Giving His All
History is sometimes a matter a perspective. When you witness an event with your eyes, it may be a fleeting memory. When you feel it in your bones, it can stay with you for years. When it hammers on your heart, you remember it for a lifetime.
The greatest sporting experience I’ve ever had started with only a glimmer of hope. When the game ended I thought it was the most exciting basketball game I’d ever seen. But it was only on reflection years later that I began to truly appreciate the enormity of what I’d witnessed on December 7, 1977. Energy and effort to rally teammates. Courage to battle against impossible odds. Giving ten thousand people a sense of immortality. And those things had nothing to do with the basketball game itself.
On that December night I sat in the stands and watched William and Mary beat the #2 ranked team in the country, North Carolina. If you were a Tar Heel fan it was an aberration. A hiccup. If you were a W&M fan, however, it was historical. It was amazing.
North Carolina had played for the collegiate championship the prior year against Marquette. The 1977 team featured Phil Ford and Mike O’Koren, two of four Tar Heel starters who would be drafted by NBA teams. Ford was the starting point guard for the gold medal – winning USA team in the 1976 Olympics. The William and Mary Tribe team featured players who would go on to careers in accounting, law and business. North Carolina was coached by the legendary Dean Smith. William and Mary was led by an unknown first year coach named Bruce Parkhill. The Tar Heels were a perennial top-10 team. William and Mary was one of only five schools that had played Division One basketball for at least 50 years and never played in the NCAA Tournament. They were going to kill us.
The Tar Heels warmed up with quiet confidence, and the William and Mary players looked nervously over at the Tar Heels they’d watched on TV and read about in Sports Illustrated. Prior to tip-off a skinny player with short hair ran out onto the court and whispers spread through the crowd. His hair was shorter than we remembered and he’d lost his ever-present five-o’clock shadow. But we knew that face. And that crazy look. His teammates surrounded him at half court and they all began jumping up and down. The Tar Heel players glanced over and wondered what all the commotion was about. Suddenly the skinny player let out a yell that you could hear throughout the gym. The place went crazy.
Suddenly, all bets were off.
Early in the first half, Phil Ford brought the ball past half court, executed a slick cross-over dribble and exploded towards the hoop. At least he tried to. Tribe player Jack Arbogast cut him off and caused Ford to dribble off his foot and out of bounds. Arbo glared at Ford and let out a guttural yell, like a snarl. Ford did a double-take and fans saw the first glimpse of something unexpected on Ford’s face. Doubt.
Ford was held to two points in the first half and William and Mary led at halftime 32-31. It was a hotly contested second-half. Ford did have twenty points in the last fifteen minutes to lead the Tar Heels on a furious comeback, but the Tribe’s John Lowenhaupt was the best player on the court that night. In the last minute of the game, Bobby Boyd and Billy Harrington hit free throws to ice the game and ensure a 78-75 Tribe victory.
When the final buzzer sounded, I remember running out onto the court and hugging everyone in sight. I was thrilled for my friends on the team. Billy. Zinger. Arbo. Hopper. Noch. Teddy O. Bobby. They’d done it.
Like his Tribe teammates, the skinny player basked in the joy of the moment. He also looked exhausted. He hadn’t played a minute in the game, but he had perhaps fought harder than anyone that night… just to be there… to support his teammates.
That player was John Kratzer, the Tribe team captain, who had been battling an aggressive form of cancer. The previous year his doctors had discovered an inoperable tumor near his kidney and the cancer was spreading. They’d recently found a blood clot in his lungs. Prior to the game, he had been back home in Atlanta, to be with his family and to receive yet another round of chemotherapy. The prognosis was not good.
Players on the William and Mary team would get quiet and tight-lipped when anyone asked how he was doing. He was a larger-than-life personality around campus, and was welcome everywhere he went. His practice habits were legendary and he was always able to pick it up a notch when others were running out of gas. His play on the court was all energy and grit. He was fearless. His nickname was “Kraze.” It fit.
When Kraze ran onto the court that night, we could see he’d lost a lot of his hair from the chemo treatments and he was at least twenty pounds lighter than we’d last seen him. But he was back. And if anyone was going to defy the odds, Kraze was the guy.
For that one night, we all believed anything was possible. Beating Dean Smith. Conquering the Tar Heels. We could even beat cancer. As we jumped and laughed and hugged, we felt invincible.
Afterwards, Kraze told his teammates he wasn’t going to leave them “until I can’t take the pain any more.” He attended classes. He suited up for games. He traveled with the team. He maintained his goofy, you-never-know-what’s-coming-next, sense of humor. And he encouraged his teammates – until the end.
Kraze lost his battle with cancer the following year. I’m sure he carried with him the special memory of beating North Carolina, in what is still considered the biggest win in the history of W&M basketball. But he would never know the legacy he left behind. His teammates and friends carry an image of his fighting spirit and joie de vivre as they live their lives, raise their kids, and deal with adversity. Kraze received the first-ever “Most Courageous” Award from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. The Tribe basketball program hands out an annual “Kraze Award” to the player demonstrating the greatest spirit and courage.
As Kraze prepared for his own funeral, he selected the verse that appeared on prayer cards at the service. It was taken from a prayer by St. Ignatius: “Take, Lord, receive all I have and possess. You have given it all to me; now I return it to You.”
I was taken by the words “All I have.” Players are often encouraged by coaches to “leave it all out there on the court.” Use every drop of energy you have to win the game. Leave nothing in the tank. That was the way Kraze played basketball. It is the way he faced death. It is the way he lived his life.
On one cold December night in Williamsburg, I witnessed the greatest basketball game I’ve ever seen. As the final buzzer sounded, I could feel it in my bones: I’d just witnessed something extraordinary. And every time I think about a skinny young man standing at mid-court, with tears in his eyes and hugging his teammates, it hammers on my heart.
Thanks to friend Andres Baquerizo, I watched a video on TED.com that made me think of Kraze. Ric Elias talks about what he learned as his plane crashed into the Hudson River in January, 2009. Please watch it, and keep Kraze in mind. I encourage you to use the gifts that God has given you – today and every day. Love life. Invest energy and a little bit of your soul into your friends and loved ones. Don’t wait. What you do – and how you do it – may impact others more than you’ll ever know. Give it your all.