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Crystal and Nate Oats cope with a tough break

Nate Oats heard what his wife told him over the phone on that October afternoon, but he hadn’t fully digested the news until he left the University at Buffalo and started driving home. This much he knew: Crystal was crying hysterically. The doctor’s office called. The test results came back. Lymphoma.

Translation: Crystal Oats, his wife of 17 years, had cancer.

Oats called his wife on the way home in an effort to calm her nerves. He assured her everything would be OK. They had been a couple since college and were married a year after graduation. They had three daughters: Lexie, 11; Jocelyn, 6; and Brielle, 3. He told her they would beat the disease together.

He believed everything he said, but during the 15 minutes in the car between hanging up the phone with Crystal and arriving home, he also had his moments. He couldn’t stop his mind from drifting toward the terrifying reality of an old college friend to whom they owed plenty.

Ed Horn.

“I didn’t want to cry in front of her,” Oats said. “Everything goes through your mind. She could die. The only guy I knew who had lymphoma did die. What if she does? He was diagnosed in October. She was diagnosed in October. I have three girls. I’ve spent over half my life with her.

“I would miss her a ton, obviously, but how do you deal with three little girls that don’t have their mommy around? That’s what was going through my head. But then it comes back to, ‘No, we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to fight. We’re not going to let this happen.’ You take your mind away from negative thoughts.”

Horn and Oats were teammates in the 1990s at tiny Maranatha Baptist University, a Division III bible school in Watertown, Wis. Horn, who married Oats’ childhood next-door neighbor in Wisconsin, landed a teaching job at Romulus High in Detroit and recruited Oats to become the head coach at the inner-city school.

In October 2005, Horn was diagnosed with lymphoma. Crystal, a nurse, worked at the hospital where he was treated. Nine months after Horn was diagnosed, seven months after Crystal spent an overnight shift with him on his death bed, three months after it was believed his cancer was in remission, Nate and Crystal Oats attended his funeral.

In the same month a decade apart, the one word Crystal used that stood alone from the others was “lymphoma.” And that scared the daylights out of Nate Oats as he wiped away his tears, pulled into the driveway, took a deep breath, walked through the door and embraced his teammate in life.

“We’re Christians, and we believe God has a plan,” Crystal said through a cracked voice last week. “Either way it goes, I’m very thankful for the time I’ve had, for the time I will have, for my husband, for our girls, for everything. When I first found out, Ed was all I knew. Lymphoma and Ed. So I freaked out. I told my mom to take care of our girls.”

Oats and his wife talked deep into the night. Oats, who was Bobby Hurley’s top assistant coach and was promoted when Hurley left for Arizona State, suggested he take a year off to help her. Crystal immediately rejected the idea after seeing him invest so much time and energy toward getting a Division I job.

The next day, Oats broke the news to Athletic Director Danny White, who offered his full support. He told his players, who already had been through enough after Hurley and guard Shannon Evans departed, several recruits decided to play elsewhere and Justin Moss, their top player, was expelled for stealing money from dorm rooms.

This was not the start Oats envisioned as a head coach. UB figured to be in good hands with him and the players coming back. Even without Moss, he was prepared to continue building the program. As much as he loved the game and coaching, basketball was minuscule when standing next to his wife’s health.

Basketball could wait.

“No way,” Crystal said. “No. Just, no. Nate is an awesome person. We have three girls, but he’s a father to so many of his players. For him to take a year off wouldn’t make sense. That’s what we’ve been striving for. That was our dream. For him to do that would have been heartbreaking. It would have made things too real.”

Said Oats: “Every time I talked about it for the first week, I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I would get choked up. I couldn’t believe it was happening. This doesn’t happen. It happened with Ed, but it’s different when it’s your wife.”

Crystal’s initial diagnosis was vague. They were scared but optimistic after learning various forms of lymphoma were treatable. If the first diagnosis wasn’t terrifying enough, the second was worse. Later, they found out she had a rare form of cancer called double-hit lymphoma. It’s more serious and requires more intense chemotherapy but not necessarily fatal if treated.

Rather than comb through stories about patients who died from the same disease, she focused her efforts on survivors. She came across a blog written by a woman, Melissa Brooks, whose cancer has been in remission for two years. Brooks’ husband also attended Marantha Baptist. They have since become friends.

Crystal’s mother moved into their home from Colorado to provide assistance with her treatment and the girls, allowing Oats to keep working. They also hired a 19-year-old nanny, whom they found in Houston through friends in Wisconsin. Oats later learned the woman, Mackenzy Sackmaster, is the granddaughter of his late college coach, Jerry Terrill.

It’s a very small world, indeed.

“If we get to the end of this, and we fought and we won, and we get to the next 40 years, this may be the best thing to happen to us,” Oats said. “It brings perspective that only something like this can bring. My relationship with her has gotten a lot stronger over the past month and a half. My relationship with my daughters has become stronger. My relationship with God has become stronger.”

Oats had help from across the country. Doctors from the UB Medical School referred him to oncologists at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Friends in Detroit led them to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Hurley connected them with people from Duke Medical School. Opposing coaches have stopped him before games this season and offered words of encouragement and support.

Crystal undergoes chemotherapy every third Friday. She became extremely nauseous after her first round and suffered from headaches that left her bedridden for a week. The side effects from the second round were less severe. Her treatment is expected to become progressively more intense, but it also could help save her life.

And to think Oats was mildly annoyed last summer after learning he was unable to conduct his summer basketball camps in late June because the Ride for Roswell took over UB’s Amherst campus. Oats laughed earlier this week at the absurdity of his reaction to such a minor inconvenience.

“You know what?” he said. “They can have the Ride for Roswell all summer if they want. I’ll be in the Ride for Roswell. They have been unbelievable. I think back on that now. We’ve had as good of care as you can ask for, and it’s right in our backyard. You think about a lot of things differently. I’ll be reaching out to them.”

UB doesn’t break its huddles in a traditional way with “defense” or “win” or “together” as many teams do. Oats turned to his players before the first game against Daemen, counted toward the break and heard his players shout, “Crystal!” for that game and every one that followed.

It’s their way to rally around an upbeat woman who followed her husband’s career and embraced the difficulties that come with being married to a college basketball coach. Despite the long hours and time away from home, her mission had been his mission mentor through basketball. She has been at his side since the beginning.

Now it’s time for them to support her.

“We look at her like a mom and him like a dad,” guard Lamonte Bearden said. “It hurt the team as well. She’s a nice lady, sweet and outgoing. It makes us fight harder for him. We look at both as parents because they help so much. When your parents are in a certain situation, you help as much as you can.”

UB’s game Saturday against Duke comes during “Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research” in college basketball in the name of late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. Oats will find a comforting soul awaiting him in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was bedside with Valvano when he died in 1993.

The plan for Crystal calls for harvesting her bone marrow for a transplant that will help her fight the disease rather than have a bone-marrow transplant from another person. Horn passed away when his body rejected the transplant from another. Cancer treatment has made dramatic improvement over the past decade.

In his legendary speech before he passed, Valvano talked about the power of hope and never giving up. And there is hope for Crystal Oats. She felt strong enough to attend UB’s 60-58 loss to St. Bonaventure on Wednesday in Alumni Arena. It was her first game since her husband became a Division I head coach.

The game came down to the final possession. In basketball, it was a tough loss for UB. In the grand scheme of life, it meant very little. Oats knew as much while driving alone back to his house after the game. He navigated the same roads, yet the drive home was much different than the one six weeks earlier.

Amid the chaos and uncertainty comes clarity.

“It was the same drive,” Oats said. “This forces you to evaluate what life’s about. I’m not going to cheat our guys. Winning basketball games is my job. We’re going to figure out how to win. But it’s basketball. It’s still just a job and still just a game. It’s not life and death.”