FATHER & SON: A GAME & A BATTLE WITH PARKINSON’S 

By: Gary Keating 

When you are the son of a basketball coach, some people ask if you were born with a basketball in your hands. Maybe there was, or maybe it was just an inborn love of a game inherited from a family gene.  

My father began coaching the game of basketball the same year I was born.  So you can truly say I have spent my entire life around the game.  His players weren’t the only ones he coached at the time, as I started picking up a ball when it was bigger than me.  Then when I learned how to stand up, the ball wasn’t so big anymore, so I copied what I saw and started to dribble it.  Then came learning how to do it correctly, and then how to shoot at a basket in the yard that was built at a height I could reach.  The coach was now a father teaching his son the game he loved and passing that love down to me.

Years later, I was old enough to go with him to practice matches.  That love of a game now became a dream to be one of those guys out there on the court, to be a real player.  Then came that year when I was finally old enough to be a member of the team, after all those years in the back yard practicing.  For the first time, father and son became coach and player.  Some would say it’s tough to have your father as a coach because they think you have to live up to expectations and reputations.  But in reality, it was the culmination of all those years of learning from him and learning how to put everything I had into something.  There is no better way to share a passion for the game with your father than as coach and player.  Those expectations and reputations to live up to, they were ones I would be proud to take on and show.

Now, years later, with my playing days complete, there was only one thing that I could think to do.  That was to return and coach alongside the man who taught me how to be a player and, most importantly, a proper person.  The passion now changed from coach and player to coach and coach, to pass down this love to a whole new generation of basketball players. This was an opportunity that was extra special, one that wouldn’t come around often.

As we coached together, one year I was given the opportunity to branch out and coach a team on my own.  Now was a chance for me to take all I had learned as a  and put it into action with my own team.  By now, my father was coming to the end of his coaching time, so he made the decision to retire as my own career was about to get started.  He now became a fan sitting in the bleachers.  As people asked who he was at the games to watch, he would proudly tell them, “My son.”  After being asked which one his son was, he would tell them, “The one wearing the suit, standing in front of the bench.”

Then one year came something new: one day my father’s arm began to shake.  When we wondered what was happening, he would say he was just leaning on a nerve.  After a time of wonder and questions as the shaking wouldn’t stop, he decided to see a doctor.  After being referred to a neurologist, the word finally came: we all found out that he had Parkinson’s disease.  So a new battle began, except now it was a different kind of opponent.   Now all the passion that was put into basketball turned into courage with Parkinson’s.

So began a fourteen-year battle with the disease.  He would fight it with the same passion, dignity, and honor that he did everything else with.  But over the years, as the battle continued, it finally got to a point of advancement where the disease was beginning to take away his ability to do simple things.  I was left with choice of continuing to pursue my passion for the game we both loved or stepping aside from basketball to help my father in another way.  The decision was obvious.  It was time to step away and give back to the individual who taught me everything I know and made me the person I am.  So I came back to help my father get through the biggest battle of his life.   The battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Near the end he would ask the question, “I was an athlete and a coach, what happened to me?”  Of course no one could answer that question, which is what added to the frustration.  But he continued to show the same honor, dignity, pride, and courage that he always showed and taught.  Even though this disease was turning him into something other than what we all knew him to be, everything he ever gave us was being given back to him when he needed it most.

This went on until July 21, 2008.  That was the day the battle ended, the day we lost the leader of a family and a coach of many players.  The lessons were now completed.

Or so we thought.  As we all tried to move on, about four months later I felt a twitching in my left thumb.  Then it began in my next finger, and the next, until one day my entire left arm began to shake uncontrollably.

You can imagine what was going through my head now.  There was no way this was happening, not now, not so close.  The next difficult part was to tell the rest of the family.  How do you say to them, “Guess what’s happening to me?”  Although I had a pretty good idea what it was, I had to go see a doctor and get a definitive answer.

So came a trip to a doctor and the subsequent referral to a neurologist.  After seeing me and hearing the family history, the neurologist sat shaking his head, saying, “I’m sorry to tell you, but you have Parkinson’s.”  The day was now January 21, 2009, exactly six months to the day after my father’s passing, and the battle with Parkinson’s disease continues, this time through me.

Three-and-a-half years later, I carry the spirit and courage of my father with me to battle the same disease as him.  All of the things he taught on the basketball court and in life are now with me in my battle.  Not to say that it’s easy.  As a Young Onset Parkinson’s person, it is difficult to get many people to understand this disease.  There are many occasions when you tell people that you have Parkinson’s and it’s interesting to watch what direction they go.  Many people no longer know how to talk to you or stop talking to you all together.  Then you hear that they can’t or don’t know how to handle what has happened to you because of what the disease does.

My advice to those people is: don’t define an individual by the disease they have.  They are still the same person they were before diagnosis.  There is no need to react that way; anyone diagnosed with a disease, especially Parkinson’s, needs understanding. 

I know at some point my battle will come to an end and one day I will tell my father that we won.  Don’t know how it will happen or when it will happen, but one day the battle and the courage will lead to a cure.  When that happens, this will be the greatest victory for a father and son, player and coach, coach and coach.

 4 U DAD

  1. Justine Blankenbeckler says:

    This story touched me very deeply, as I just lost someone 2 weeks ago today with not only Parkinson’s and a Blood Disorder. My Special person in my life never complained, he had ever been through a tragic car accident in 1995, hit by a drunk driver, and had Brain Surgery in 2003. We never expected this, or knew how to handle it in public. He had not drove since 2003, so taking the access van was hard on him. He was so independent. But No Complaints!! He Got the Diagnosis of Cancer a while ago, Leukemeia. He did not want his family to know. They saw his Parkinson’s when they came out rarely, and he his a lot, but it was getting worse, and he was only 58. The reason ? They were more afraid than him!! The stigma on them! How dare they! Well a month of Chemo, and the Dr. released him, I thought too soon, with a pic line , he was weak, shaky with the Parkinson’s, and I went out and came home and he was gone, passed , God took him , We have battled many health problems of his for years, I miss hi so much , and would do it all over. I know he is not suffering, I am, but don’t be sad I just wanted to share. This story touched my heart so much I cried. Thank you.

  2. Maura Horton says:

    Tears in my eyes. Probably not what you want to hear. I can somewhat relate. My husband, also a collegiate coach (football) was diagnosed with parkinsons at 48. Coaches who pride themselves in not only the love of the game but even more the love of movement. To watch their players have heightened success with their body performing spectacular feats and their minds remembering every angle and detail- and then for them to have own body betray them in a brutal way is unexplainable. Unexplainable to them, their children and their players- who we all know are just as big of a part of the family. My husband just recently “forced” to retire from the field. No one in athletics truly wants a “sick” or shakey person around. But I’m sharing with him your story because the greatest challenges really aren’t educating the people who don’t understand the disease but living – really living – with the disease.

  3. Cindy Stewart says:

    WOW! What a heroic story! When it comes down to it is family. Always family. You and I were blessed in that regards.
    My sister, Judy, she had corticobasal degeneration. Atypical Parkinson’s. Judy was diagnosed in August 2013. She died July 19, 2016. We had no family history of Parkinson’s on maternal or faternal sides of the family. She had no trauma to her head.She part bravely everyday. Never complained. Never said why me. No anger. Her MDS would always ask her how she was feeling. Judy always replied she was just fine
    Judy died with all her loves ones around.
    She was unable to speak, swallow, walk, sit up on her own. Confined to a hospital bed. She still smiled.
    Parkinson’s is wicked, vile disease. Parkinson’s should be ready eradicated just like cancer.
    Point of interest :
    The very 1st study of atypical Parkinson’s study is being conducted by The Micheal J Fox Foundation this year, 2017.

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