His head might be in Des Moines, Iowa, but his heart remains in New York City, thoughts drifting, feathers in the wind, to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. To Rhyan Loos, soft pink and steel, arm wrestling neuroblastoma. And winning.
“She just completed another round of chemo, if I’m not mistaken,” Austin Peay men’s basketball coach Dave Loos said. “So everything is OK right now. You’re just hopeful that she gets to go home maybe a little bit before they start the next round (of treatments) and just have to wait and see. They’re keeping an eye on her after this last round of chemo, make sure everything (went) the way it’s supposed to be right now.”
With a tumor surgically removed from the kidney, the emphasis of the moment is to keep the cancer from spreading through his granddaughter’s bone marrow, to keep the train moving forward, even by inches.
“I talked to (her dad Sunday) and he told me that, I think, they did a little procedure (Sunday) morning to drain some fluids that were still there,” said Loos, whose Governors (18-17), Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champions, return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 against top-seeded Kansas on Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, “and that it’s working. Everything is good right now.”
They’ve become America’s Team, these Govs. Or, at worst, America’s second-favorite, the Cinderella you root for if you don’t have a dog in the fight.
No. 211 in Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings and on top of the world, a 16 seed with a Final Four backstory. The 14-17 regular-season record. The first eight seed ever to win the OVC tourney.
Swingman Jared Savage’s range. Center Chris Horton’s power. Loos, who turned 69 on the day of the OVC title game, capping his 26th season at the helm with his fourth ticket to Bracketville.
And yet all of it gets trumped by the saga of a 6-year-old from Columbia, Mo., the girl with a smile that could melt a thousand hearts and a fight that could break a million more.
“We play for Rhyan,” Horton told ASN’s Mark Adams before the OVC Tournament championship game. “Knowing what she has been going through, we wanted to even play harder for her and Coach Loos.”
Her limping last fall made them worry that it might be arthritis. Was the continual lethargy a sign of leukemia? Something worse? In October, Loos got the call from his son Brad, an assistant basketball coach under Kim Anderson at Missouri: Rhyan was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer that’s most commonly found in children younger than 5.
“It was devastating, to be honest,” the Governors’ coach said. “I remember Brad calling me in early October and telling me that things weren’t quite right … (and) the final diagnosis came in, and it was neuroblastoma. So it was a real shocker, obviously.”
Some five rounds of chemotherapy shrunk the tumor on Rhyan’s kidney. She underwent surgery on March 2 to have it successfully removed. After each round, after each win, the Loos family counts blessings and digs in their collective heels for another go.
“But I really am so impressed with Brad and just the way they’ve handled this,” the elder Loos said. “Brad said from the get-go that, ‘Everybody who’s around there, they have to have a smile on their face. We’re going to beat this thing, and we want things positive.’ And that’s the way it’s been.”
Basketball, meanwhile, became a welcome respite. With a 10-15 record at the end of January, Peay won four of its final six regular-season contests, including a 76-73 victory at Murray State.
“Actually, basketball has been kind of a — what’s the word I’m looking for? — a release, an escape, from time to time,” Loos said. “The deal with Rhyan, it’s kind of the last thing you think about at night and the first thing you think about in the morning. It kind of always sticks in your mind. So basketball has been good from that point, to kind of get lost in it for a while.”
It’s even better when a lost season — the Govs were 14-17 heading into the OVC tourney — finds its legs again. The players, especially the seniors who knew Loos best, could see the strain, the wheels always turning.
“He doesn’t show too much emotion, he just has a blank face,” said Horton, who pulled down seven boards in Peay’s 83-73 win over Tennessee-Martin in the league championship game. “I’ve known him for four years, on the outside looking in … I can tell he’s got a lot on his mind, a lot of different things.
“We came out here, we wanted to win it for him, win it for his family, and just take a little bit off his shoulder, make him happy. Once we won, I could tell he was in just such a happy mood, (one) I hadn’t seen in a while. It was good to see him in that mood and just to be able to do that for him.”
Peay basketball is a family place and a family affair: Loos’ daughter Nicole is the APSU alumni director and produced the #RallyForRhyan t-shirts and wristbands that have since gone viral for all the right reasons. Players from other OVC teams signed a get-well card to present to Rhyan, and support via social media has come from the likes of the Baltimore Ravens and former Wisconsin hoops coach Bo Ryan.
With the hashtag #RallyForRhyan catching fire across campus at Peay, Mizzou and Central Missouri (Brad’s old stomping grounds), more than $100,000 has reportedly been raised to help defray costs for Rhyan’s treatment and to support pediatric cancer research.
“Of course, we’re reaping great benefits for our program over the last couple of weeks,” Loos said. “And in addition to that, we’ve raised a lot of awareness about pediatric cancer and the need for more research as it relates to Rhyan and others (who) are going through that. So it’s all been good.
“I’ve talked to a lot of wonderful people. I’ve heard from a lot of people that I haven’t heard from in a long time. I’m probably just as guilty — I haven’t contacted them (in a bit). It’s all been good, but boy, people have just been so kind … and it’s great to kind of have that support, and all the well-wishes, thoughts and prayers have just been terrific. When something like that happens, you find out how many good people there are in the world.”
One hope and one heartbeat, pulling the sled.
“She’s a battler, now,” Loos chuckled. “She can be a little stubborn gal. She’s really been good with this thing.”
And no matter how the weekend bounces, the Governors can walk away with their heads high. Rhyan’s winning. Of all the shining moments on tap this month, that just might be the biggest victory of all.