Since Akron’s 70-65 loss to Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game on March 11th, some have questioned the success of Dambrot as a head coach. They have referenced his 3-6 record in nine appearances in the MAC championship game, so let’s start right there, shall we?

While Akron has won just three of its nine appearances in the game, the Zips have been in the championship game nine times in the last 11 seasons which includes seven in a row from 2007-2013. Both of those are claims no other school can make since the tournament began in 1980.

DambrotDambrot’s nine appearances as a head coach in the MAC championship game put him in elite company when it comes to championship games in the MAC. That list? It’s Dambrot. That’s all. Charlie Coles is the only other coach who comes close, with eight (two at Central Michigan and six at Miami). In fact, Dambrot has led the Zips to more MAC championship games in the past 11 seasons than all but three other schools have been to the game since 1980.

Overall in the MAC Tournament, Dambrot is 27-10 as the leader of the Zips.

As far as winning overall? Dambrot has that covered, too.

When the Zips defeated Bowling Green on January 5th this season, Dambrot became the school’s all-time winningest basketball coach with his 289th victory to surpass Russell Beichly. With Akron’s win over Houston in the first round of the NIT, Dambrot currently has 305 wins at the school.

Consistency has been the key to success for Dambrot and the Zips.

This season was the 12th straight in which the Zips have won 21 or more games. In fact, they have won 23 or more games in nine of those seasons which includes a program-record 27 wins this season. Its current streak of 21+ win seasons puts Akron in a class that includes just the Zips, Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas with current streaks of 21+ win seasons. The only season under Dambrot in which Akron didn’t win 21 or more games was his initial season in 2004-05, when the team won 19.

One of the reasons Akron has been able to remain consistent is because of Dambrot’s ability to adapt as a coach. Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole by making each team play by the same parameters as the last, Dambrot is able to use his team’s talents to its fullest. If that means they become a team that relies on 3-point shooting, so be it. If that means learning how to play inside out, that’s what they do. Whether it’s playing offense at a slow pace or at a faster pace, Akron always figures out a way.

The Zips have averaged as few as 66.8 points per game in a season under Dambrot and have also averaged as many as 77.2 points per game this season.

While the offense is adaptable, the defense is non-negotiable. If you want to see the floor as a Zip, you will play hard on the defensive end.

“If you don’t guard, you don’t play around here. That’s how we built the program,” Dambrot said after a game in January 2014. “We’ve got to bang them up, bruise them up, slop it up, beat ass. That’s what we have to do if we are going to win. Simple.”

And defend they do.

In Dambrot’s 13 seasons at the helm, Akron has held its opponents to less than 66 points per game nine times and to 42.0% or worse shooting nine times. Even in a season like this one where they allowed the highest points per game under Dambrot (70.4), the Zips still had a scoring differential of +7.2.

As strange as it may seem, coaching isn’t just about the wins and losses. It can also be about how a coach connects with his team, interacts with his players and the respect the players have for the coach.

And Dambrot has that down, too.

Dambrot has always shown a special connection to his players, and that connection has led to many moments where the head coach has had the back of one of his players through difficult times.

When Quincy Diggs was suspended by school administration for the 2013 season, it was Dambrot who stayed in the player’s corner. Diggs was reinstated for the 2014 season and was able to give advice to other players who were having a tough time because of the lessons he was taught by his head coach.

“He taught me about handling adversity,” Diggs said of Dambrot after a game in 2014. “He told me you have to fight (through it) and that’s exactly what I did.”

One of the more newsworthy off-court issues that has arisen during Dambrot’s reign at Akron was undoubtedly the arrest and suspension of point guard Alex Abreu right before Akron took on rival Kent State in the regular season finale in 2013. Despite the criticism Abreu took from most people, Dambrot said after the game that night that he was still going to back his player through his toughest of times.

“I am going to stick behind him. It is my obligation to stick behind him and get him through his difficult times,” Dambrot said that night. “Nobody knows better than me that people make mistakes. If anybody can forgive him, it’s going to be me.”

“I did tell our guys we have to give him more love than we have ever given anybody in our life because that’s what you do to a brother that is in trouble. We are going to be there for him. That’s all you can do and that’s why people come to Akron because that’s what we built the program on.”

Yes, that’s exactly what Dambrot has built his Akron program on – love for each other and the togetherness of a family.

It isn’t just about the public showing of support for a player when it comes to Akron’s coach that makes him special, though.

There was the night of February 21, 2015.

Freshman guard Noah Robotham had been averaging 8.9 points per game for the Zips when he injured his right knee. After the injury, Robotham went to the free throw line, where he hit one of two free throws before coming out of the game. The confirmation of a torn ACL wouldn’t come until a couple of days later, but if you saw Dambrot after the game, you didn’t need an MRI to know the truth.

After waiting for Dambrot to come into the media room following the game for what seemed like forever without Dambrot making his way in, another reporter and I asked about the coach. We were then led to the training room, where Dambrot was sitting on a table, head down, jacket off, tie loosened, top button of his dress shirt already unbuttoned. It was the look of a kid who had just lost his puppy.

It was then that we knew we wouldn’t be seeing Robotham again that season.

The look and body language from Dambrot? It wasn’t self-pity, even though nobody would have blamed him if it was. It was a genuine concern for one of his players – no, one of his sons. It’s one of those things that sets Dambrot apart.

So you can go ahead and judge Dambrot’s “success” based on just his record in the MAC championship game. As for me, I will judge him by the entire body of work.

After all, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.

Comments? Questions? You can email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com or connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

I have been here before, that’s why I am not OK

“Have you ever watched a parent die?”

“I mean really watch them die? Have you ever sat and watched as their health deteriorated from day to day or hour to hour, even minute to minute?”

That’s how I feel like responding when someone asks how I am doing or if I am ok. Instead, I will tell everyone that “I am hanging in there” or that “I am doing the best I can.”

In all reality, I am NOT ok. I am NOT “hanging in there.”

I am a mental and psychological mess.

You see, I did watch a parent die. And it was a lot like what I have watched over the past two weeks.

I watched as my mom was given the diagnosis of cirrhosis that would eventually lead to her death.  Over the next few years, I was there for the doctor’s appointments, I was there on the days where she barely had enough energy to get out of bed but fought the fatigue to get up and go to work. I watched over her at home and then at her hospital bed when the illness became so much that she just couldn’t overcome it.

I held my mom’s hand as she drew her last breaths.

That’s why I was not ok as the doctors told me that my dad was showing signs of cirrhosis. That’s why I wasn’t ok when they would talk about the disease and the symptoms and what it could do to the body. I wasn’t ok because I already knew the answers.

And I was not ok as I watched my dad go through multiple surgeries last week in which they removed about 45% of his lower bowel. When the surgeon gave me the word that he would realistically give my dad a 10% chance to survive the procedures, I held my wife and the only words I could utter were “FUCK. I can’t lose him. Not now. Not this time of year.”

What was so devastating about the time of year?

Mom passed away in February of 2011. But the hospital stay that saw her health start rapidly declining was right after Christmas of 2010. It took me 5 years to finally put up a Christmas tree or really get into the Christmas spirit. That was last year.

And now this. Around Christmas. And I was being told there was a 90% chance I was going to see the holiday without my dad being around.

He came out of the surgeries and has shown a remarkable amount of resiliency, according to his surgeon. But the surgeries aren’t the only issue he is facing. He is still looking at a long road ahead because of the issues with his liver, which along with the cirrhosis, include a large mass that they need to be able to look at.

In the meantime, dad has been dealing with some mental fogginess or confusion. It’s a typical sign in patients with liver disease, as I remember with my mom. Some will remember the story I once told of my mom telling me that she made sure the hospital televisions had Lifetime so that I could watch sports.

Well, dad has been coming up with some stories of his own.

When I asked him what he was doing as he was pulling his covers off, he told me he was getting ready to go into the store. When he was babbling, he told me he was talking to me on the phone (there was no phone in sight). When he put his hand to his mouth, he told me he was drinking his Pepsi (he hasn’t been allowed to have anything to drink in almost two weeks).

While some of those are funny, or seem funny on the surface, they hurt down deep. They tear me up inside because I have seen this behavior before. I have seen as the effects of the cirrhosis and the failing of the liver mess with someone’s mind, be it for a short amount of time or over a prolonged period.

And that’s part of why I am not ok.

There’s another thing that is killing me inside. It’s the shred of self-doubt over whether I have made the right decisions or not. While there is becoming more of a chance that dad will eventually leave the hospital than originally thought, the question still remains how healthy he will be and if he will be able to lead any semblance of a normal life. We won’t have any of these answers for a while, probably.

But the question that still lingers in my mind was if I made the right call to allow for all of the procedures and to put him through the pain that he is currently having and any difficulties that might come. In the end, was it worth it?

I really don’t know. And neither do the doctors.

When mom passed away and I made the decision to take her off the ventilator, it was becoming more and more clear that she would never be able to live without the help of the machines. That’s not what she would have wanted.  And now with dad, the decision was much more difficult because of the uncertainty of how he would respond to the surgery and just how bad his liver really is, a question that can’t be answered until his bowel was healthy enough to proceed. I have had the internal battle of “what’s best for him” vs. “what we all hope happens” more times than Tom Brady battled Peyton Manning.

And as I sit here in his hospital room day after day after day watching as he seemingly isn’t making much progress, the questions eat at me more and more.

Did I do the right thing? Will dad ever be back to himself? Did I do him an injustice by letting him suffer? Was I selfish in my decisions because I couldn’t face losing him?

The problem is that there is a chance I may never know the answers to all, if any, of these questions.

But it’s ok, because I am hanging in there.

 

LeBron’s True Plan for Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers

by Ryan Isley (Originally posted on November 1, 2014)

LeBron James just might be in the midst of his greatest plan yet. And so far, he has played it perfectly.

It all started by saying he wished he should have handled “The Decision” differently. Then he began dropping little hints over the past couple of seasons that he might be interested in a return to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers. His next move was to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, which he did. This of course led to speculation of a return. Then on July 11th, speculation turned to reality with the letter he wrote in Sports Illustrated to announce his return to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland.

The four-time NBA MVP continued to do and say the right things when he mic-dropped at his welcome home party in Akron.

After that, it was on to the commercials. He did one for Beats by Dre, where his mom Gloria James narrates about his return home. There was the Sprite commercial that chronicled LeBron’s first true home game at Patterson Park in Akron. And then the big one dropped just hours before LeBron and the Cavs took the floor for their regular season opener. It was a Nike ad all about Cleveland and coming together.

It all felt too good to be true. And it is. Because it is all just a hoax. No, LeBron’s plan is not to bring the city of Cleveland a championship. It never was. His real plan is to ensure that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert NEVER wins one. This is all an elaborate plot to set up Gilbert and exact his revenge for Gilbert’s letter from 2010.

You think LeBron has forgotten about that letter? The one where Gilbert called him “THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’” and called what LeBron did a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal”? Oh, LeBron hasn’t forgotten. Nor has he forgiven. He also doesn’t forget the way he was treated by the majority of Cleveland fans and media after he left. Those same people who are right back to supporting him now. But he remembers their true colors.

LeBron has reeled everyone into his trap, Gilbert included. He has put his plan in place and all of the pieces have fit like a glove. His goal is to completely sabotage Gilbert and the Cavaliers and make sure the cupboard is all but empty when he leaves, sans NBA championship.

Remember when LeBron signed a two-year deal with the Cavs and people were worried that it might be so he can leave again following the 2015-16 season? Yeah, all part of the plan. That trade for Kevin Love? Part of the plan.  But the part that worked out even better than LeBron could have hoped this offseason was that the Cavs gave up Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, plus a first round draft pick to get Love. That’s right – the Cavs traded the last two number one overall draft picks who are 21 and 19 years old, respectively.

That’s when LeBron’s plan went into overtime. After the Love trade, LeBron talked Love into not signing an extension, even though Love’s contract expires after this current season. The two have discussed the plan, and Love will be leaving after one season in Cleveland. After all, that letter not only hit home with LeBron, it resonated throughout the league with players. He also had to talk Tristan Thompson into not accepting a longer deal with the Cavs, so Thompson could become a restricted free agent. That way, the Cavs will probably have to overpay to keep the 23-year-old they took with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Now, think back to those commercials we discussed earlier. Sure, the last one was all about the city of Cleveland, but the first two were focused on LeBron’s hometown of Akron. This comes as no surprise, as LeBron has supported his hometown even when he was a part of the Miami Heat. This part of the plan was never questioned, but sent a message nonetheless. LeBron was returning, but cared more about making sure Akron was taken care of than making sure Cleveland was helped.

LeBron even took the step of making a nice gesture of wearing a Browns hat when he attended a Browns game a few weeks ago and has made appearances at Browns practices. Again, this part of the plan came easily, because he is friends with Johnny Manziel, so nobody gave a second thought that this might be just some sort of scam. But LeBron doesn’t care about the Browns. Just like he doesn’t care about the Indians. Hell, he wasn’t even a Cavs fan in his youth. It is well-documented that LeBron is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and of course Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. So why care about Cleveland teams now? It isn’t because he is happy to be back, it is to pull more fans into his web. And it has worked.

The toughest part of the plan though? Actually making sure that the Cavs don’t win a championship with the team they put on the floor every night. This explains his 5-for-15 shooting and eight turnovers in the season opening loss to the New York Knicks. He led the Cavs to a win over the Bulls on Friday night, but still shot under 50%. All part of the plan. LeBron isn’t going to lose games on purpose, but will do just enough to make sure this team isn’t the number one seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs begin.

The playoffs will be where he pulls off the best part of the trick. The Cavs will be a favorite by many to win the championship, but LeBron is going to make sure the Cavs lose in the first round not only this season, but next season. That way, the team makes the playoffs which means they can’t get into the NBA Draft Lottery with a chance at a high draft pick but they also bow out of the playoffs early without a shot at a title.

After their first round exit in 2016, LeBron will announce that he is not going to sign long-term in Cleveland and will take his talents elsewhere to continue his pursuit of championships. While he will join a team that is already championship ready, the Cavs will be stuck worse than they were in 2010. Imagine the letter that Gilbert will write in the summer of 2016. And to think – had he not written the one in 2010, LeBron would have never launched this plan for revenge.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. And LeBron James is serving up a frozen cup of it for Dan Gilbert.

(Obviously, you guys realize this is just a joke, right? I in no way believe LeBron has actually hatched a plan to set up Dan Gilbert for the ultimate revenge – Ryan.)

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.