Every now and again, the dream tags out and the nightmare steps in, coldly wrestling his psyche to the mat, daring Nate Oats to find his feet.
“It’s like three rings,” the Buffalo men’s basketball coach said. “I’ve got my wife. I’ve got my daughters and I’ve got my team. You’re not going to be perfect with all of them.”
He’s trying. In April, Oats bagged his ideal job. In August, his best player was dismissed from the program. In October, his wife was diagnosed with double-hit lymphoma. The Dad part of his head shouts to be heard while the Husband part is praying while the Coach part is going a million miles an hour, trying to focus as the love of his life winces in agony.
“She’s a really good coach’s wife. She understands it. She’s really independent,” Nate said of Crystal Oats, his rock and his muse. “Now she’s like, ‘Don’t you need to be doing something?’ ‘Don’t you need to be looking at film?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got the computer here, I’m looking while I’m at the hospital.’ She’s good. She’s really good.”
She’s strong. Really strong. When her diagnosis hit, one of his Oats’ first thoughts was to take time away, to be by her side. Crystal shot that one down. Less than three years ago, Nate was teaching math and coaching high school ball in Romulus, Mich. Saturday, he led the Bulls against No. 7 Duke — an 82-59 loss. Monday night, Buffalo visits No. 5 Iowa State (6-0).
On paper, it’s the doubleheader weekend from hell. But when your wife just finished her second round of chemo, hell is relative.
“I think in two more weeks, they give her a cat scan and a PET scan to see where it’s all at,” the Bulls coach said. “And hopefully it’s going down a lot, and kind of go from there. So we’re praying.”
Double-hit lymphoma is a beast, largely because it’s the kind that doesn’t know when to quit, one of the forms most resistant to radiation treatments. At the end of six months of chemo, the plan is to turn to stem cells and a bone marrow transplant. As lymphomas go, the more aggressive the early treatment, case studies show, the better the odds of survival. The tumors in Crystal’s neck are visibly smaller than a few weeks ago. So there’s that.
“It would be nice if they were totally gone after two rounds,” Oats said. “But we’ll see.”
Something had to give. Recruiting, a coach’s constant — as Gene Keady famously opined, it’s like shaving: Skip a day, you start to look like a bum — has fallen off, or at least the volume of trips, relative to their peers.
“I haven’t been out recruiting since she’s been first diagnosed with cancer,” Oats said. “We had four kids committed to us. Three were great about it, their parents said, ‘Don’t even worry about it.’ The three that are sticking with us were great, they’ve been unbelievable, they’re like, ‘Coach, don’t worry about coming, handle your business.’”
Everybody grabs the rope. Everybody adjusts. The daily 9:30 staff meetings of the early autumn are no longer daily. If Crystal is getting treatment, Oats takes his laptop with him at the clinic to join her, using the free moments to watch game videos and plan.
“I sent (my staff) a practice schedule from the hospital,” Oats said. “If I show up at the right time for practice or show up even a few minutes late, the players all understand. Now that we’re on more of a schedule, I haven’t had to miss much lately.”
Some days, the grind of the season is the bridge that helps him soldier through the pains of the moment; other days, it’s a bridge too far. When Oats was tapped this past spring to replace boss
Bobby Hurley, the Bulls had a roster in place salty enough to defend its Mid-American Conference title.
But little cracks became big ones, chunks falling from the foundation. Forward Justin Moss, the reigning MAC Player of the Year, was dismissed in August after he and two teammates were implicated in an on-campus theft. Senior forward Raheem Johnson, one of the aforementioned teammates, has battled a foot injury.
“We scheduled hard,” Oats said, his tone a verbal shrug. “Not necessarily thinking we were going to beat those teams. Last year, our RPI was 31 at the end of last (season), which is almost impossible at this (mid-major) level.”
They’d scheduled two Top 10 programs last winter, Wisconsin and Kentucky, and it paid off in the long run; the rationale was the same with the Blue Devils and the Cyclones this time ‘round. The short-handed Bulls already fell 89-67 at St. Joseph’s on November 18 and visit VCU on December 22.
“Our non-conference is a lot harder than probably what we should be playing with the people that we ended up losing,” Oats said. “It’s hard. But the schedule is what it is, and we’ve got to play it now.”
“I’m not a super emotional guy, and my wife, she’s not real emotional. So when I hear the panic in her voice on the call, (I said), ‘You’ve got to be strong.’ I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll be home in 20 minutes. I love you. I’m sorry. I’m on my way home.’”
To be fair, life overscheduled Nate Oats first. He’d been conducting one of those autumn staff meetings in late October when his smartphone buzzed. Crystal.
Only it kept buzzing. Crystal again.
Another buzz. Crystal. Call me right now.
He did. The toughest woman he’d ever met, a nurse for two decades, was a nervous wreck.
Crystal had been battling mono for a while now, her lymph nodes starting to swell. When Nate pulled away to respond to her call, she sobbed that the hospital had gotten back her blood test and discovered the lymphoma.
“I’m not a super emotional guy, and my wife, she’s not real emotional,” Oats recalled. “So when I hear the panic in her voice on the call, (I said), ‘You’ve got to be strong.’ I was like, ‘I’m so sorry,
I’ll be home in 20 minutes. I love you. I’m sorry. I’m on my way home.’”
Nate has tussled with cancer before, the outcomes a mixed bag. His mother is a survivor, having been diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 16.
“So I’ve had (that feeling). But it’s still not the same,” Oats explained. “When it’s your mom and you’re 16, you’re invincible and you think everything is going to be fine. But that (cancer) is a lot more common. This is some rare form.”
Lymphoma had taken the life of one of his closest friends, Ed Horn, the man who’d lured him to Romulus in the first place. Horn was the one who’d helped to set in motion three nationally ranked prep teams, a state title, seven straight conference championships, and a path that eventually led to a spot on Hurley’s UB staff.
“If I hadn’t gone to Romulus, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” Oats said. “That was a long nine months with them going to the hospital all the time.
“Even with one of my best friends, it’s still different — now it’s your wife. Now the thoughts are going through your head, your mind can’t help but wander the wrong ways sometime. ‘If she can’t make it, I’ve got three girls, and what am I going to do?’ And you’ve just got to (say), ‘You know, she’s going to make it.’ Just keep things positive and we’re praying that she (recovers) and hopefully, that’s what happens.”
A 20-minute drive felt like 20 hours. Crystal was on the phone with her mother when Nate walked through the door, heart in his throat.
“And then we went out and had the long talk — we talked for a couple hours,” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘Listen, if we need to have that talk a month from now, (fine). I’m like right now, I’m not going down that road. We’re going to do whatever it takes to beat this, that’s where my head is going right now. Let’s figure out a game plan.’”
They planned. They prayed. Oats rang up Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose wife Theresa is a breast cancer survivor.
“God has got a plan for us,” Oats said. “And you know what? I think my wife’s attitude has been great through the whole thing. And the one thing I can really do, is just make sure we get through it and just do what I’m supposed to as a father and a husband and make sure we glorify God through that whole thing. And we’ll figure out the (rest).
“And the team’ll figure itself out. I’m not cheating the team, but my role as a husband and as a father is more important (than) my role as a coach.”
Meanwhile, friends old and new continue to pick up the baton. Hurley hooked them up with an expert he knew of at Duke. The wife of UB football coach Lance Leipold went over to their house to help clean and help re-organize the girls’ closets from summer gear to winter. She and other coaching wives brought over meals.
Nate’s mother-in-law flew in to assist, and a nanny’s on board to keep the Oats girls as close to a normal routine as possible. New air filters in the home have helped ease the burden on Crystal’s immune system. A GoFundMe page was launched — it’s raised more than $11,200 after a month — to help with incidentals that insurance didn’t cover.
“She wants to send the money back,” Oats said, chuckling softly. Gratefully. “Sometimes, it’s just unreal.”
Contribute: Crystal’s GoFundMe
Top: Buffalo coach Nate Oats and the entire Bulls team has adjusted to the coach’s need to be with his wife while she is treated for cancer. (Courtesy Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)
Middle: The Buffalo coaching community, including former coach Bobby Hurley, have all come to the aid of Nate and Crystal Oats. (Courtesy Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)