- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
- 0 Shares
ABERDEEN, S.D. -- Don Meyer tried to treat this game like any other game because he always has believed that coaching basketball is about process and not product. Meyer, the coach for Northern State University, sat quiet and stone-faced 25 minutes before tip-off, then implored his players the same way he has for 37 seasons, telling them to play as they had practiced.
But this could not have been like any other game. Meyer began the day with 902 career victories, tied with Bob Knight for the most in NCAA men's basketball history. This could not have been like any other milestone game because Meyer coaches from a wheelchair. He does so because much of his left leg was amputated in the aftermath of a devastating automobile collision Sept. 5. This could not have been like any other milestone game because Meyer knows he has cancer, which was discovered as he was being treated in the hours after his accident.
This could not have been like any other game because after Northern State beat the University of Mary 82-62 on Saturday for the 903rd victory of Meyer's career, the face of John Wooden appeared on the video screen inside the Barnett Center with a taped message. "Congratulations, Don," Wooden said. "I don't know how you did it, but you did it."
Meyer smiled and chuckled. This was not like any other game. "You think back to all the coaches you worked with and all the players you've coached, the teams," Meyer said later. "And we've had some great teams."
Meyer's coaching career began in 1972. He has won at Northern State and, before that, at Lipscomb University and Hamline University. "I'm a small-college coach," he said. "That means that when you're on the road in hotels, you take the soap. You take it one day at a time, and if you lose sight of that, then you're in trouble."
Most Northern State students won't return from winter break until Wednesday, and snow fell steadily outside the Barnett Center on Saturday. Rows and sections of seats might otherwise have been empty for a game played under such conditions.
But two hours before the game, as Northern State's women tipped off, almost all of the 6,664 who would arrive already were here as the smell of popcorn began to waft throughout the gym. Meyer sat in a wheelchair near the court waiting to do a live interview with a local station, and fans kept walking over to congratulate him and shake his right hand.
On the ring finger of his left hand, Meyer wore his newly repaired wedding ring. The ring had been cut off on Sept. 5, the day he fell asleep at the wheel and drifted across Highway 20 into the path of a semi hauling 90,000 pounds of grain. Meyer survived the head-on collision, but his left leg was amputated below the left knee. And as a trauma doctor removed Meyer's spleen the night of the accident, he discovered cancer in the coach's liver and small intestine.
After being hospitalized for 55 days, Meyer was back at work at 4:45 the next morning, pushed by his desire to return to his players and coaching. When Northern State began its season on Nov. 18, Meyer was 11 victories shy of Knight's NCAA men's basketball mark of 902.
But players can recall only one time this season when Meyer even referred to the impending milestone -- on Jan. 3, after the Wolves won sloppily. "Screw records," Meyer had said to the players. "We need to get better."
Victory No. 903 was a conversation piece in Aberdeen this week, however. T-shirts commemorating the event were printed, and plans were made quietly. But Meyer didn't talk about it -- not with the players, his assistant coaches or his wife, Carmen. "I'm almost afraid to bring it up," she said a few hours before the game.
The Northern State players had talked about the record when they lunched together, their words echoing words they had heard from Meyer throughout this season. They had talked about process over product, about the need to focus on playing the game rather than winning. "Everyone has felt the buildup," said Kyle Schwan, one of the team's seniors. "There's no getting around it."
Meyer is still mulling over options for treatment of the cancer that also has been found in his abdomen. At one point, he was told his cancer is inoperable, but a specialist is reviewing Meyer's MRI. Meyer's life clock always has run on basketball time; his days have been structured around practices, planning and program work. But friends say he is speaking more of his cancer than he did initially.
Even so, Meyer's voice is stronger and his stamina greater than they were when he first resumed coaching on Oct. 31. His left leg, which he calls Little Buddy, has not healed enough for him to be fitted with a prosthetic leg, so Meyer moves with a walker. On his way to lunch Friday afternoon, he came face-to-face with a heap of snow in a restaurant parking lot. Rather than go around the pile, he moved over it steadily, pushing the legs of the walker into the snow until he had a solid base. You could use a snowshoe, a companion mentioned to him. "All I'd need was one," he said, chuckling.
Later, about 20 minutes before Saturday's game, the players gathered around Meyer in the hallway outside their locker room. "We have to make sure we do the things we want to do," Meyer told them. "Encourage each other."
The University of Mary didn't score in the first five minutes and 47 seconds, falling behind quickly. But the Marauders tied the game at 16, then took a 21-20 lead. Meyer rolled in his wheelchair in front of the Wolves' bench and shouted at the Northern State big men to post up and use their size advantage.
Northern State rebuilt a lead with a series of backdoor cuts, then controlled the game throughout the second half. As the last minute of the game wound down, the crowd rose and clapped. Meyer lifted his Dictaphone, as he does throughout the course of every game, and recorded another flaw that needed to be corrected. The game ended, and confetti streamed onto the court. Meyer called the Wolves into a huddle in front of the bench and talked about how they need to improve. "We're not here to celebrate this record," he said. "We're here to get better as a team."
But after Wooden's taped message, Meyer rolled toward the scorer's table and stood, leaning on his right leg, and spoke into a microphone. He thanked those in attendance for their support and asked them to continue praying for his leg to heal and his cancer to improve. Then, nodding toward his players, he said, "I especially want to thank this group of guys for helping me through a really tough time."
There will be a celebration for Meyer here in Aberdeen on Saturday, and his daughters plan to fly in, as do some of his former players. He will be relieved when that is over, when the talk of a statistical standard will dissipate and the Wolves' season will again be about process over product.
But away from the court, he takes stock of his life day by day and wakes up thankful he's alive. "I don't know how many days I have left, to be honest with you," he said. "None of us know."
So no, this day was not like any other for Don Meyer.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
7dESPN The Magazine