Brian Dux insists the project is not some form of repayment, which is good because Danny Gilbert isn’t looking for one. It’s nothing more than a friend helping a friend, another layer in a relationship between former basketball players that goes back more than a decade.
Their backgrounds suggest an unlikely pair. Gilbert is black and came from a Detroit ghetto. He embraced UB for its size and diversity when he accepted a scholarship. Dux grew up in Orchard Park and landed at Canisius College, the small Jesuit school culturally divided from its adjacent neighborhood.
And yet they spoke the same language.
They played on opposite teams but admired one another while playing offseason pickup games with the best players in Buffalo. Looking back, some of the games they played when nobody watched were more entertaining than the product on display during the regular season.
“I’m telling you,” Gilbert said. “Brian Dux was a dirty player.”
“I use the word ‘crafty,’ ” Dux said.
Yes, they can laugh now, often at the expense of the other, always in good fun. It’s what good friends do. No matter their bloodlines, they are brothers. Both experienced life crashing upon them – one literally, the other figuratively – and both persevered in part because they had the other.
For years, it has been an unspoken truth. Brian Dux and Danny Gilbert will forever march together.
“Teammates in life, for life,” Gilbert said. “Somehow we crossed paths here in Buffalo. We ended up overseas on the same team. There’s definitely a plan. We’re part of a plan that we have no control over. It’s for a reason. This is the reason. I needed to be here for him. He needed to be here for me.”
Buffalo basketball fans watched Dux blossom into one of the better players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He became the second player in Canisius history with more than 1,000 points and 500 assists. When body and mind came together, he turned running an offense into an art form.
He and Gilbert were very good players in college, but neither had the goods physically to play in the NBA. They were intent on following their passion, riding basketball for as long as they could, without being obsessed with money. They respected each other for what they were: gym rats.
Dux was good enough to play elsewhere in Europe for two seasons before he signed with the Guilford Heat, based just outside of London, in the British Basketball League. He became an instant hit with his long hair and flashy style, a basketball Beatle complete with screaming fans.
“It wasn’t just England,” Gilbert said. “He was a superstar in England, but throughout Europe people knew about him. And he was The Man in England.”
Dux was in Guilford for one season when he pleaded with management to sign Gilbert, an intense defender who could score more than he showed while averaging 7.9 points per game as a senior at UB. Dux had played against him enough times to know the Heat needed him.
“DG was an all-committed wingman,” Dux said. “He could impact the game a million different ways without shooting, but he could score, too. That was the thing. He was the ultimate glue guy.”
Exactly what happened on the early hours of Nov. 10, 2007, will forever remain a mystery. Dux has no recollection of the events surrounding the crash, and he’s probably better off. For all he knows, he was playing professional ball in England one day and woke up the next in Erie County Medical Center.
Gilbert recalled going to bed that evening and being awakened by the phone. It was his coach telling him the police found a car owned by the Guilford Heat with a player inside who was badly injured. Gilbert checked Dux’s bedroom. No Brian. He checked the driveway. No car. His stomach sank.
It didn’t make sense.
Dux was home when Gilbert checked in for the night. He had gone somewhere – for a bite to eat, maybe? – before his car slammed into a tree. More than two hours passed before emergency crews arrived while he suffered from a severe head injury. Gilbert raced to the hospital.
At first, the medical staff refused to allow him into the intensive-care unit to see Dux because he wasn’t a family member. Gilbert eventually explained the situation, how Dux was an American with family back home. Gilbert convinced the medical staff he was the only family he had in England. He wasn’t lying.
Gilbert walked into the room for the first time and found Dux unconscious, his head wrapped in gauze except for his eyes, nose and mouth. His friend, his teammate, his roommate, was comatose with a traumatic brain injury. Doctors were doing everything they could, Gilbert was told. There was no prognosis.
“I was in shock,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t process it. It was going in one ear and out the other. It was hard to believe.”
Gilbert called Dux’s parents and told them in vague terms what happened. Brian had been in a serious accident, and they needed to come to London. During every waking moment away from basketball, Gilbert stood over Dux’s bed not knowing if he would ever regain consciousness. Weeks passed before he did.
By then, he was back in Buffalo.
Dux had a long recovery awaiting him, the kind in which minimal tasks such as voluntary movement of his extremities and simple communication were embraced as monumental progress. It was difficult for friends and family to see motor skills deteriorate from an elite athlete.
“I remember when he first came back and visited me,” Dux said. “I remember just telling him that I’m going to be back, 100 percent, and him saying, ‘Yeah, I know you will.’ ”
In the fall of 2013, Gilbert started feeling sharp pains in his back and abdominals while playing pickup ball. He assumed the pain came from being out of shape, a sign of age. A local clinic told him kidney stones were likely the cause of persistent discomfort and sent him for another examination.
A few weeks later, another doctor told him he had lymphoma. He needed a second opinion. He called Reggie Witherspoon, his UB coach, who directed him to Dr. Paul Stomper. Stomper, a retired radiologist and season-ticket holder, sent him to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He was diagnosed with seminoma.
Danny Gilbert, a father of a 9-month-old girl, had cancer. He kept it quiet for about a month before telling – who else? – Brian Dux.
“It was him saying, ‘I got through it, you’ll get through it, let me know if you need anything,’ ” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t dramatic at all. It was, ‘You got to deal with this, it’s a part of life, let me know what I can do.’ ”
The best thing about Brian Dux the basketball player was Brian Dux the thinker. He was never the tallest or the quickest or strongest. His gift was reading and reacting and processing. He had mastered the mental side of the game because he understood human behavior and tendencies.
Dux’s vision and intelligence had not failed him the way his body did. He has been in physical therapy for seven-plus years. He walked with a cane for years and drives only when the weather permits. His speech remains slow and requires effort. He’s putting one foot in front of the other. He’s progressing. Cognitively, he’s as sharp as ever.
Brian Dux always had a good soul.
His headquarters are a small room in the rear of Dux’s parents’ home. It’s large enough for a couple of chairs but not much more. He has all the necessities for a peaceful existence – recliner, television, laptop, cellphone – that keep him connected with an outside world in which he once roamed free.
It’s from here that he has rallied Buffalo’s close-knit basketball community. Dux is local hoops’ unofficial mayor, someone who understands its inner workings and knows how to bring people together. For months, that has been his mission in the name of Danny Gilbert.
“All I ever needed was for him to be my friend,” Dux said. “That’s plenty, and it’s the same thing with him. He would never ask me for help, but I want to step up and be there for him. We both know what’s up. It’s understood. You don’t need to ask twice. If someone needs help, you’re there for him.”
A friend in need ...
Dux decided to hold a benefit for Gilbert, whose has shown no sign of cancer since undergoing surgery, to help pay medical bills that his insurance company didn’t cover. Dux being Dux, he put on a full-court press the way others did for him when he needed help.
Daemen coach Mike MacDonald, who coached Dux at Canisius, helped organize the event. Dawn Reed, who works in the athletic office at Daemen, has played a major role in getting people together. She’s married to Jon Fuller, the assistant athletic director for communications at UB.
Former UB assistant Jim Kwitchoff, who coached Gilbert, is another major contributor. Everybody chipped in how they could, where they could, when they could, because they had so much respect for Dux and Gilbert.
“It speaks volumes about Brian as a person, what he’s all about and the way he was raised,” Kwitchoff said. “He called and said, ‘Hey, Kwitch, we need to do a fundraiser for Danny. When Brian Dux sends that message, you say, ‘Yes. I’m on board.’ We’re on our way to getting it done.”
Bobby Hurley didn’t coach Gilbert, but he was sensitive to the cause after his own brush with death. Hurley was involved in a serious car accident when he was playing for Sacramento in the NBA. The injuries he suffered in the crash and subsequent long recovery basically ended his career.
UB opened its arms, and its doors, for Gilbert and helped sell tickets to his benefit at a basketball game two days before the Super Bowl. Others in the basketball community contributed. The movement gained momentum. A common cause emerged along Main Street.
The benefit will be held in the Town Ballroom, the same place Western New York came together for Dux months after his accident. It will be held Friday starting at 6:30, just hours after UB’s NCAA Tournament game against West Virginia.
Gilbert feels awkward about accepting money but is thankful just the same. He found peace knowing he’s not the only beneficiary. He understands the deeper meaning of people supporting him. He knows they’re also behind Dux’s mission.
“I feel like this is also for him,” Gilbert said. “Even though I know he’s there for me, he’s doing this because he wants me to know. This is him saying, ‘I don’t care how you feel. You’re my brother, you need help, you’re not going to ask for it, so I’m doing it for you.’ And that’s it.”