INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Patrick McCaffery dribbled a basketball, with a smile on his face, as he headed up the tunnel Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The innocence of youth was on display.
Minutes later, Patrick’s father appeared at his scheduled press conference. In four seasons, I’ve attended hundreds of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery’s weekly and postgame media sessions.
Tuesday was the first time I can recall him talking about basketball without passion.
McCaffery looked everything like a parent, nothing like a million-dollar coach, as he fielded questions about Thursday’s game against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament and his team’s late-season funk.
Fran and his wife, Margaret, disclosed earlier Tuesday that a tumor had been discovered on Patrick’s thyroid. A seventh grader, Patrick will have surgery Wednesday at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to remove the mass. Tests will then determine whether the mass is benign or malignant.
The McCafferys, who have four children, are in an emotional place that only a parent can understand. The waiting is the hardest part. You keep your family afloat with routine, while praying everything will be OK.
Meanwhile, life outside the family goes on. There’s the Big Ten Tournament this week, and the NCAA Tournament to follow. Iowa could play a game as soon as a day after Patrick’s surgery, depending on what happens on Selection Sunday.
McCaffery fell in love with basketball as a youngster growing up in Philadelphia, Pa. He became a legend in the City of Brotherly Love, earning the nickname “White Magic.” The sport got him a full-ride scholarship at Wake Forest, then Penn. It became his livelihood as a coach. It also opened the door to meeting Margaret, an all-American at Notre Dame.
I was visiting with McCaffery before a game at Minnesota last month when he brought up the one regret he had with his job at Iowa.
“I wish my dad was still around to see this,” he said.
Fran’s father, who once took care of the officials at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia, passed away from colon cancer 15 years ago. The same disease claimed his mother in 2007. That is why McCaffery is so involved in Coaches vs. Cancer.
Fran and Margaret have hosted a Coaches vs. Cancer event in Iowa City the past two years, with proceeds going to Hope Lodge and to researchers at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. The most recent event, held in late October, raised $82,000. The inaugural event brought in $52,100. The McCafferys have hosted cancer fundraisers since Fran was the head coach at North Carolina-Greensboro.
“If you ask me, it’s more important that we are able to do something like this than the wins and losses and all that kind of stuff,” Margaret said at this year’s event.
God willing, cancer will escape the McCafferys this time around. But Margaret’s words ring even truer now.
The story of Wil Roling, a seventh-grader from Cascade, was told at the most recent Coaches vs. Cancer event. After 39 spinal taps and 54 chemotherapy shots, University Hospitals held a going-away party for Wil in late June of 2013. Fran McCaffery was at the party.
“That was an amazing thing, to see the smiles on the faces of the family,” Fran said.
While Roling’s story was told to the crowd, Wil was back at the McCaffery’s home, hanging out with Patrick and Connor, a freshman starting point guard at Iowa City West.
While Connor and his teammates spent Thursday preparing for today’s Class 4-A semifinal against Bettendorf, Patrick was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse cheering for his dad’s Hawkeyes.
And Patrick, we’re cheering for you.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter from Indianapolis and the NCAA Tournament: @ByRickBrown.