Kristen Lappas, traveling from Manhattan to Manhattan, went to great lengths to try to form a reunion.
But when the New York-based ESPN producer approached the quiet hospital in northeast Kansas, she confirmed for herself what others had been telling her.
“The hospital, it’s like nobody’s in it,” she said. “It’s very strange. And then I understood the phone conversations.”
Lappas first got wind of Frank Martin’s near-death experience a few years ago. A family friend of the Martins is an equipment manager at Southern Methodist University who Lappas interviewed for a previous feature. The two have remained in touch.
“He called me one time,” Lappas said, “and was like, ‘You have to do this story on my friend Frank. It is the most remarkable thing ever.’ And he told me about it. And I was like, ‘That can’t be right. This is too insane.’ ”
What aired on the Sunday morning SportsCenter about the South Carolina men’s basketball coach was the end of a tireless journey for Lappas.
She started with due diligence, contacting medical personnel to validate Martin’s traumatic battle in 2006. A series of interviews followed, including a sit-down with Joe Perez-Jones, Martin’s uncle and godfather, in Miami. Perez-Jones alerted Lappas of Bill Reiter’s Kansas City Star report from 2010, the only previous documentation of Martin’s story. Perez-Jones knew the Star had received eye-opening messages following the article’s release, people sharing similar healing experiences from an Asian nurse.
An interview with Reiter, which didn’t appear in the piece, came next.
“He obviously told us about the fact that he wrote the article,” Lappas said, “and then there were these voice messages left by women – they were all women, oddly enough – who literally stated they had experienced the exact same miracle as Frank, to a T.”
Lappas wanted to find this woman.
“If she did exist, how awesome,” she said. “Let me introduce her to the family.”
Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan, Kansas – previously known as Mercy Regional – was the site of Martin’s life-altering moment. His heroine just never actually worked there.
Lappas turned over every stone.
“I literally went on a search for answers,” she said. “The head nurse at the time said that there was only one Asian nurse that was even on their staff, like in the entire hospital at that point. But she wasn’t on his floor and she didn’t speak English and was in her late 40s. So nothing checked out.”
She was told all hospital employees were asked about the Asian nurse Perez-Jones claimed to have met outside Martin’s room, and no one could confirm her employment – or presence.
“And I’m thinking of a New York City hospital,” Lappas said. “I live in Manhattan, and I’m like, ‘What do you mean you asked every single person?’ ”
Lappas visited Via Christi for herself.
“It’s such a small hospital,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Huh, this is weird! I would have assumed that if this woman did exist, somebody would have seen her, or knew who she was.’ ”
Lappas is the daughter of a former college basketball coach. Steve Lappas, who led Manhattan (1988-92), Villanova (1992-2001) and Massachusetts (2001-05), is now an analyst for CBS Sports. Steve interviewed Martin in October for a CBS piece that aired in December. Kristen was in the Martin home two months later.
She dove a little deeper.
Among what didn’t make it to air: Martin admitting to Lappas how this scare caused him to quit drinking.
“He literally hasn’t touched alcohol since the incident,” Lappas said. “He goes to church every Sunday. All of his friends – they were a ton of people I talked to that didn’t make the piece – they were like, ‘He was a changed person after that. It totally changed and transformed him.’ ”
Martin became a head coach for the first time in 2007. His 11th season continues Wednesday as South Carolina faces Ole Miss in the first round of the SEC tournament.
“My dad got kind of a bad rap on the sidelines, similar to Frank, in terms of his behavior on the sideline, yelling at referees and stuff,” Lappas said. “I think it’s just really nice sometimes to humanize a person.
“After watching that, you’re going to look at him a little bit different. And I think that’s like a really cool thing because I know he’s a good guy and a good dad. So it’s cool that people will see another side of him.”