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Kruger rises above unexpected health scare

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Lon Kruger didn't experience the common post-heart-surgery depression period, nor did he suffer through any rehabilitative complications over the past year.

If doctors are looking for a patient for others to emulate, the UNLV coach may be the ultimate example.

Last month, Kruger celebrated the one-year anniversary of his six-bypass surgery at what -- by today's standards -- is the rather young age of 55.

Since the surgery, Kruger coached the underappreciated Runnin' Rebels to a second-round NCAA tournament appearance (the Midwest Region No. 8-seeded Rebels beat No. 9 Kent State 71-58 before losing to eventual national champ Kansas 75-56). In June, Kruger took the Rebels on a trip to Australia. Recruiting is done for 2009, and the 2008-09 squad is poised to challenge for the Mountain West title.

And Kruger looks and feels tremendous. Still thin, relaxed, refreshed and continuously motivated to keep the Rebels relevant, Kruger was at ease in discussing his past year during the Coaches vs. Cancer BasketBALL golf charity event organized by Gonzaga's Mark and Marcy Few in eastern Washington late last month.

"I haven't had a single moment of apprehension after the surgery," Kruger said. "They were lucky to catch it when they did. I went into the surgery knowing it was out of my hands. I was concerned for sure, but I couldn't control it."

A year ago, Kruger went in for a normal stress test. He hadn't experienced any chest pains, shortness of breath or any reasons to think he was on the verge of a potentially fatal heart attack.

The stress test didn't look normal to his doctor, so an angiogram was ordered. The doctor shot the dye up into Kruger's vein to get a good lock at his arteries. Kruger was conscious during the procedure, and as the doctor looked up at the monitor he said, rather matter-of-factly: "Here's a blockage, here's a blockage, here's a blockage, here's a blockage. And I was like, 'What?'" Kruger said.

Kruger's appointment was July 31. Two days later -- on Aug. 2, 2007 -- he had the major surgery.

"I was walking on thin ice," Kruger said. "I was doing everything normal, didn't have any pain. You don't expect that to happen at 55. But I couldn't be luckier or [more] fortunate that they caught it when they did."

Kruger lived the doctors' orders. He was out of the hospital Aug. 6, and by Aug. 7 he was up and around for an hour at the office after being told to try to get moving, albeit slowly, as soon as possible.

"Two weeks after the surgery, I did five minutes on the treadmill, but it felt like 45," Kruger said. "I was beat. I barely made the five. But I just added a minute a day."

Kruger said he never was stressed during his rehab. He refused to let himself be depressed. He had his team to coach -- and boy, did he coach that team.

The Runnin' Rebels exceeded expectations yet again last season (27-8, 12-4 in the MWC). A year after a surprising run to the 2007 Sweet 16 (with impressive wins over 10th-seeded Georgia Tech and second-seeded Wisconsin in the first two rounds), the Rebels won last season's Mountain West tournament at home by beating regular-season champ BYU in the final.

"It was a special group, a group that helped re-establish the enthusiasm and crowd interest," Kruger said. "We've got a shot to average [13,000] to 14,000. People like their basketball [in Vegas].
That group last year was as close a one as I've had.
There was no way they were supposed to win 27 games. We didn't have anyone over 6-7, and our 5 man at 6-7 was more of a 3 man. But they believed."

What's most amazing is how Kruger -- soft-spoken and, at times, considered to be too vanilla as a coach -- has captured Vegas. The reason is he's winning. UNLV had searched for flash in the post-Jerry Tarkanian era, going through a series of hits and misses with head coaches. Billy Bayno brought in high-profile talent like Shawn Marion and Keon Clark and reached the NCAAs in 1998 and 2000, but constantly appeared to be in crisis mode. There were misses with Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour, as neither could get the Rebels to the NCAAs. UNLV flirted with Rick Pitino at one point, too.

But it was Kruger, one of the least likely to land in Vegas -- and someone who wasn't even that jazzed about the job when he first got the call from athletic director Mike Hamrick -- who has achieved the most stability since Tark.

What has helped tremendously is how much Tark or anyone who is close to the former coach isn't standing in Kruger's way. Bayno, who was at the same event with Kruger last month, said there were issues during his UNLV tenure with Tark loyalists. Maybe that was too soon after Tark left, and he was still coaching then at Fresno State.

"He's great; he comes to practice and games," Kruger said of Tarkanian. "We really are getting involved in the community and want to do things to make a difference. We love it here. We've made a concerted effort to get the former players back. Larry Johnson came to both games at Omaha [during the NCAAs last March], and Greg Anthony has been great, too."

Kruger was lured to Vegas after a failed head-coaching stint in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks. Kruger lasted two-plus seasons and finished with a 69-122 record. He was fired after going 11-16 in 2002-03.

Kruger -- who was an unlikely choice as an NBA head coach despite his solid college coaching record, with a Final Four appearance at Florida in 1994 (and a six-year total of 104-80) and good runs at Kansas State (81-46 in four years) and Illinois (81-48 in four years) -- said he didn't handle the Hawks correctly.

"I was naive …," Kruger said. "I didn't handle it the way I should have. I wasn't tough enough in fighting with management. We weren't very good, and I was responsible for changing it and I didn't do it and it was my responsibility. But I thought since we had done well in different places that we would just go down there and do well."

Kruger said he learned that if you take over a bad team you've got to be different. He said if you just try to do the same thing, like he did, then you lose to the better teams in the NBA. He had no gimmicks; he lost and he was fired.

That experience is the complete opposite of what he's experiencing in Vegas. Expectations are high, almost too high he says, for yet another run toward the MWC title in 2008-09.

The Rebels lost two seniors in Curtis Terry (10.8 ppg) and Corey Bailey (6.5 ppg), but return the top two scorers in Wink Adams (16.7) and Joe Darger (11.3) and add Memphis transfer 6-foot-4 guard Tre'Von Willis, whom Kruger converted into a point on the Australian trip. The Rebels have three transfers -- Kentucky's Derrick Jasper, Arizona State's Steve Jones and UCLA's Chace Stanback -- sitting out and waiting for 2009-10.

"Last year we didn't have a big guy, so we went small. This year's group will be much more versatile," said Kruger, who is 91-42 in four seasons with the Runnin' Rebels -- including two straight NCAA appearances (3-2), and now is the only active head coach, according to UNLV, to lead four different schools to multiple NCAA tournament appearances. "We've got a lot of pride in our defense. We'll shoot the 3 and be aggressive. We should have quite a group."

And as Kruger shows he's quite the patient, probably alive today because of a critical checkup, and staying fit with his determination to stay true to the post-bypass regimen of a healthy, stress-free lifestyle.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.