Self Delivers Phog First

Phog.net looks at how Kansas head coach Bill Self was able to give the Wright family a very special Phog Allen first.

The word March in college hoops is usually followed by "madness", and the term "survive and advance" is popular terminology as teams across the country fight to keep their seasons alive.

For the Wright's the word "madness" and the phrase "survive and advance" have different meanings. It is much more literal for Patrick and Holly who have endured the madness of losing a five-year old child to cancer. Everyday is about surviving and advancing as they continue to cope with their tragic loss.

The Wright's story may be a familiar one if you follow the game of college basketball. Many of you have heard ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale speak vehemently in support of the fight to help find a cure for cancer. Vitale is a huge part of the V Foundation and watched cancer take the life of NC State coach Jim Valvano years ago. Vitale gives his time and pours his heart and soul into every speech he recites about the need for help. Vitale, like many of us, shares the passion and optimism that some day there will be a cure for this dreaded killer.

Many of his speeches chronicle Valvano's battle with the disease and they also frequently include the particulars about Payton Wright.

For those of you not familiar with Payton's story she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer called Medulloepithelioma in May of 2006 - a type of brain cancer Patrick and Holly eventually found out would take Payton from them. In the months that followed, the Wrights watched Payton suffer the effects of this disease. It consumed their lives. They were forced to watch their little girl endure the pain, and undergo heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation. In the words of Holly Wright, "the cancer just laughed in the face of the chemo."

Just four months later in August, Payton was paralyzed from the waist down due to the tumor compressing her spine, surgery followed. At this point Payton was given hours to live. Payton beat the odds surviving the weekend but eventually losing the fight on May 29th 2007 just after her fifth birthday.

Patrick and Holly faced the horror of losing a child. Their daughter was gone.

"It's a tough club to be in," said Patrick referring to losing a child. "You don't want to be in it or experience it in life. You're never the same. Holly and I will never be the same."

The Wright's are understandably inconsolable and devastated by the loss but they have vowed to pour their energy into helping other children and their families. The Payton Wright Foundation was established to help support pediatric cancer research and assist families who have children with brain cancer.

"Little kids don't have a voice," proclaimed Patrick. "People don't like talking about little kids with cancer and a lot of times they don't survive.

In April, the Payton Wright Foundation will host a Night at the Races in Pittsburgh with proceeds benefitting the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh's Pediatric Brain Cancer Research and their families. In May, Payton's 2009 Golf Tournament will be held near Bradenton, Florida and will also help raise needed funds and increase awareness.

Once you meet the Wrights you can't help but feel for them and you immediately wonder what you can do to help them. You can still see and hear the hurt. But you can also see the hope and determination. The Wrights forge onward as the parents of daughters Savanna and Sydney but they just want to do SOMETHING. Their goal is to save other parents from having to cope with a child with brain cancer where there is no protocol for treatment.

Due to their camaraderie with Vitale, who has raised over $1.3 million dollars in Payton's name, the Wrights crossed paths with some of the legendary coaches in the game of college basketball.

Patrick and Holly attended Vitale's V Foundation Gala in 2007 when Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was honored. It was just after Vitale spoke to the room about Payton's story that the Wrights met KU head coach, Bill Self.

"After that story is when all the coaches get up and that's when Bill came over and introduced himself. He was just very sincere and just a nice guy. I think he was really touched by his story," Holly continued. "He was the one that first came up to us out of all the coaches just to say, ‘Hang in there. Our thoughts and prayers will be with you'".

A year later, the Wrights were again invited to Vitale's V Foundation Gala. This year the honorees were Bob Knight and Pat Summitt. At the cocktail meet-and-greet Self walked in and immediately noticed and remembered.Patrick. He came over, called Patrick by name, and then asked how he and Holly were doing.

"I mean you have to picture it. The meet-and-greet was the red carpet roll out," said Holly recalling the scene. "It was a who's who there. It felt like paparazzi everywhere because you just saw the flashing light bulbs. He walks in around the corner and light bulbs were going off. We were just standing with Loraine (Vitale - Dick's wife) and Dick, and he just immediately came over and said, ‘How are you guys doing?' He means it in like how are you? Not your blanket oh I'm fine and wants to move on."

Later that evening after Knight took the podium, it was Holly's turn. She delivered a speech that no one in that room will ever forget, including Self. It was the tell-all experience of a mother who helplessly watched as she lost her child. Holly shared the story pausing to wipe away tears, hoping her message got across and thanking those in attendance for giving their time and effort to join the fight.  

After her gut-wrenching speech, Self approached the Wrights again and according to Patrick's recollection, told Holly that her speech "blew everybody in that room away". Self went on to say, "It was powerful, and amazing, and I just want to thank you."

"I think that's when he said to Pat ‘You come find me and you get in touch with me. I want you guys to come out for a game,'" Holly remembered.  

The reigning national championship coach was serious and followed up with a phone call shortly after the gala.

"He called Patrick on his cell and left a message," added Holly. "Pat saved it and said, ‘you'll never believe who just called'.

Self left a message reiterating his wish for Patrick and Holly to make the trip to Lawrence for a game of their choice in historic Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

"It said, ‘You need to come to a game I told you – the ball is in your court now,'" Holly continued. "He said like four or five times, ‘the ball is in your court so you better call me back'. He said, ‘I don't want this to be where I'm just calling you and you think I'm being a nice guy – I'm telling you I want you to call me and it's now up to you. I've extended my invitation and it's up to you.'"

"He called more than once. He called right after the gala and told me to reach out to him. A couple weeks after that I reached out to him," said Patrick.

Ultimately the Wrights determined they would love to attend the Texas game on March 7th and Self delivered on his promise. Self's last words before the final arrangements were made? "I want you here. Get out here and you guys deserve to have fun. So come on out."

The rest is history. The Wrights arrived in Lawrence Friday March 6th and prepared for their very first college basketball experience. Though they are big Steeler fans and have attended their share of sporting events, they had never been to a college hoops game – anywhere. They were about to get a taste of college basketball at one of the most historic venues in college sports.

First up for the Wrights was a visit to Self's office where secretary Joanie Stephens took Holly and Patrick on a tour. Like many who see the basketball offices up close, one thing caught their eye.

"I think the mural was probably my favorite just to see the history", Holly said referring to the painting that shows years of KU hoops history. "I think learning the history, and I am not one to be a sports person, knowing that's the start of basketball. I was like, wow."

"Next thing you know he comes in after his press conference and takes us back then says ‘oh we're beyond handshakes and he says I want a hug', Holly said.

"He had just got done with a press conference, he had to get ready for practice, he didn't have time but we were in his office for a half hour," Patrick added.

"He says, ‘I want to know how you both are really doing?' I mean no agenda. There was no agenda from him it was asking how the kids are, asking how we're doing," Holly reflected.

"We talked a lot about Payton and the girls. Then he was like what are you guys doing the rest of the day – here are some restaurants – come watch practice I'd love to have you. So then we left and went and saw practice which was awesome. I think I started learning more about basketball then,"

The Wrights were clearly touched by Self's acts of kindness and they were excited for their first game in the Phog.

On Saturday prior to tip, the Wrights clad in new Jayhawk gear, took a stroll through the lobby of the fieldhouse then assumed their seats seven rows up close to halfcourt. Patrick and Holly got to see a gripping 14-point comeback by KU and felt what it was like to be inside the arena with a Phog Allen Fieldhouse crowd in a frenzy. Eventually the Jayhawks pulled out a ten-point win (83-73) over a tough Texas squad giving KU the outright Big 12 title.

First impressions of the fieldhouse are difficult to depict in words. Like one man said walking out of the arena, "you can't describe it, you just have to experience it."

Even the coach who has won a title there and is coaching in the Phog for a sixth year in row had a hard time finding the words to tell the Wrights what was in store. "You just can't wait …you just can't believe what it is going to be like."

The fieldhouse did not come overhyped by Self or anyone else and Patrick and Holly were not disappointed.

"Awesome," answered Holly when asked about the game. "I think I kept saying a couple of times, this is awesome. I mean I don't think there's a word that really describes it. It was a great game."

"What a game I mean that whole experience to me – we've been to plenty of sporting events hockey games, football games, but until you've experienced it you have no idea," Patrick continued with a huge grin. "For our first? That's pretty hard to beat. That's what I was saying where we going to go now? We've gotta come back here. We can't go anywhere else we've already had the caviar."

Holly spoke about enjoying the student section's newspaper ritual during the opposing team's starting lineups, talked about the rock concert-like ringing in her ears during several parts of the game, and wondered aloud how the players couldn't be pumped watching the amazing videos played prior to the game. Just some of the memories she and Patrick will take with them thanks to an experience Self delivered.

"We are two ordinary people and we're from Bradenton, Florida and this guy went out of his way how many times already to talk to us, ask how we're doing, fly us up here to just give us some time to just like he said have fun?" Holly asked clearly humbled by the experience.

After the game the Wright's dream weekend continued in the lockerroom where Self, along with his wife Cindy, greeted the Holly and Patrick. The Wrights could not help but let the Selfs know how awesome their time was.

"I didn't expect to see him after the game for him to come out afterwards and give us a hug and shake our hand and telling us again make sure you keep in touch. He's an amazing man for taking that time," Holly continued. "We don't take what happened at all lightly. I just feel I'm very thankful I'm very appreciative of everything he's done."

So Self, who knows he can't erase the hurt or the pain the Wrights feel, gave the couple a weekend they will never forget and put a smile on two people's faces who truly deserve it as they continue a tireless fight against the disease that tore their daughter from their arms.

"We are couple who is truly trying to help kids," stated Holly. "We're not here to take advantage of anyone or anything. Hopefully we're getting it across to everyone the more awareness we can get up there for kids - that's what we're about. We are real. I feel very honored to have him ask us to come here and spend the time that he did."

"I have become very humbled by the support and the outpouring and generosity and how good people are and he's one of the good guys," said Patrick.

The outpouring of support has been overwhelming. The Wrights have experienced a nightmare but are still clearly touched by the acts of kindness, including the one by Self.

The Wrights live by the words that Payton said to her father before entering her first surgery, "Dad, don't cry. It's gonna be a good day."

Thanks to the efforts of people like Vitale, the Wrights, and coaches like Self we hope someday it will.

For more information on Payton or to help the cause go to www.paytonwright.org.

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