It's close to a cliche, but it really is true in this case: Don Meyer learned the hard way to say hello a short time before it was time to say goodbye.
Meyer is one of those legendary small-college coaches who populate the athletic landscape, usually without much notice outside of their hometown. Meyer has won more basketball games than any college coach, passing Bob Knight in February.
The catch is that he's won those games at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., and Lipscomb in Nashville, Tenn., locations where the media spotlight never shines. Meyer had a great reputation as a teacher, putting out some best-selling videos by instructional standards, but few among the masses knew of his accomplishments.
Then fate got in the way in the fall of 2008. Meyer was driving to a preseason team basketball retreat when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a semi. When Meyer was rushed to a hospital, he had severe injuries and was facing the amputation of his left leg. While doctors were searching for internal injuries, they made a chilling discovery around his liver. Meyer had cancer, albeit a type that grows very slowly, and it was terminal.
This does not sound like the recipe for an uplifting book. Buster Olney pulls off that feat, though, in "How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer." It's an easy yet often touching story that has a few lessons to teach along the way.
Olney first got to know Meyer when Olney was a sports reporter in Nashville. In fact, Olney writes that he had more fun covering the Lipscomb-Belmont basketball rivalry in Nashville than anything he's ever done professionally -- and this is someone who has covered baseball at the highest level for years, including for his current employer, ESPN.
Olney first did a report on Meyer for ESPN television well after the accident, and apparently thought a book-length form would be a good format for Meyer's story. What's impressive about the author's approach is that he had such good access to all of the people in Meyer's life, and they all go into detail about Meyer.
To be honest, Meyer wasn't a particularly lovable character in his coaching days. Yes, he was smart and knew the game of basketball, but he could be demanding and difficult in his single-minded approach.
What's more, basketball seemed to consume him, with his family getting left behind. It's interesting that Meyer's children are so frank now about how Dad was always thinking up some new out-of-bounds play when they wanted to talk about an issue that was important to them at the time. And Meyer was always bringing home guests for dinner or to spend the night in the guest room without warning, a great way to put a strain on his marriage.
After the accident, the family, university and community rallied around Meyer, and as the rehabilitation process continued, Meyer seemed to notice how much people cared and wanted to help. The old coach had to become the young student in learning some of the lessons he himself had been teaching about doing your best every day. And he started hugging everyone in sight -- very uncharacteristic behavior for him.
Meyer did return to the sidelines, on one leg, and fought through his physical problems. He retired as a coach at the end of the 2009-10 season for a job in the administration.
Olney certainly could have easily turned this into a tear-fest, but keeps just enough distance to keep the story inspirational rather than maudlin. That's not easy, and a testimony to his skill as a writer.
"How Lucky You Can Be" may be the story of a basketball coach, but it doesn't have much to do with basketball. It's simply a nice human story, well told. The book is going to lift Meyer's status in the public eye several more notches; he's certain to be ready to hand out more hugs along the way.
Budd Bailey is a copy editor in The News' Sports Department.
How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer
By Buster Olney
224 pages, $25