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Digger Phelps' biggest victory

12/7/2010

When Memphis and Kansas take to the court Tuesday night, ESPN analyst Digger Phelps will be ready, matching highlighter and tie in tow. But this year's Jimmy V Classic feels a bit different. Though Phelps has always been close to the Valvano family -- he and Jimmy V's brother Nick were college roommates -- never before has the dream of defeating cancer felt so real.

During Phelps' 20-year tenure as Notre Dame's head basketball coach, success was routine. He posted 14 seasons of 20 wins or more and took the Fighting Irish to their only Final Four appearance. But this past spring, the only winning percentage that concerned Phelps was the one between him and prostate cancer.

A physical in April yielded a slight abnormality in Phelps' bi-yearly PSA test. When biopsy results on April 28 confirmed that it was prostate cancer, Phelps was at a small sanctuary in South Bend, tucked away in the woods.

"I was at the hidden crucifix praying when I got the phone call from [my doctor]," Phelps said. "I looked up at the three of them -- the statue of Christ on the cross, Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene next to him and said, 'You knew. You're telling me now to go get it done.' And that's when I called Karen."

Karen Moyer is Phelps' oldest daughter and wife of ageless Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer. She sits on the board at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and helped arrange a meeting between her father and doctors at the University of Washington.

Phelps wanted answers fast and he wanted the best in the game on his side. After discussing the options, he was scheduled to undergo DaVinci robotic prostatectomy surgery June 8.

"From April 28 to June 8, the unknown was an ugly experience," Phelps said. "My fiancee knew and my family knew, but I didn't tell anybody else. ... I wanted my own closure."

Phelps prayed. He hired a strength and conditioning coach to prepare his body for surgery. And he thought about Jimmy V.

Phelps had just left Notre Dame to begin work with George H.W. Bush when word got out about Jim Valvano's bone cancer.

As an undertaker's son growing up in New York (hence the nickname "Digger"), death was as commonplace as dinner. But dying never seemed quite as tangible as it did when it threatened family.

And for Phelps, the Valvanos were family.

This is your UCLA game. Only I'm playing, you're coaching. Make sure we win.

-- Digger Phelps

Nick Valvano and Phelps would take trips to see Jimmy play at Rutgers, roughhousing in the backseat with Bobby, the youngest of the Valvano boys. Rocco and Angela would bring their son's roommate homemade Italian food. And as Phelps and Jim Valvano both grew into established coaching positions, they maintained a playful chemistry. In fact, Jimmy once got mad at his mother for accepting a pregame prayer medal from Phelps before an NC State-Notre Dame showdown.

So Jim Valvano's rapid decline and eventual passing spoke volumes to Phelps.

"It was such a tragedy. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. ... It scared all of us," Phelps recalls.

With the spirit of Jimmy V's message in his arsenal, Phelps trained his body and soul for surgery. He even left a little time for a pregame pep talk to his doctors:

"We knocked off UCLA January 19, 1974, to end their 88-game winning streak, so I was teasing them, 'This is your UCLA game. Only I'm playing, you're coaching. Make sure we win.'" Phelps said.

On June 11, Phelps was recovering at Moyer's house in Seattle, watching his son-in-law take on the Red Sox at Fenway Park, when the phone rang.

"The Monster needed a paint job after the first inning," Phelps recalls. "Then my doctor called and said, 'You can celebrate and have two beers tonight.'"

"Why, have you been watching Moyer pitch too?" Phelps sarcastically quipped.

"No," his doctor responded. "You're cancer free."

They had won.

And Phelps cried.

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