It would be only natural, as a man of faith, to ask if the Good Lord was trying to tell him something. But as John Rhodes lay in the middle of a Philadelphia street, his 6-9, 300-pound frame mangled, a few days away from starting cancer treatment, he looked up to the sky and mouthed something simple, something quiet:
A word of thanks.
“Because 15 seconds after I got hit, a paramedic who was off-duty and an emergency-room nurse were giving me first aid,” the Duquesne assistant men’s basketball coach said of the day he was blindsided by a Cadillac. “I was a little bit in shock, but I never lost consciousness. I remember hitting (the ground) and rolling … (The driver) wasn’t paying attention; I suspect that he was on his phone or something else. I don’t know how you don’t see a 6-9, 300-pound man crossing the street with a bright red sweat suit on.”
He remembered pulling out his phone and calling his wife, which “was kind of bizarre — I’m calling her while laying in the middle of the street.”
“Hon, you won’t believe it,” Rhodes told his better half. “I’ve been hit by a car and I’m in a pretty bad condition.”
“You’re (expletive-ing) me,” she replied.
“Why would I joke about that?”
“Well, how bad is it?”
“Well, my foot is pointed in the wrong direction. So to me, it looks pretty bad.”
A year later, it’s pointed in the right direction again. So is he. In January, Rhodes was told his squamous cell carcinoma — a cancer in the neck and on the base of his tongue that had been diagnosed in February 2015 — was in full remission. A week later came word that the big ol’ wound on his leg, the one that refused to heal properly after that accident in Philly, was on the mend again. Finally.
“(The doctor) said, ‘You are so far ahead of schedule; I’ve went through guys who’ve had simple (fractures) not get back on their feet as fast as you are. Now the skin is completely closed. So I’m blessed. I’d like to believe that God has a plan — there’s a reason why things happen.”
There might be more deserving birds at Barclays Center this week. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a tougher one on an A-10 bench than Rhodes, a warrior’s warrior, a survivor, a beacon and a bridge. He spent conference tourney week in 2015 alternating largely between chemotherapy and home — the days spent being bombarded by radiation with pins in his leg and a giant brace around his neck, the nights spent tracking the nascent postseason on his laptop.
“We just needed a little boost,” Rhodes recalled. “And at the same time, guys were playing with a different kind of purpose. I’d keep sending messages. Before every game, I would try to hit individuals, try to hit ‘em as a team, and just try to do different things … just to let them know that I (was) watching.
“You know (coaches) — we’re all wired a little bit differently. So I’m more concerned about how we’re going to beat a different opponent as opposed to my health.”
Which explains why Rhodes, back in the middle of that Philly street some 13 months ago, was less aggrieved about the fact his legs were twisted like a pipe cleaner and more hacked off that an emergency hospital stay would delay his primary opponent: Cancer.
“I was living right — he didn’t take me out that bad,” the coach chuckled. “It just postponed my treatments. That’s what I was most concerned about. I was very anxious about how it was going to go. Knowing I was diagnosed at a stage 4, so the sooner you get on it, the better chances and probability that we could cure it. And that was the case.”
Some 10 days after he was struck down, they strapped him to a gurney built for a 6-2 patient and drove him back west up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Then the fun REALLY started — 35 rounds of radiation and seven rounds of chemo. And a bonus conundrum: While treatment sapped his energy and strength, demanding more nutrients, attacking the neck and mouth meant Rhodes lost his ability to swallow.
“I ended up getting a feeding tube,” said the Dukes assistant, who over the course of the year dropped from 300 pounds to a lean 220. “There’s a better way to lose weight, you know what I mean?”
But he couldn’t have asked for better company. Or comrades. Coach Jim Ferry and the rest of the staff made frequent pilgrimages to Rhodes’ side, as did the players — including the one who could identify most with the coach’s daily grind, guard Derrick Colter, who’d recently conquered his own battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Coach Ferry being the man that he is, his biggest thing was, ‘I just want you to get healthy,’” Rhodes recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about the job, the team, the program. Just take care of yourself.’
“Because you find out people’s true colors, and I know for a fact that we have a true family atmosphere. And it starts with him, and it’s something that he’s spread, especially with the younger people … guys would take some time to just shoot me a text or come by my house or come by the hospital, always asking if I needed anything. That made me want to go back and to get healthy. They made me so appreciative and so proud to be a part of this program.”
And he made them whole. After a kidney punch of a four-point loss at St. Bonaventure on February 24, their fifth setback in a row by nine points or less, Ferry brought the players in for a close huddle. Rhodes addressed the circle of slumped heads.
“Fellas,” the assistant coach said. “I beat cancer, man. We’re going to beat people. We just have to keep our heads up and keep on fighting against it.’
“It’s bigger than just a game. I know they’re important and my livelihood depends on wins and losses, but at the end of the day, there’s lessons to be learned.”
Streets to cross. Games to play. Hearts to mend.
“It wasn’t my time yet, it really wasn’t,” Rhodes said. “God put me back on my feet because there was more work for me to get done.”