Picture this: Marquette's Williams a positive force for children
We know Buzz Williams as perky and one to dance after big wins. But you can't know the coach until you read about his 'Buzz's Bunch' program for special needs kids.
Pick a picture, or one will pick you. The calendar falls open to the month of June, to the five pictures there, and there it is. The one that picks you. Upper left corner, a beautiful little girl named Kelly. You can look at Kelly and see she has Down syndrome, but you can't see that she is a leukemia survivor. She has been through a lot, this little girl, but here she's holding a basketball and smiling at the man she calls "my coach." Also she calls him "Coach Buzz."
The basketball world, we call him Buzz Williams. We know him as the coach at Marquette, a quirky, perky little man with 5 o'clock shadow for hair, though he didn't get his name from his buzz cut. He got his name for the way he used to hang around the basketball program at Navarro College, this funny little freshman named Brent Williams who was always buzzing around the place until Navarro coach Lewis Orr gave him the verb for a nickname: Buzz.
Maybe you know a little about Buzz Williams. Lord knows I thought I did. Spent the East Regional last March with the man, watched him coach against Davidson and Butler, observed him in press conferences and even around town when I ran into him and his family on the streets of Lexington, Ky., and was so impressed with the husband and father behind the Big East basketball coach.
But until you pick a picture, until a picture picks you, you don't know Buzz Williams. You might know he dances on the court after big wins and his voice sounds like 3:30 in the morning at all times, but you don't know him until you let the calendar fall open to June 2014 and see the picture of Kelly staring at Buzz and Buzz staring at Kelly, and then you call Kelly's house and speak to her mom and ask how it came to be and then you just want to hug everybody in the story.
Because the story goes like this:
"Kelly's a cancer survivor, and we were at Children's Hospital for a cancer recheck," Robbin Lyons said. "The elevators open, and all I see are knees. Buzz is there with his players, visiting with some kids, and these guys are so tall. Kelly is tiny, but she steps out [of the elevator] and puts her hands on her hips and says, 'Hello boys.' One of those had-to-be-there moments.
"Well, I run a Down syndrome foundation and we have a calendar and I was dropping it off with one of the nurses, and I told her that Kelly is Miss February. We hear this raspy voice: 'I want to meet Miss February.' It was Buzz. He knelt down to get eye level with Kelly and they had a 45-minute conversation. Eventually the whole team is waiting, everyone in the hospital is waiting, and Buzz is still talking with Kelly."
That's how Buzz invited Kelly and her family to join Buzz's Bunch, the only thing the head coach at Marquette will give his name, and the reason for this story. It's the Buzz's Bunch calendar that someone sent me, thinking it might make me smile. Which it did. And then it had me looking up phone numbers and calling people all over Marquette and beyond for more information, and what I found was this:
Buzz's Bunch was a prerequisite of the job when Marquette offered it to him in 2008, and the request didn't come from Marquette. It came from Buzz. Marquette offered him the job on April 7, 2008, and Buzz Williams, savvy negotiator that he is -- he doesn't have an agent -- told Marquette to pick a salary and make it fair, and that he wanted to start an organization for children with special needs, and that he never wanted Marquette to critique its size or scope. Take it or leave it. Marquette took it, of course, and 24 hours later Buzz's Bunch was born.
It was April 8. Speaking of which, let's open the Buzz's Bunch calendar to April. Let's see which picture picks us next.
• • • • • • • • •
Her name is Trinity, and she has long brown hair held in place with a yellow flower, and she has a chipped tooth. She also has a basketball in her hands and a smile on her face and a heart that required surgery when she was 3, and there might be another open-heart surgery in her future. Meantime she races go-karts and takes gymnastics and started playing basketball because of Coach Buzz.
Trinity's mom, Theresa Uttech, doesn't know how Buzz heard about the little girl's health issue. All Theresa knows is, one day the mail came and there was a letter from Buzz, inviting Trinity and the whole family to the Buzz's Bunch camp. There are two annual events for Buzz's Bunch, the camp in August and the basketball game (and Christmas party) in December. Over the years Buzz's Bunch has grown so big that campers came to two games, and now three, because Marquette can't find room at a single game for hundreds of kids and their families, and because Buzz made it clear when he was hired that the scope and size of Buzz's Bunch was non-negotiable. And so Marquette has figured a way to get every kid and every family member into the building for a game; it just takes three games.
The camp is something else. Theresa Uttech said, "it's a hoot to watch," because there are wriggling, wiggling little kids running from station to station, learning to shoot or pass or dribble at the hands of Buzz or his wife or one of his enormous players.
"Those [Marquette] players adore the kids and make it really fun," Theresa says. "Trinity was really shy, and [star forward] Jimmy Butler for whatever reason took a shine to her. He was helping her at different stations, and I think he had a really good read on what a kid like Trinity needed."
Camp ended, and so did Jimmy Butler's involvement with Trinity -- nah! Butler went to the NBA, stuck with the Bulls, and one day Trinity's father had a message on his cell phone. Scott Uttech had his buddies at work listen, seeing if they recognized the voice and if this offer was real, because the voice was claiming to be Jimmy Butler, and he was saying he was a big fan of Trinity and asking if the Uttech family remembered him and wondering if they would be interested in bringing Trinity to Chicago for a Bulls game.
"Trinity thought it was cool, but for a kid she doesn't realize just how cool this is," Theresa Uttech said. "She's saying, 'Jimmy's a guy I play ball with at camp.' Well, yeah. He's also an NBA player inviting a family to a game and putting us in a hotel. Even now Trinity texts him jokes, and Jimmy texts her back. Obviously it's an experience we'd never have if we never met Buzz."
Theresa has one last thing to add.
"I bet if you asked Buzz," Theresa said, "he'd know who Trinity Uttech is."
This is where I tell Theresa that I've already asked Buzz, sort of, who Trinity Uttech is. I had the calendar open to April and I saw the pretty girl with the brown hair and the yellow flower and I asked Buzz over the phone: What's her name?
Buzz told me all about Trinity, and her heart, and the way she sends him thank-you cards after every camp. Buzz even told me about the spot in his office where he has saved every card from Trinity Uttech. This is what I tell Theresa, and there is silence. Maybe the call was disconn--
"I get choked up thinking about what a great guy he is," Theresa said. "It's just amazing. He remembers all the little kids."
• • • • • • • • •
There's more to say about Buzz's Bunch, more pictures to study -- Katie with that blonde hair and Marquette peel-off tattoo on her cheek, Jack with his bald head and gap-toothed smile -- but not everyone makes it into the calendar.
D.J. Gregory isn't in the calendar. He's from Savannah, Ga., and in 2008 D.J. Gregory made national news when he decided to travel the country, visit every stop on the PGA Tour and walk every hole. Gregory was born with cerebral palsy and weak lungs, and as a boy, doctors told his parents he would never walk at all, and as a man, he walked nearly 1,000 miles over the course of 3,256 holes in 2008.
Buzz heard about it.
Buzz invited Gregory to be a guest speaker at Buzz's Bunch. That was August 2009. A few months later, Buzz heard about Spencer Wilson, another guy who didn't make the calendar. In August 2009 Wilson was a middle-school basketball junkie from High Point, NC, who had a malignant tumor and had been given less than a year to live. The phone rings one day at Spencer Wilson's house, and it's Buzz, inviting the family to Marquette for the Christmas party.
This is where it gets delicate, so bear with me, because we have to tread cautiously. Not for heartbreaking reasons, not because Spencer Wilson died. Just the opposite. Spencer Wilson survived -- his dad credits the outpouring of emotional support his basketball-loving son received from college circles, not just from Buzz Williams but also from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Davidson's Stephen Curry -- and today Spencer Wilson is a high school junior who starts at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High and averages 16 points and six assists and recently won a game with a 65-foot shot at the buzzer and is just good enough to get some recruiting interest.
And the head coach of Marquette, back in 2009, used his money to fly Spencer and his father to Milwaukee, and put them in a hotel room, and in an imperfect world the NCAA might consider those to be recruiting violations, even if Spencer Wilson was dying in 2009. So that was us being delicate, and trying to make sure the NCAA doesn't mess with Spencer Wilson and whatever college gets him on its basketball team in two years.
Google the names "Spencer Wilson" and "Buzz Williams." You won't find anything in the media, because Buzz never told the media. Same goes for the party he threw last year at a Milwaukee homeless shelter. Buzz and his team showed up one day, found out who in the shelter had a birthday that month, and made them guests of honor at an impromptu party with games -- bean-bag toss, cookie-decorating -- and pizza and presents for the homeless and their children. I ask Buzz about it, and he very politely indicates that he doesn't want to talk about it. Turns out Buzz doesn't do this stuff for attention; he does it because he wants to do it.
"We sensed some wonderful things about Buzz," said Spencer's dad, Billy Wilson. "And one of them is that he just feels compelled to help others."
• • • • • • • • •
Pick a picture, or not. The picture might just pick you. Happened to me again as I was looking at Kelly, the girl you met at the start of this story, and then looked at some more kids from the month of June. That kid on the right, he picked me. His nametag says "Logan" and he's tiny, 12 years old but just 62 pounds, and he's earnestly dribbling a basketball with his tongue poking against the inside of his cheek.
This is another kid from Buzz's Bunch that I needed to know more about, so I find his mother on the phone and she tells me about health issues that started in his lungs and trachea and spread to his brain, which is now held in place by a piece of his left hip that was fused to his skull. This kid and this family have been through a lot, and at one of their lowest moments four years ago they got an invitation from Buzz Williams to visit practice.
"Logan needed brain surgery, and the day we were leaving to go up to [the Mayo Clinic] in Minnesota we went to Marquette," said Logan's mom, Melissa Neitman. "Buzz did a private practice with Logan. Just Logan and our family. All the players were there. I'm going to start crying."
She does, then resumes her story.
"They all put their hand on Logan's head and Buzz did a prayer vigil over him. A few days later they sent pictures and coloring books and things for him to do. His hospital room was full of all these pictures of him with Marquette players. Logan's favorite player was Darius Johnson-Odom."
Logan and his family attended the next Buzz's Bunch camp in August. They parked the car and started walking to the arena.
"It was like a movie," Neitman said. "Darius was standing outside with Jimmy [Butler] and some other guys. We're coming around the corner, and they locked eyes, and Darius ran up to Logan and grabbed him and they both started crying in each other's arms outside the gym. All of that started with Buzz inviting us to practice."
I ask Melissa Neitman how Buzz heard about Logan, and she said she didn't know. So she thought about it while I waited on the phone, and she thought, and then she realized. All these years, and she never knew how it happened. Now she does.
"You know what? My dad was doing a fundraiser for our family," Neitman said, "and I know he had gone to Marquette to see if they would be willing to donate anything for the fundraiser for Logan's medical expenses. I bet Buzz found out that way."
Bet he did.
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