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Playing With Pain : Purdue Coach Gene Keady Lost His Father and His Daughter Was in a Coma, but His Seniors Have Boilermakers Fighting for Big Ten Title

February 11, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — While Indiana will always be Bobby Knight's domain, Hoosier country and red sweaters, this year's story of a season on the brink appeared to be breaking farther north, where the Purdue Boilermakers had threatened to boil over.

But stretches of on-court slumber in December, and heartbreak in January, have suddenly given way to February and hope.

Saturday, before a sellout crowd of 14,123 at Mackey Arena, Purdue squandered a 16-point second-half lead before fighting back in the waning seconds to defeat Michigan, 69-64, in an important Big Ten matchup.

The 14th-ranked Boilermakers improved to 19-4 overall and 9-2 in conference (tied with Penn State for the lead) with the kind of unselfish play required to make up for the lack of prep All-Americans.

In what has been a painful season personally for Purdue Coach Gene Keady, he has leaned heavily on six seniors to get him through the rough times.

"These guys are kind of special," Keady says.

In an era when the best players turn pro before their junior years, getting stuck with seniors is not necessarily a good thing, unless you need them to run the team while you're tending to more serious matters.

Purdue is taking advantage of a lineup that averages 21.8 years to survive more gifted opponents such as Michigan (15-8, 5-5), which recruits young talent by the 300-pound Robert "Tractor" Traylor load.

"We don't have stars," Keady says, "we have moons."

The Boilermakers, who already had recorded a 21-point road victory at Michigan, weren't about to panic when Saturday's game was suddenly tied at 60 with a minute remaining.

"We have the veterans," senior guard Todd Foster said afterward. "We have guys who have been through it."

Purdue got 40 points off the bench from Foster (10), sophomore Brad Miller (14) and senior forward Justin Jennings (16).

The team that had looked so dreadful at the Wooden Classic in December is now poised to win its third consecutive Big Ten title.

Purdue is a team with poise and purpose.

"We've dedicated this season to Coach Keady's daughter," Jennings said.

After the game, Keady boarded a plane for New York to spend what's left of the weekend with Lisa.

Back to the real world.

It would be the fifth getaway trip Keady has made since Jan. 10, the day his 30-year-old daughter slipped and fell in the kitchen of her Alpine, N.J., home, struck her head and lapsed into a coma.

Had a maid not discovered her, Lisa probably would have died. "It's amazing she's alive, really," Keady says.

Keady got the news 40 minutes before his team's game against Northwestern at Evanston, Ill. He didn't tell anyone until after Purdue's 67-51 victory.

While Keady's wife was quickly dispatched to Chicago for the first flight out, Keady made the lonely bus trip back to Purdue.

"I didn't know coming home from Northwestern that night if she was alive or not," Keady recalls. "That was a long drive from Evanston to Lafayette that night. That's a situation I don't want to go through again."

Lisa was alive, but in critical condition after undergoing brain surgery.

The next day, Keady flew to Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey only to receive news there that his 85-year-old father, Lloyd, had died of respiratory failure in California.

"He was a great man, my hero," Keady says. "Any success I've had comes from him."

Lloyd worked in a Kansas greenhouse for more than 50 years, potting plants he would later sell to flower shops. As a Depression-era boy growing up in Larned, Kan., Gene worked eight-hour Saturdays with his father, helping make ends meet.

In two swift January kicks, his father was gone and his daughter was fighting for life. What freak-accident irony. As a child, Gene Keady was struck in the head with a shotput and nearly died.

The band played on. Purdue players didn't know whether their coach would be on the bench for the team's Jan. 13 game at Minnesota.

They had already dedicated the game to the coach when Keady arrived in time.

After Purdue's 76-62 victory, players saw another side of their 59-year-old coach, known mostly for his steely stares and tough-love approach.

"We hugged him and told him the team was going to carry him through this," senior forward Roy Hairston said.

Keady was moved to tears.

Bruce Weber, Keady's right-hand assistant for 16 years in West Lafayette, said Keady's reaction that night struck a chord.

"He showed the kids some sincere emotions," Weber says. "I think it helped. They saw he was suffering. He doesn't always show that."

The Boilermakers have held together through the chaos, going 8-2 since Keady's daughter fell in her kitchen.

Keady has not missed a game, but he has missed several practices to be with his daughter.

A younger team might have taken advantage.

"You know, like when you were in elementary school, or junior high, and you had a substitute teacher," Jennings says. "Time to break free."

But the seniors wouldn't let it happen.

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