Friday, February 24, 2006

Willie McCarter Says He Made Funeral Arrangements After Brain Surgery, But Drake's Basketball Family Helped Save Him From Dying

Willie McCarter says the support he received from the Drake University basketball community –- both past and present –- helped save his life.

McCarter [lower right], a standout on the Bulldogs’ 1968-1969 Final Four team, suffered two serious strokes while awaiting heart surgery late last year.

He had blood clots in his brain and a lung. He underwent surgery on his brain,and part of it was removed.

Although he’s still having a number of problems, and said he may require more surgery, McCarter made it back to Des Moines recently to be honored along with many other former Drake players after the university named its All-Century team.

“When I woke up from my brain surgery, I made funeral arrangements,” elite-team member McCarter told me in a moment of extreme frankness. “I was planning to be buried next to my mother.”

Dolph Pulliam, one of McCarter’s teammates on coach Maury John’s Final Four team, said, “It’s a miracle Willie is still alive.”

“Doctors in Michigan said my brain was too damaged to do anything,” McCarter said. “When I heard that, I cried like a baby. I wanted to give up.”

But Drake wouldn’t let him give up.

“I got many phone calls from Drake people,” McCarter said. “John John [son of the late Maury John] called, Dan Callahan [one of the assistant coaches in the Maury John era] called, Dolph Pulliam came to see me, Tom Davis [Drake’s present coach, who is pictured on the left] and his staff sent a letter every week to tell me how the team was doing.

“Lots and lots of other people called, and that’s what helped pull me through. After being told I had a one-in-500,000 chance that I could survive, I appreciate all the support I received.”

McCarter, one of the guys I most enjoyed watching during the fabulous 1959-1971 Maury John [pictured above McCarter] era, showed that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor while I visited with him.

“The doctors took one-third of my brain out,” he said.

“Dale Teeter made me laugh when he heard that.

“He said, ‘Well, Willie, you only used a third of your brain anyway!’”

Teeter was McCarter’s roommate in John’s golden era of coaching. He also came back for the Bulldogs’ big celebration this season.

* * *

One of the most touching things that happened when Drake’s former players were honored at the Knapp Center came when Lynnrick Rogers –- who played for the Bulldogs from 1993-1997 –- changed direction so he could shake Paul Morrison’s hand at the scorers' table before going to mid-court with the others.

“Wasn’t that nice?” said Morrison, the 88-year-old Drake historian who has been around the university scene in just about every job but president.

Morrison is pictured at the top of this column, wearing the Drake letter jacket he was awarded this season.

“When Lynnrick was playing, he got into the habit of coming over to me at the scorers' table before games,” Morrison explained. “After they introduced him, he’d come over and shake my hand.

“We had a gathering the night before the players were honored this season, and I told him, ‘Lynnrick, I always remember you for doing that. Nobody else has done it.’ He said, ‘I want to keep it up.’ He’s a quality guy.”

Morrison said Rogers now teaches school in California.

"I sit at the scorers' table to try to help the public address announcer and the scorer," said Morrison, who still travels with both the Drake men's and women's basketball teams -- and pays for his own transportation

* * *

The only Drake basketball players whose jersey numbers have been retired are Red Murrell and Lewis Lloyd.

Murrell made it back for the 100-year celebration, Lloyd didn’t.

“We talked to Lewis and encouraged him to come back, but he told us he couldn’t make it,” Morrison said.

* * *

If they ever ask me to vote on whose jersey number should be retired next, I’m putting Willie McCarter No. 1 on my ballot.

All the guy did was make the 1969 All-Final Four team [after Drake’s third-place finish} and become a first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Lakers.

While introducing me to some of his friends and family members, McCarter said, “This is Ron Maly, who made me an all-American. Coach John always gave Ron the credit for our success.

“That was a special team, and he posted his newspaper stories where we could read them all the time in my playing days.”

Willie, I’ll give you all the credit. If you, Pulliam and the others on that fabulous 1968-1969 team didn’t go 26-5 and shock the nation, there couldn’t have been all those stories.

* * *

Dan Callahan of Sioux City, the only living member of the 1968-1969 coaching staff, interrupted a vacation in North Carolina to attend the All-Century celebration.

“Jay Cookman [a longtime Drake booster] called and said that McCarter was going to be there,” Callahan told me. “If said, ‘Hey, if Willie McCarter can make it back, so can I.'"

So Callahan flew back to Des Moines so he could attend. Callahan and the late Gus Guydon were John’s only assistant coaches in the golden years.

Callahan’s grandson, D. J., plays for Charlotte [N.C.] Christian and is an outstanding college basketball prospect.

“They have a 29-2 record and are ranked second in the Charlotte area,” Callahan said.