The Long road aheadWashington coach Phil Long begins his battle with cancer
Ask Phil Long how he’s doing, and he’ll respond, “Living the dream.”
And he means it, without a hint of insincerity.
It has been a dream season of sorts for the Washington girls’ basketball coach. He picked up his 100th career coaching victory in January, and his squad recently claimed its second straight Southeast Conference championship.
So it’s hard to imagine that less than two months ago he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
“I think I can mentally whip this thing just by having a positive attitude and having the kids see that I’m positive,” Long said.
With a record of 107-71 as a head coach, Long is a winner. Cancer should know that it’s in for a battle.
IT’S A STRANGE STORY, the one of how Long’s cancer was discovered. In the middle of November, Long began to experience hiccups any time he ate. And after he was forced to push away his plate of homemade food on Thanksgiving, he decided to get it checked out.
“I thought that was unusual because I like to eat,” Long said.
A few days before Christmas, the tests came back and confirmed that Long had Stage II carcinoma of the esophagus. Long, 56, felt a lot of emotions — he was shocked and questioned why this was happening to him, but he was also thankful that the cancer was discovered when it was.
“Part of me is thankful to God that he gave me the hiccups to go in there and get a test done,” he said. “Because I felt awesome. I just had the hiccups. And no doctor in the land, none of the specialists, have ever heard of anybody getting the hiccups over this deal. They can’t even explain that to me. So tell me that’s not a sign from God.”
LONG NEVER GAVE MUCH thought to giving up coaching. In fact, he said it’s helped him keep his mind off of what he’s dealing with.
“I’m swamped at work this time of year,” said Long, who is also co-owner of Cash N Carry Chemicals. “I come to practice until 8 or 8:30 some nights. I get out of here and go home and eat supper. I watch a little scout video and then go to bed at 10 o’clock, and that’s the only chance I have to think about it when I lay down to go to sleep. If I had to sit and think about that all night long, it would drive me absolutely nuts.”
His doctor encouraged Long to keep coaching.
“He said, ‘It’s not a heart problem or that kind of thing. You’re not going to make the cancer spread any faster by coaching,’”
EVEN THOUGH LONG found out about his cancer a few days before Christmas, he hesitated to tell his basketball team right away. Even though he calls the squad his “second family,” he knew how the girls would take it. And he wanted them focused on a key conference game at rival Mt. Pleasant on Jan. 4.
“Those kids know how much Mt. Pleasant means to me, and I didn’t tell them prior to that because I wanted no distractions. Not that I would be a distraction, but I wanted the focus on the game.”
The Demons won that game 60-57 in overtime, and the next Monday Long gathered his players around him in the locker room to tell them that he had cancer.
“He said, ‘I have to tell you something,’ and right then we all knew exactly what he was going to tell us,” recalled junior guard Dema Giardino. “So we just kind of dropped our heads and started crying.”
SINCE HE ANNOUNCED he has cancer, the team has rallied around Long.
“They’re all like my daughters,” he said. “They’ve been tremendous.”
Senior forward Johannah Vittetoe, whose mother, Tammy, won a fight with breast cancer when Vittetoe was young, did everything she could to let Long know that the team stood behind him.
“I went with my mom every day to chemo and radiation,” Vittetoe recalled. “She called me her chemo buddy. I was her little angel who helped her survive it. So I wanted to get Phil something to help him get through this tough time, so I actually got him a key chain that says ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ I gave it to him before the Mt. Pleasant game, and he cried and told me how much it meant to him.”
That wasn’t the only touching moment in Long’s fight with cancer. When Washington hosted county rival Mid-Prairie on Coaches Vs. Cancer Night on Feb. 5, both squads surprised Long by wearing special T-shirts during warm-ups before the game. The Demons wore shirts that read “Playing For Coach” on the front, while the Golden Hawks wore shirts that read “No One Fights Alone.”
“The T-shirts were over the top,” Long said.
LONG BEGAN CHEMOTHERAPY and radiation on Feb. 4, and he makes the 30-minute drive north to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics five days a week to get his treatments. The first day he went for chemotherapy, his appointment ran long and he missed his first practice in seven seasons as Washington’s head coach.
“I’ve got great assistant coaches,” Long said. “I e-mailed them the practice plan, and they know what’s going on, so they just ran practice.”
Long said that his doctors and technicians have taken an interest in his coaching. After Washington defeated Mt. Pleasant 54-42 last Friday night to win the SEC championship, everyone at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics seemed to know about it when Long showed up there on Monday morning.
“My radiologist now is a big fan,” Long said. “When we beat Mt. Pleasant, on Monday morning when I went in they were cheering. I told them we’d had a big game with the conference title on the line. You have the same technicians every day, and they’re all young gals. They ask me, ‘Where do you coach at?’ Washington. ‘Who are you playing?’ Mt. Pleasant. By God, they looked the score up, because they were all ‘Go Demons!’ as I came in. They knew we’d won.”
Long is just finishing up his second week of chemotherapy and radiation. So far, he hasn’t had too much adversity, but the tough times dealing with the treatments are yet ahead of him.
“Everyone tells me that with the radiation and the chemo that by the third or fourth week no matter how much you fight it, you just get smoked. You lose all your get-up-and-go,” he said. “I’m halfway through my second week. This morning was the first rough morning I’ve had.”
But he’ll likely fight through the rough times with a smile on his face.
LONG IS PRETTY UPBEAT about the whole ordeal. In fact, he keeps things light.
“My wife and I went to Ash Wednesday today, and part of the sermon was about people giving up chocolate, like that is a big sacrifice, and I turned to my wife and said, ‘Well, I’m just going to give up my esophagus for Lent. I’ll just donate that to the cause.’ She just gave me an elbow and laughed.”
When he told the team about having cancer, he cracked jokes to lighten the mood.
“I said, ‘Well, you seniors have seen me with black hair and you’ve seen me with gray hair, and now you may see me bald,’” said Long, who had dyed his trademark silver hair black last year as a fundraiser during a Coaches Vs. Cancer game.
THERE’S A HISTORY of cancer in Long’s family. Long has seen the battle against cancer first hand, as his mother, Becky, fought and won her battle with breast cancer when Long was young.
“My mom went on to live another 40 years after discovering it and having a double mastectomy,” he said.
Long will take strength from that. He will also take strength from his own coaching advice.
“You hear me in practice and hear me in games talk about mental toughness,” he said. “Can you overcome? I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, but that’s just not really the way I roll.”
THE DEMONS HAVE STRUGGLED at times since Long made his announcement that he had cancer, going 3-5 in their final eight games of the regular season. Did that have anything to do with his announcement? Who knows?
Rather than a distraction, Washington’s players are using it as motivation as they begin postseason play tomorrow night at home against Keokuk. The Demons know what it would mean to their coach to reach the state tournament.
“We’re playing for coach,” Giardino said.
“We’ll mention it in the huddle,” senior guard Lauren Kimball said. “We’ll say, ‘Think about getting to state, not for us, but for Phil.’”
AFTER THE SEASON is over and after his five weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments have ended, Long will have a few weeks of recovery and then have surgery to have his esophagus removed.
“They’ll take it all out and they’ll take out the upper part of my stomach, and then they’ll pull up my stomach that’s left and hook it to the bottom of my neck,” Long explained. “I really won’t have an esophagus anymore.”
The surgery is radical, but Long’s odds of beating the cancer are much better with the surgery.
“I keep putting it in basketball terms,” he said. “I said, ‘We’re going to full-court press this thing until it gives up.’ That’s my style the way I coach, and that’s how I’m going to attack this thing.”
WILL LONG COACH next season? He’d like to.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “Obviously the Good Lord is going to decide my limitations. I will not come back and be a token basketball coach. If I can’t go 100 miles an hour and do the summer camps and be active in practices, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to sit in a chair and wheeze and carry on because I can’t give it up. My goal is to do it.”
Giardino wants to have Long coach her senior season.
“I always question him about it,” she said. “He always says he’s coming back, and I’m hoping he does.”
Long said that if he’s unable to return, there will be a number of other coaches lined up to take his job. He’s already being asked if the job will be open.
“Who wouldn’t want my job?” Long asked. “We’ve won 13 out of the last 20 conference titles and I’ve got great kids and a great facility and great administrators behind me. It’s pretty peachy.”
LONG FEELS LUCKY to coach in Washington with the players he has. That’s why he says he’s “living the dream.” But the Demons feel lucky to have a coach as dedicated as Long.
“He tells us all the time in the locker room that he’s the luckiest coach in the world that he has a team like us,” Vittetoe said. “He tells other coaches that all the time. If anyone’s the lucky one, it’s the team. We’re the luckiest team to have him.”
Kimball said it would be nearly impossible to replace a coach like Long.
“I think he’s a wonderful coach,” she said. “I don’t know how you can replace him. So I hope he is able to recover and come back full strength. Knowing Phil, he will.”
He doesn’t want the dream to be over.