College basketball: Amid success, tragedy strikes Butler again
INDIANAPOLIS – And once more, they’re crying at Butler. Hearts crushed again, voices breaking, another death in the family. This has been a season of tears, and it hasn’t stopped yet.
Just 18 days ago, the Bulldogs played a game while mourning a fallen former teammate. Andrew Smith, taken by cancer at 25. And oh, how they hurt.
Then came Tuesday night. With Georgetown beaten in what should have been an evening of nothing but smiles, coach Chris Holtmann came grimly into the press conference with an announcement. Emerson Kampen once played with many of these guys at Butler, and now is one of their assistant coaches. He was also a proud young father with an infant son named Emerson IV. Little Em, everyone called him.
And Little Em was gone.
He died Monday morning from a rare and fatal genetic disorder called Leigh’s Disease. A baby boy who never had a chance, in six short months of life. So once more, barely two weeks after Andrew Smith’s funeral, there was darkness at Butler.
"I have probably cried more in the last month than I have . . . well, certainly in awhile,’’ Holtmann said after the press conference. It is so unfair, someone mentioned. Holtmann nodded his head. First a young man barely out of college, and now a baby? That’s it. Unfair.
What’s a coach to do, when he has to keep standing in front of his players and give them awful news and try to help them cope? When real life keeps trampling over their locker room? "There’s not a playbook for it,’’ Holtmann said. "I’ve really tried to be genuine and authentic and real with how I’ve dealt with each situation.
``We kind of heard this about the same time as Andrew. When Emerson said to them, 'I’m going to lose my son,’ it was really, really hard.’’
He could see it then, with the visible anguish and emotion of his senior stars, Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham. And everyone could see that Tuesday might. Holtmann’s statement came with pauses and wavering voice, as he tried to collect himself.
"We have tremendous guys in our locker room. They feel things deeply. To see our guys’ concern for Emerson and (wife) Kylie was incredibly special. Listen, we have great compassion for those families. Nothing is hard compared to what those guys have gone through.’’
Same for Jones, who on other nights could have been talking about 19 points and six rebounds and five assists in an 87-76 Big East win Butler so badly needed. But instead, he discussed another shadow over his school and his team. Another nightmare.
"It kind of hits me deep. I hate seeing bad things happen to people I care about, and . . . ‘’
That’s as far as he could get.
They set up a Skype connection Tuesday, so Kampen could watch the halftime talk from his home. Then the Bulldogs went out and scored 47 points in the second half to hold off the Hoyas.
"After the game, they celebrated,’’ Holtmann said of his team. ``Emerson, the last thing in the world he would want is for us not to play well. Even as he’s going through unspeakable pain. He said that; it’s unspeakable.’’
They dedicated the game to the Kampens. "Today, this one’s for them,’’ Holtmann said. Just as they had tried to win one for Andrew Smith’s family not long ago, Holtmann handing Smith’s father the ball from the St. John’s game.
"We just want to love and care for the people who have been through this program,’’ Holtmann said. It’s the Butler Way.
At the moment, the Butler Way comes with black crepe.