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Basketball coach’s cancer battle inspires all those around him

Updated January 1, 2023 - 8:30 am

It might take him three hours to get dressed. To pull up his socks. To put an arm through a sleeve. To prepare for another day of competing against the ultimate of challenges.

Mark Coleman’s body is failing. He was diagnosed in December 2021 with Stage 4 prostate cancer that has metastasized to the bone.

But there is another basketball practice to attend. Another game to help coach. Another opportunity to watch his sons play.

So he won’t be stopped. He won’t give in. He’ll get dressed, damn how long it takes.

He’ll be on time. He’s always on time.

“I tell the guys that when I get to the gym, I actually feel a healing,” Coleman said. “It’s the energy from them to me and me to them. Nothing makes me feel better than being in the organic makeup of our team.

“I couldn’t walk three days ago. I had people carrying me to the restroom. But now I’m in (the gym), walking and bending and that’s all because of the energy I get when I walk in. I’m ready to go.”

And they’re ready to have him.

He’s who they play for.

Talented sons

It’s a Monday morning inside an auxiliary gymnasium at Faith Lutheran High and Democracy Prep is putting a whupping on Alaska’s Anchorage Christian School.

It’s part of the Tarkanian Classic holiday tournament and the 74-35 final isn’t as close as things really were. Democracy Prep led 52-16 at halftime. Over before it began.

Coleman takes his customary seat on the bench as an assistant to Democracy coach Cory Duke, whose 2A team on Tuesday hosts defending state champion The Meadows.

Coleman is 58 and has two boys playing for Democracy Prep. Tru is a 17-year-old junior point guard and the reigning 2A scoring champion and Defensive Player of the Year; Tai is a 16-year-old freshman ranked within the top players in the state for the 2026 class and among its top scorers this season, regardless of division.

Tru on this day is nursing a sore ankle that has his minutes limited while younger brother is putting on a show. Step-back 3-pointer. Turnaround jumper. Backdoor cut for a layup. Steal at midcourt and gliding in for a basket. Another breakaway score. Another 3-pointer.

Tai would tally 31 points, nearly outscoring the team’s opponent.

It was in September when Duke gathered the team and Coleman explained the situation with his health. When it was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

“Mark is like my second father,” Duke said. “He is everything to this team. We know he is competing every day and we have to compete with that same energy. This is so much bigger than basketball. You always hear people on ESPN talk about the power of sports — this is why we do what we do, why sports are so amazing.

“One person doing things the right way and treating people with love and respect and being there for them. That’s Mark. He’s that one constant, always focused on others. If you want to see what a man looks like, look at Mark Coleman. I love that man.”

Chicago to Vegas

How they got here: Mark and his sons moved to Las Vegas from Chicago three years ago, when he took a job as a seventh-grade science teacher at Democracy Prep. They had visited a relative in Southern Nevada during the pandemic and trained here for a few weeks.

It was all Mark needed to see.

A spiritual message to his boys: Let’s go to the desert, where little grows, and water each other, where they could build a life and grow and mature — physically, mentally, socially, emotionally.

He is divorced from the boys’ mother, Kimberly, who arrived in Las Vegas six months ago to help with her sons and Mark’s needs.

“Chicago didn’t feel the same in my eyes,” Mark said. “I knew there was something special about Las Vegas.”

His health no longer allows him to teach, but it hasn’t stopped his love and desire to be there for the team. He is a calming influence for Duke. A mentor in every sense.

The goal is a state championship and Duke’s team owns the ability to make such a reality. The mere thought of winning a title drives Mark. To get dressed. To be on time.

“The team gives him encouragement, strength to get up in the morning, a sense of leadership, feeding into the kids, growth, mentorship,” Kimberly said. “It gives him hope.”

Indescribable pain

When there is metastasis to the bone, the pain is indescribable. It can level the strongest of people. It alters the course of every minute of every day. Mark is on a daily regimen of three medications, with morphine being the anchor.

But he was the one who awoke at 3 a.m. as a young man, was on a train in Chicago at 4 and at basketball practice by 6. Toughness is part of his DNA. It has now been passed on to his sons.

They’ve had to grow up far faster than most their age, helping their father with his daily and nightly needs. All the while being high school students and accomplished players. They’re being pulled into adulthood at an accelerated rate.

“When I was first diagnosed, I said I thought they were doing fine and that was the most selfish thing I could have done,” Mark said. “I didn’t acknowledge they weren’t fine. They’re doing the best they can looking at their Dad with a critical illness, with no appetite and struggling to get out of bed …

“I think their most significant growth has been the last two to three months, when they’ve basically had to put me on their backs and get me here and there and help me eat and keep my mind right.”

His goal: Create the most positive of atmospheres and countless happy moments.

For his sons to smile and laugh and have the best of days every day.

The boys are as impressive and introspective off the court as they are talented on it, and the seriousness of their father’s condition is not lost on either.

Their thoughts:

Tai: “To see what my dad goes through, it motivates me to go harder every day. He’s teaching me how to be a man. He knows what he’s going through — his body is turning on him. But he’s here every day, motivating all of us to work hard. We don’t have any excuses. Just get better every day for him. At first the journey was stressful, finding out he had cancer. Just had to cope with it, deal with it and then put it away to help him.”

Tru: “If my dad’s mindset wasn’t as strong as it is, if he wasn’t super tough, I don’t think he would last. He’s a person of strong character and has always made things work for us. This has taken a hard toll on him and us, but he’s still with us. We have to look forward and not back. I love my dad. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for us. He makes me proud to know the man he is.”

About others

Coleman wants those stories told to be about the team, about others in need. He tells one of a former student, a young man who has undergone several brain surgeries. About visiting him, comforting him, about he and the boys bringing gifts and exchanging holiday dinner invitations.

He talks about a mantra Democracy Prep has adopted this season. That when things get tough, be it him fighting the cancer or a hard loss on the court or some other struggle — no matter how serious or minute — there is a saying they follow:

We up!

As in, you and not others decide the outcome. Rise to the challenge. Get dressed. Get to the gym. Work your tails off.

We up!

And, suddenly, tears begin to well in Coleman’s eyes. He pauses.

“I don’t want this to be about me,” he said.

“Love doesn’t happen until I take the focus off me and put it on others. I want this to be about all the people that I interact with and want them to feel like they have grown or learned or gotten better at something. That if I can compete at this, there’s nothing out there they can’t compete in. I want people to be charged to compete in life.

“I was scared at first because the diagnosis is big news. But now every day is geared toward making it the best day ever. I don’t have time to be afraid.

“We might not all have the same diagnosis, but we all have the same destination.”

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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