You’ve learned a lot about Bo Ryan this week.
By now you know the 66-year-old coach of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team is old school, the antithesis of John Calipari and Kentucky’s one-and-done starter school for the NBA. Bo’s players stay around for a year or two or three or four.
You know Bo’s a tough disciplinarian, a taskmaster on and off the court.
A New York Times story last week about how he makes his Wisconsin team do homework even when they are on the road is already becoming legendary. The story went into great detail about the players’ study habits and how every senior in the past two seasons graduated.
A different New York Times story delved into his recruiting style and said: In assembling his teams, Ryan said, he looks for recruits who are good students, hard workers and good listeners, “people that are pretty focused on what’s going to happen in the next 60 years as well as they are focused on what’s going to happen in the next couple years — because that’s what we’re preparing people for as coaches. We’re preparing them for when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.”
You know Bo is fiercely loyal. He toiled away in the University of Wisconsin system, winning four NCAA Division III championships at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville before heading to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
He was passed over repeatedly for the job he wanted at the Big Ten school until he got the top post in 2001. Did I mention he’s gotten an invitation to the NCAA tournament every single year he’s been leading the Badgers?
You know Bo’s a hard-nosed competitor. His sideline gyrations and facial contortions are truly works of art, and he can chew out officials with the best of them.
You may have noticed he uttered a not-so-nice word that didn’t quite get bleeped Saturday night. If you are one of those inquiring minds, the word had the letters “b” and “s.”
Recently, you know Bo has a softer side. Bo and his dad, Butch, attended Final Fours together for nearly three decades. The trips were a birthday gift to Butch from his son.
This year, for the first time ever, Bo is going as a coach. Butch died in August at age 89, and Bo fought back tears a few days ago when he was asked how difficult it would be to go without his dad.
I have one more story about Bo that’s better than all the stories you’ve read, and it involves my 10-year-old nephew Jaden.
Jaden is my heart, and you would love him. He has a smile from here to the moon. He loves school, finds pure joy in music and is a hooligan every now and then.
He’s an old soul. A few months ago, his teacher had the class write about what they want when they grow up.
You can imagine what shows up on the list of fifth-grade boys. A million dollars. A fast car. The latest, gee-whiz electronic gizmo that can brush your teeth, do mental telepathy with a distant cousin in Mongolia and dissect a virtual frog all in one swipe of the screen. You get the drift, lots and lots of stuff.
Jaden’s list was different, and it went like this: “I hope to have a good family. I hope to be an animator. I want to go to Colorado. I hope to have four kids and one wife. I hope to go to Miami, Florida. I want to go to the Great Lakes. I hope to live in the country. I hope to live in a normal-sized house. I hope to go to California. I hope I get married at age 27.”
I desperately want all of that for Jaden, too. Because here’s the raw and awful deal Jaden’s been dealt: He has cancer. He beat it once. But it’s back — in his lungs.
He’s been cut open from one side of his little tummy to the other. He’s endured countless rounds of chemotherapy that left him bald and puking. He’s been lifeless and in isolation for weeks after a stem-cell transplant.
Now, clear that lump out of your throat because Jaden will have none of that. He’s become the comforter-in-chief, telling me and everyone with his unwavering, innocent faith: “Don’t worry. I am going to beat it again. I know it.”
What’s Bo got to do with all that?
In November 2012, Jaden’s school superintendent gave Jaden tickets to attend a Wisconsin Badgers basketball game. Jaden’s family was overwhelmed by the generosity but worried if Jaden would be able to go. He was scheduled for another round of chemotherapy the day of the game. What happens after chemo is not pretty.
So game day and chemo day came. That morning the school superintendent called to confirm that Jaden was well enough to go and then dropped this bombshell — Jaden would be sitting with the players.
No one let Jaden in on the big secret. He was happy as a lark thinking he would be cheering in the bleacher seats.
With his best buddy Noah by his side, Jaden went to the hospital and told the nurses to bring on the chemo because he had a game to get to. Noah spent chemo time distracting Jaden with little boy jokes about funny noises the body makes.
Noah’s great at potty humor. Truth be told, though, he’s been a genuine friend to Jaden through all of this.
One day out of the blue, Noah wrote on his Facebook page in a way only 10-year-olds can: “What comes first — friends or football? I pick my friend Jaden. If you are a good friend you are a best friend. But I just want to tell Jaden he’s the bestest friend I have, and I would do anything for him. I will even do his homework.”
Wearing their Badgers stocking hats, Jaden and Noah entered the Kohl Center, the team’s home, with the widest eyes you’ve ever seen.
Jaden’s mom (my sister) watched from sky-high seats as they came for Jaden and walked him to the tunnel to slap hands with the players as they were being introduced. Then Jaden and Noah took their seats next to the Badgers.
Jaden was pumped!
After the game, there was another surprise. Jaden and Noah were escorted into the locker room. They listened to Bo give his postgame speech, got autographs from the players and spent a considerable amount of time in the lounge and locker room with the team.
At one point, all the players formed a circle. Bo and a very nervous and excited Jaden were at the head of the circle. Bo, with his hand on Jaden’s shoulder, told him the team was right there with him in his fight against cancer.
Jaden has had the darkest of days. Years from now he will look back at how difficult this time of his life was, but it will be mixed with a very special night when Bo and the Badgers made him the happiest kid on earth.
Thank you Bo. Go Bucky.