(Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the March 21, 2010 editions of The Kansas City Star. ESPN presented a SportsCenter feature based on the events of this story this past weekend.)
Frank Martin had felt sick, been hospitalized, felt better and then, while still in the hospital, sent his wife home to Cincinnati.
It was 2006. Bob Huggins had just been hired as Kansas State’s basketball coach, and he’d brought with him to Manhattan a handful of assistants, including a former high school coach out of Miami that few had heard of.
From his hospital bed, Martin had insisted that his wife return home to be there for their daughter’s first birthday. He had assured Anya he would be fine if she went. But when she turned on her cell phone a day later, the frantic voice said otherwise.
“He called back in complete tears, saying, ‘They just told me I’m going to die,’ ” Anya said.
A horrifying diagnosis, all but a death sentence, would mean Martin would not become the Wildcats’ head coach when Huggins left for West Virginia. He would not hear the taunts that his promotion was a joke and a farce. He would not prove everyone wrong, would not lead his team to Oklahoma City four years later as a legitimate Final Four contender, would not see his little girl start to grow up, watch his son in Miami become a man or ever know he was destined to have another son.
How could he do any of these things? These were among his last moments on this earth, in a dark Manhattan hospital, a dreary room within eyesight of Kansas State’s sports facilities.
It was in the midst of this grief that Joe Perez-Jones, Martin’s uncle and godfather — the man who helped raise Martin after his father left home — stepped from the hospital room into the hallway. Behind him, Martin’s body trembled, his temperature had roared to 105 degrees and his skin had turned a deep, sickly yellow.
To this day, Perez-Jones does not know if the woman was an actual nurse or an angel of God. What he feels certain of is she represented a miracle.
“This small Asian nurse came up to me,” Perez-Jones said. “And she says, ‘Father, we need to go in and pray for whoever’s in there. Who is in there?’
“It’s my nephew and godson,” he remembered saying. “But I’m not a father.”
“Oh, yes, you are,” the woman said. “In God’s eyes.”
Perez-Jones cannot tell this without crying.
The woman had a plan: She would get on her knees before Martin and pray. Perez-Jones would lay his hands on his nephew. And their faith would save him.
Frank Martin does not remember what followed. He only knows that one moment he was waiting for death and a few days later he had a second chance at life. Perez-Jones does not know if what followed was an emotional reaction, a metaphysical miracle or perhaps both. Martin’s wife and mother couldn’t tell you how the man they loved was saved.
Only one thing is certain: What happened in that room would alter the course of Martin’s life by teaching him to love life, put work in perspective and become the kind of man — the kind who knows what a second chance feels like — to bring a lesser miracle to Kansas State’s basketball program.
Bob Huggins became the Kansas State basketball coach on March 23, 2006. It was Frank Martin’s 40th birthday.
“I came in, did the paperwork with Huggins and hit the road recruiting,” Martin said. “We were on the road for all of April.”
They were chasing players like Luis Colon, Jason Bennett, Blake Young and others. It was a frantic, grueling grind designed to turn the woebegotten Wildcats into winners. When in Manhattan, Huggins, Martin and the other assistant coaches settled into the Fairfield Inn. It was a Sunday in May when the chills started.
“I went home, took Advil, wrapped myself in 127 blankets and got into bed,” Martin said.
This was someone who’d willed himself to overcome a father who’d abandoned him, carved a career out of a controversial exit from high school coaching in Miami and worked for nothing, but still made himself into a college coach despite the roadblocks thrown his way. Surely he could will himself past a little flu bug.
Anya was in town that night he got sick, but she had a 7 a.m. flight out of Kansas City. Martin rose well before sunrise, drove her to Kansas City, then headed straight back to Manhattan. He had work to do.
“I met Huggy for a cup of coffee, went back to the office and worked,” he said.
Martin’s condition worsened. Seated in K-State’s basketball offices, he began shaking uncontrollably. A secretary urged him to recognize how ill he was. Martin headed back to the Fairfield Inn.
“I took more Advil, had three bottles of water,” he said. “I figured I could sweat it out.”
He couldn’t. Andy Assaley, the director of basketball operations, checked in on him at the hotel. Alarmed, he called Huggins, who brought in the trainer. The trainer knew something was terribly wrong.
“I was defeated,” Martin said. “I had a huge lump in my stomach.” Martin, telling this, used his hands to demonstrate a volleyball-sized immersion. “Huge, hard lump.”
At the hospital, they ran test after test.
Martin’s temperature was 103 and would climb even higher. He weight was dropping, his skin turning from Miami tan to dewy yellow.
“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” he said.
His wife came back from Cincinnati, but he felt certain he would be all right. Anya needed to be at their daughter’s birthday. So at his urging, she returned to Ohio.
But Martin only got worse.
Information about what was happening to him trickled in. He had ulcers, and they had penetrated his intestinal wall. There was an infection. His pancreatic numbers were warped. His pancreas could fail. He was facing organ failure. His temperature was now 105.
The bad news kept coming.
His liver had shut down. He’d contracted pneumonia.
“There were a lot of moments,” he said, “where I didn’t think I was coming through the other side.”
Then they told him he had pancreatic cancer.
Martin asked the doctors to leave. Even in his weakened state, he looked up the stats. One jumped out and stuck in his soul: a five-year survival rate of 4 percent.
He was going to die. He called his wife to tell her.
Then in the hours or days ahead — no one can remember exactly — as the doctors feared they might be losing him already, the woman appeared outside his hospital room. She told Martin’s uncle they had to act.
The woman said she was not allowed to do what she was about to do: to take Perez-Jones into that room, get on her knees and pray for Frank Martin. They walked into the room. It was dark. Martin’s mother sat in a corner, waiting. When she saw them, she simply nodded, as if she’d been expecting them.
“Frank was very yellow, trembling, his eyes were distant,” Perez-Jones said. “There was no life to him, no energy.”
Perez-Jones laid his hands on Frank. The woman kneeled and grabbed Frank’s hand. They began to pray.
“I don’t know if it was emotional, but I felt this heat come over my body,” the uncle said. “I felt burning heat released from the top of Frank and into (me) ... and then out. I kept thinking, ‘I have a spiritual responsibility for Frank as his godfather.’”
The praying went on and on. The sense of heat increased. Frank sweated frantically. Then the woman stood and, without saying a word, left. They never saw her again. Perez-Jones remembers the darkness of the room being filled with a strange, comforting light.
There would be more tests. More doctors. A visit to a specialist in another city. Medical people conferring. But Martin started to get better, and word finally came that he did not have pancreatic cancer. He was not dying. He was going to be all right.
Why? How? Who can say?
For Martin, the miracle of that moment was clear. So was what had to happen next.
“I felt like it was a second chance,” Martin said. “I had to change my life. Two high triggers for pancreatic (problems) are alcohol and high-fat foods. To this day, I have not had a drink again. Not a drop.”
He felt fortified by near death. He saw life differently, in the way only those who have truly met their own mortality can.
“I wanted to be a father, I wanted to be a husband,” he said. “Anya and I had been married only a year and a half. (My son) Brandon was only 7 years old. I would do anything to be with them.”
And one other change: true perspective.
“It made me understand my job is not more important than the other parts of my life,” he said. “And it reinforced the values of my youth — a strong faith in God. I saw the shining light.”
That would make the trials to come bearable. It would mean, under pressure and scrutiny and the weight of being tasked with turning around a major basketball program, that Martin knew that such things were only so important.
The team hotel in Oklahoma City teems with fans. When Martin walks in, people clap and shake his hand and tell him how proud of him and how thankful they are.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I appreciate that,” he says.
He retreats to an empty room to talk, but soon his wife arrives. He kisses his 4-year-old daughter, Amalia. He takes his sleeping 2-year-old, Christian, into his arms, and carries him back into the lobby. With every step, his whispers into his son’s ear.
These are the spoils of Martin’s life and of his second chance. He is surrounded by fans who see him as their program’s savior, he is holding his little boy close, he is wondering how on earth he got so lucky, so blessed.
Curtis Kelly walks by and shouts, “Christian!” The boy lifts his head, smiles and puts out his hand. The basketball player slaps five.
Jacob Pullen sees it and laughs. “Hey, I was your boy all year! What about me?” Christian giggles, stretches out his hand again and Pullen slaps five.
Martin smiles to himself as his wife approaches to make dinner plans — just the two of them, a date between game nights.
Nearby, Martin’s uncle, Joe — the man who’d prayed over him — watches with pride.