Dec 02, 2002
Star Tribune Company
Ken Novak Jr. knew something was happening to his body during the summer, when a simple activity such as jogging became difficult. He thought the problem might be linked with his heart surgery performed last April to replace an aortic valve.
As summer turned to fall, the Hopkins boys' basketball coach felt numbness all over his body. His legs grew weaker. Climbing stairs became a chore. A week ago today, Novak was told he had multiple sclerosis.
The disease is marked by patches of hardened tissue in the brain and spinal cord and associated with partial or complete paralysis and muscular tremor, according to the dictionary. Tests revealed spots on his spine and his brain, but Novak, 46, doesn't yet know much more than that about the disease.
The Royals' season starts today when the defending Class 4A champions play host to Chaska at 7:15 p.m. Novak will have more on his mind than usual. There are hundreds of questions and precious few answers; it's simply too early to know what the future might hold.
"[The doctors] said there are different drugs you can go on, there are different things you can do," Novak said. "We don't even know what kind I have; evidently there are a bunch of different kinds. Some are slow, some are fast, some go on and off. I just don't know."
Novak walks slowly, with a slight limp. During the first week of basketball practice last month, "I couldn't really move," he said. He has been treated daily with intravenous steroids, intended to boost his immune system.
"It's kind of a weakness, an uncoordination," he said. "When I lift my legs, I have to think about walking. I have to think about my movements. If I have to make a quick step, I'll be on my face. It's almost like when you sleep on your arm and you kind of wake it up; it's like it doesn't respond. The last three, four weeks it's gotten kind of severe."
With his movements constricted, Novak is leaning on his assistant coaches -- including his father, Ken Novak Sr. -- more than ever. He told his players last week about his health problems.
"I used to be right in the middle of every play, and now all of a sudden I'm 40 feet away yelling," he said. "I had to tell them that my assistants are going to be doing more things. I don't even know if I told them it was M.S., I just said I've got some issues and we're all going to have to jump in on this together."
The Royals not only won a state title last season (finishing 27-2), they have three seniors who have signed with Division I colleges, they are ranked No. 1 in Class 4A and they are heavy favorites to win another state championship. And while Novak and his family are dealing with his health, his team has issues of its own.
Some of them involve players who will attend Duke (Kris Humphries), Boston College (Dan Coleman) and Saint Louis University (Darren Clarke) on basketball scholarships next year. On a team loaded with talent, sometimes one basketball just isn't enough to go around.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Novak said. "I don't think we're going to go unscathed. We've got a lot of good players and everybody sees themselves in the same role, and we've got some working out to do to get the roles defined.
"You've got four of five guys who see themselves as scorers, and we need some people who see themselves as rebounders and defenders. It doesn't overly surprise me. We struggled with it a little bit last year and I think it's a little bit more amplified this year. We're going to struggle."
The Royals will be tested by their schedule. On Saturday (and again on Feb. 4), they will play three-time defending Class 3A champion and top-ranked Minneapolis Henry. In January, the Royals will play at Minneapolis North, the No. 2-rated team in Class 4A and the third-place finisher at last season's state tournament.
But the road will extend far beyond Minneapolis. Humphries' decision to attend Duke has helped Hopkins schedule a game at the Blue Devils' home arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, in Durham, N.C. The Royals will face St. Anthony of Jersey City, N.J., there on Jan. 11. St. Anthony is coached by Bob Hurley, father of former Duke star Bobby Hurley, and has seniors who have committed to Syracuse and Central Connecticut. Hopkins is ranked No. 12 in the nation by USA Today; St. Anthony is No. 19.
The Royals also will play in a late-December tournament in Delaware against teams from Maryland, Florida and elsewhere.
"We'll definitely be a really good team," Humphries said. "It'll take a little bit of time to get as good as we think we can be."
Novak will be on the bench tonight, trying to think more about his basketball team than himself. It might not be easy.
"I don't think the doctor knew I was a coach," he said. "The first thing
she told me was, 'You've got to get rid of stress in your life.' "
© 2002 Star Tribune