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As the coronavirus pandemic has circled the globe, undefeated in its quest to wreck havoc on communities, I've been wondering if we actually need sports. Should we really be focused on dunking basketballs and scoring touchdowns when more than 546,000 Americans have died, most of them gasping for air in isolated hospital rooms?
Sports have felt especially unnecessary the past week, as we’ve played the first couple rounds of the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments in bubbles, with coaches separated from their children and players not allowed to hug their parents.
Then I talked to Brenda Frese and her parents, Bill and Donna Frese. And I started to change my mind.
Brenda is the coach of the Maryland women, a basketball team that gets buckets in bunches and is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Terps have scored 98 and 100 points, respectively, in their first two tournament games, thoroughly debunking the claim that women’s basketball is boring and serving notice to sixth-seeded Texas, their Sweet 16 opponent, that it will have to put points on the board to pull an upset.
Bill and Donna Frese of Cedar Rapids are Brenda’s parents and the biggest Maryland fans you’ll find in Iowa.
Bill, 89 and a Korean War veteran, usually travels to all of Maryland’s postseason games. But he’s unsure if he’ll be able to join the Terps this year, as he’s recently been “knocked for a loop” after a new round of chemotherapy.
A year and a half ago, Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He’s been through 20 rounds of radiation and four rounds of chemotherapy, keeping his energy high with lots of good Midwestern cooking from Donna and a desire to keep doing house projects around their many rental properties. Shortly before the Big Ten tournament, doctors informed Bill that the cancer had spread to his bones. Now, Brenda can’t help but worry and wonder if this is the last postseason her dad will ever watch her coach.
“I don’t know if he’ll see next year,” Frese told USA TODAY Sports, her voice catching. She took a deep breath. “Sorry, it just doesn’t get any easier to talk about. My dad is my heart.”
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'Times I'm alone are toughest'
Over the past year, Americans have been desperate for sports. In the wake of brutal loss and heartache, sports provided people a temporary pause from real life, giving joy to a world that often felt bereft of it. As our country grieved centuries of racial injustice, taking to the streets to protest and cry out in anguish, athletes used their platforms to demand change. And for the Freses, sports gave a much-needed distraction from the harsh reality that the patriarch of their family is fragile.
Bill likes to joke that he doesn’t have any hobbies, because who has free time when you’re raising six kids, all of them athletes? He tried golfing for a week or two years ago, but decided he’d rather be rebounding for Brenda in the driveway, prepping younger sister Stacy for the Elks free throw shooting contest or playing catch with Jeff. “He never missed a game,” Brenda says. When the Frese children were young and anxious to improve their skills, Bill procured a key to the local elementary school so they could sneak into the gym whenever they wanted. Long before Bill got cancer, he understood the importance and power of sports, how they taught his family teamwork and perseverance.
Brenda, 50, was particularly close with Bill as a child. In elementary school she dealt with a host of medical issues, often sitting curled on his lap, too sick to join her sisters and brother. But when she hit the fifth grade, Bill remembers watching Brenda fly down the street, sprinting to keep up with her siblings. “That’s when I knew she was going to be strong,” he says.
She’s needed that strength at different times during her coaching career. In 2010, her son Tyler was diagnosed with cancer; he underwent his last chemotherapy treatment for leukemia in 2013, and has been healthy since. That scare "stopped me in my tracks," she says. She learned then the importance of a strong support network, calling her husband "my MVP."
Already adept at juggling basketball with family heartache, Brenda has leaned on that circle even more this season, and says she's exceedingly grateful for them. But thinking about potentially losing the man who taught her to love the game breaks something open inside of her.
“The times that I’m alone are the toughest,” she says. “When I’m busy and in work mode, watching game film, that’s good. But when I sit around and think about the time he has left, and what we have left together …”
Her voice trails off.
Zoom happy hours help keep family close
These strange past 12 months have given the Frese family an opportunity to get creative when they need to bond. Because they were spread out across the country — Brenda’s in Maryland, sister Marsha is an assistant at San Diego State and the other four children are in Cedar Rapids close to Bill and Donna — and unable to travel due to COVID-19, they started hosting daily happy hour Zoom sessions.
“All the rest of the family, especially the spouses, they wonder what we can possibly talk about for so long,” Donna says, with a laugh.
When Brenda and Marsha went back to basketball, the family cut back the Zoom sessions to twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays. And yes, they’ve kept it up while Brenda’s been in the tournament bubble in Texas (she brought some of her favorite red wine, her happy hour drink of choice, to San Antonio).
Those Zoom get togethers highlight Bill’s greatest joy as a parent: “I’m just so happy they get along so darn well,” he says. “They really like each other.”
In a (more) normal season, Bill and Donna would have made a handful of trips to Maryland during the regular season, and flown out for the first two rounds of the tournament, which Maryland would have hosted as a top-16 seed. They’re regular members of the Terps’ postseason travel roster, and have been with Brenda at every major stop.
They’ve dealt with illness during the tournament, too: In 2006, when Maryland advanced to its first Final Four under Brenda, the team and her family were leveled with a bad bout of flu. It hit Bill during the regional final. As Brenda cut down the nets to head to Boston — where she’d eventually lead Maryland to the 2006 national championship — Bill was up on the concourse, throwing up into a garbage can.
Should the Terps advance to the Final Four again, Bill’s not sure he’ll be able to make it. He’ll be a game-time decision, he says, based on how he’s feeling with his new treatment. (Bill and Donna have received their COVID-19 vaccines.) Through one of Brenda’s coaching connections, Bill got an appointment last week at the Mayo Clinic, and they’re hoping the renowned hospital can help him get healthy again.
In fact, he’s only seen Brenda once in person in the past year and a half, at the Big Ten tournament three weeks ago in Indianapolis. Usually, Bill climbs the ladder himself to cut down a piece of the net. That wasn’t possible this year with COVID-19 protocols, so he asked Brenda to trim a piece for him. Instead, she climbed into the stands and hung the whole net around his neck, as tears ran down both their faces.
With all her siblings in the stands, it was the first Frese family reunion in almost two years. Brenda plans to return to Iowa after the season ends, with her family in tow, to soak up as much time with Bill as possible.
That net is now displayed on a shelf in Bill and Donna’s house that’s long been adorned with various Maryland mementos, including caps from different championships. Should Maryland win another regional final — or better yet, another national championship — Bill has space for more nets. He's rooting for her team to keep playing as long as possible.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when basketball is over,” Donna says.
Brenda knows others feel the same: “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘You’ve been our outlet this year, you’ve been our biggest inspiration. We don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have you guys to watch.’ ”
Sports, she says, have given both her family and her fanbase a sense of normalcy in a year that’s been anything but.
Do sports matter? Are they necessary?
For this family, and millions of others tuning into the NCAA tournaments this weekend, there's no doubt.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese finds joy amid heartache