The strength of a symbol
A pin on Coach K's lapel serves as a symbol of a strong bond, forged through tragedy
When Ross Deutsch read the advertisement, it seemed too good to be true.
For a fee, he could go to Las Vegas with some friends and attend Michael Jordan's Flight School, essentially a summer camp for basketball-crazed adults. It was a place to live out one's hardwood fantasies for a few days and receive instruction from NBA and college coaches, Hall of Famers among them.
It was 1997, and Deutsch was working in the financial world in Chicago. He was 36; he had the money and an interested friend; and his wife, Mindy, had no objection. He was certainly passionate about basketball and, as a Chicago native, had a love for all things Michael Jordan. He had three young sons -- Rory was the oldest at 6; Robbie and Rickey were younger -- but it was for only a few days, and besides, what kid wouldn't get a kick out of his dad playing hoops for a few days as though he were a star?
A few days later, Ross and his friend David Duckler found themselves in Las Vegas on a Bally's court. They had just finished a few drills and were attending a makeshift draft where they were to be divided into their teams, selected by the coaches in attendance. Across the court, Duke coach and fellow native Chicagoan Mike Krzyzewski, already a two-time national champion, evaluated Deutsch and Duckler and decided to go local, selecting the two friends for his team.
Neither Deutsch nor Krzyzewski knew at the time that those fortuitous circumstances would mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship, that the two would bond in a way that few men do in adulthood. They were new acquaintances then, player and coach for a few days, but Krzyzewski would soon be supporting Deutsch through something no parent can ever imagine after looking into the eyes of a healthy child at birth.
"There were talks that we would have that you don't have very much in your life, and for the two people involved, you become brothers," Krzyzewski said. "There's no way you don't have a bond for life."
The connection began during the first game at the camp. Their team was getting smoked, and when they gathered for a halftime talk, Coach K let them know what he really thought of their performance.
"He ripped us pretty good," Deutsch said.
"I blew them out like they were my own team," Krzyzewski said.
It worked. They came back and beat a team coached by Gene Keady and Eddie Sutton. But as soon as the game ended, Krzyzewski felt guilty. This wasn't really his Duke team. These 35-and-older men had paid thousands of dollars to play, not to get yelled at for 10 minutes. Or had they?
"He starts apologizing to us for getting on us, but we told him, 'No, that's what we wanted,'" Deutsch said. "We wanted to be treated like we were Duke players."
Not everyone at the camp felt the same. In one instance, Deutsch said, Larry Brown was railing at a player when the camper interrupted the Hall of Famer and said, "Coach, I'm just a dentist."
"We ended up winning the whole thing," Krzyzewski said. "Ross and I had one of those player-coach relationships."
"It was at that moment that I knew there was an instant connection of a friendship," Deutsch said.
Coach K remembers it fondly.
"I saw these guys, and they were like the Jewish Columbos of Highland Park and Skokie," Krzyzewski said. "We just hit it off. There was enough of an age difference that they could see me as their coach. They were genuine guys. And we won, too. We weren't supposed to win; [we] had an upset, and it ended up being a cool thing. We ate together and went out a little bit. We got to know each other as people. We found out we were very similar guys, with very similar family and friends, and once those family and friends met each other, it was easy."
When the camp ended, players and coaches went back to their normal lives and daily routines. Ross went back to Chicago and his family and returned to the financial world. Krzyzewski headed back to Durham, N.C., to coach Duke.
And then Ross and Mindy's world stopped.
It was February 1998, six months after the camp ended. Deutsch's 6-year-old son, Rory, had gone to a park district activity class on a Saturday, where he played tennis. On Sunday, he complained that his arm was hurting. Initially, Ross and Mindy weren't overly concerned. What parents haven't heard some complaining from their child after physical activity?
The following day, Deutsch came home from work, and as usual, Rory wanted to hang out with him, sit on his lap and work on his computer. He tried to lift his right hand to move the mouse. But it didn't work. His left wrist went limp, and he couldn't make a fist. He couldn't move his wrist without raising his arm.
Ross and Mindy immediately called a friend nearby who was a pediatrician. They were told to bring Rory to the doctor. Rory got a physical exam, and while testing his strength, doctors were concerned enough to call a neurologist. Next stop was Children's Memorial Hospital. Anxiety, fear and horror were all filling their heads. Various possibilities were being thrown around, from a tumor to a virus to a blockage to a stroke.
Then the brain scan came back.
"It was over these next 40 hours where his symptoms, before our very eyes, the difficulty swallowing or breathing and his right side was dragging," Ross said, his voice trailing a bit. "The tumor was in the area of the brain stem. It was in the area that controls life's necessary functions. They did the MRI and explained to us how aggressive a tumor it was."
The Deutsch family was told the tumor was inoperable. Like an hourglass filled with sand, Rory's life would begin to slip away, grain by grain.
Rory was diagnosed Feb. 13, 1998, Krzyzewski's birthday. The occasions aren't comparable, but the date is burned into Ross' memory nonetheless. He can't forget it.
"The problem with many of these illnesses is that they come back, and when they come back, they come back with a vengeance," Ross said. "You couldn't radiate at his age and in the location. So we were told to bring him home."
To this day, Deutsch isn't sure how Krzyzewski found out about Rory's illness. Krzyzewski said someone from the camp contacted him to let him know. He called to see what he could do, putting the Deutsches in contact with the Duke Medical Center and Dr. Henry Friedman, a brain tumor specialist, to see whether there was any other treatment. They were told the medical professionals were doing all they could.
Krzyzewski and Deutsch would talk a few times over the next couple of months before Deutsch went into a shell. Rory was in his bedroom, a hospice-like situation. He couldn't communicate. Mere months after the diagnosis, after Rory had turned 7 years old, he was going to die.
Deutsch sat at Rory's bedside in an almost catatonic state, watching his firstborn's life fade away. He wasn't answering the phone during this time. But one time it rang and, for some reason, he picked it up. It was Krzyzewski.
"He said: 'Ross, in basketball we define success by winning and losing, but with Rory, with this sickness, you don't define it with a cure or no cure. The definition will be how you handle it. You have handled the most horrific illness as winners.' It was a little thing. And it wasn't like I needed to hear this from Mike Krzyzewski. But it was the perfect thing to hear from him at the perfect time."
The next day, Ross and Mindy established the Rory David Deutsch Foundation for brain tumor research.
"I think when we started talking, he felt that I would tell him the truth," Krzyzewski said. "He knew he could be completely honest and forthright and straightforward about everything. It was very emotional stuff. We are really, really close friends."
Ross didn't hold back when he would talk to Krzyzewski. If he had to cry, he would let it all out.
"He could show weakness to me, emotion that he couldn't show as a man to his family because he had to be strong," Krzyzewski said. "I can remember telling him for us to be strong together. I told him to let it out. I said whatever you need to let it out, let's get through this together.
"How do you recover from that? How do you make something positive from that, or does it ruin your life? Ross and Mindy, the way they've honored Rory's life and memory is to keep it alive and talk about it," Krzyzewski said. "To me it's beyond belief. I don't know if I could. I tell him he's a mensch. He's a mensch, no question about it."
"Mensch" means "person" in Yiddish, but the figurative meaning is much deeper. It's someone you would want to befriend and be with because you feel genuine when you're in their presence. A mensch is said to make others feel good.
Being with Deutsch, talking to him, going through the hell he had to endure as a friend, and sharing an enriching relationship with him through the foundation has touched Krzyzewski beyond words.
Rory was born March 9, 1991. He died July 22, 1998, five months after his diagnosis.
"It's the worst thing that a parent can experience -- the loss of a child," Krzyzewski said. "The foundation has become a huge part of the healing process. There still is a healing process."
For Deutsch, the healing process began with a commitment and a hope to find a cure for brain cancer. Needing a symbol, something to carry with him and show the world who Rory was, he came up with the idea of a pin. Engraved with a picture of Rory with a baseball cap bearing his name, the pin is engraved with the words of the foundation he and Mindy started: "Rory Foundation For Brighter Tomorrows." They wear it every day.
A month after Rory died, Deutsch, encouraged by Mindy, returned to the Jordan camp in Las Vegas and reconnected with Krzyzewski. He would return every year until 2004, playing for Krzyzewski three times and actually serving as an assistant coach in '04 after a hamstring injury prevented him from playing.
In August 2001, Mindy and Ross were having dinner with Mike and Mickie Krzyzewski at a restaurant in Las Vegas when Coach K told Ross he wanted to do something to honor Rory's memory. With the help of the Krzyzewskis' daughter Debbie, they planned a fundraising event in Chicago at the Standard Club. On Oct. 4, 2002, 400 people attended the charity dinner to hear Krzyzewski speak.
At the conclusion of his speech, Coach K held up the pin that Deutsch had given him and talked about pride and what it meant to be a part of something bigger than you. To achieve that, he said, you need something symbolic.
"It needs a uniform, it needs a letter jacket, it needs something," Krzyzewski said during his speech. "What I'm going to do is something very symbolic and I'm not going to tell the press about it or anything else. What I would like to do and what I'm going to do, and we get on TV more often a lot or more than 'Friends,' or whatever. I'm not saying anything about it, except my team will know. If you turn the game on for even one minute -- and they show the sidelines for every game we play -- I'm going to have on my lapel Rory's pin."
For the first time since the fundraiser in Chicago, Krzyzewski and Deutsch agreed to talk about the pin. Since its inception in 1998, Rory's foundation has raised roughly $7 million, according to Deutsch, without any corporate sponsorship. It has no salaried employees and operates solely through the generosity of its volunteers. There is no plan to change that.
Ross and Mindy also serve on the advisory board of directors for the brain center at Duke Medical Center and are involved in causes close to the Krzyzewskis, such as the Emily Krzyzewski Center in Durham, an organization named after Coach K's mother that is dedicated to inspiring economically disadvantaged students in the area.
Rory would have been a freshman in college this year. Deutsch has become a coach himself, serving as an assistant for the past eight years at Highland Park, a high school in a North Chicago suburb. He recently took his two sons, Robbie, now 17, and Rickey, now 14, to Durham for the Virginia Tech game. Ross and Mindy also have two girls -- 10-year-old Reggi and 8-year-old Roxie Cameron, who is named after Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"I can't say enough about Mike and Mickie's friendship and love," Deutsch said. "I was 36, and he was 50. It was 13 years ago. You don't think that you're going to make new friends at a certain age. We all face our own adversity at some point, and to me what will define you is how you respond. From that moment, Mindy and I decided we were going to do whatever we could. No family should have to hear those words: 'Your son has a brain tumor and a very, very bad one.' As long as we're able, as long as we're able to dedicate support and research, we will. There are people now who know Rory, who never knew Rory."
Krzyzewski won another national title in 2001, his third. His team won Olympic gold in 2008 in Beijing. But he swears that he found better perspective in life after Rory's death and the experience with Deutsch.
"That's why I wear the pin on my jacket," Krzyzewski said. "I've worn it every game since because I'm proud of it. It puts the game in perspective. How can a game ever be that difficult? It can't ever be more difficult than what the Deutsch team went through. Wearing this pin is one of those things that makes you feel good about being a human being."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. The Rory David Deutsch Foundation can be visited here.