Gibbons' Mullis faces a tough foe in fight for his life 'I'VE NEVER ASKED, WHY ME?'

August 18, 1994|By Derek Toney | Derek Toney,Contributing Writer

On a recent summer evening, Ray Mullis could be found at Madison Square Recreation Center, watching his Cardinal Gibbons basketball team play in a summer league game.

He was just a spectator this night, sitting in the stands, not on the sidelines talking about half-court offenses or defensive switches. But he's certainly logged more than his share of time on the bench -- 957 games coached in 30 years at Gibbons.

After the game, each Gibbons player went to shake Mullis' hand. He gave each a word of encouragement.

You'd think maybe he could use a few encouraging words himself.

Last month, Mullis discovered he has pancreatic cancer.

But there is no bitterness or sadness in his gravelly voice. With hundreds of prayers and best wishes from friends, former players and coaches, he said he feels fortunate.

"I don't look at the bleak side. Things happen in life," he said. "I'm more fortunate than a lot of people. We could be in Rwanda or fighting for life in the Middle East. I've been blessed, and I've never asked the question, 'Why me?' "

Mullis, 59, was going through a normally busy off-season earlier this summer when he realized something was wrong. He hadn't felt well for most of the spring, but he still went to Honesdale, Pa., in June for his 14th year at the prestigious Five-Star Camp.

Mullis returned to Baltimore, feeling sluggish and lacking an appetite. He stepped on a scale and realized he'd lost 20 pounds from his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame in a month.

Mullis entered St. Agnes Hospital, located across the street from Cardinal Gibbons, for two weeks of testing. Then, on July 5, he learned that he had cancer.

"My first thought was at least I know what is wrong with me," Mullis said with a smile. "My second thought was, 'What do I do next? How can I beat this thing?' "

Doctors have told Mullis that his prognosis isn't very favorable, but that hasn't stopped him from fighting the disease.

Mullis' daily routine includes walking and reading books about his condition, and he has begun chemotherapy. Some days are better than others, he says.

"Cancer doesn't scare me. It's bothersome, but it doesn't scare me," he said. "I just want to be treated like I've always been treated."

Mullis has regained some of the weight he had lost when he first fell ill. A catheter in his left arm passes drugs into his body.

Mike Dahlem, Mullis' longtime assistant, said: "He's a fighter, and anyone who knows him knows he's aggressive by nature. His toughness and spirit is a great trait."

In addition to his family -- his wife, Mary, three children and three grandchildren -- Mullis has received support from many of those he has touched in his coaching career.

He's heard from Quintin Dailey, the Gibbons star who went on to an NBA career. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has called. So have Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, Seton Hall's George Blaney and Xavier's Skip Prosser, formerly of Loyola. John Calipari of Massachusetts visited Mullis at his home.

"For the two to three hours that I was there, we laughed 99 percent of the time," said Calipari, who has known Mullis for more than 10 years. "Some guys light up a room when he walks in, and Ray has that ability. He's just a fun person to be around."

Steve Wojciechowski, a 1994 Gibbons graduate headed to Duke, said: "It's hard, anytime somebody you care about is sick. . . . And I'll be gone soon, so it'll be even tougher losing the constant contact with him. He just wants me to pray for him, so I'll pray for him."

Gibbons begins practice for the 1994-95 season Nov. 1. Mullis plans to be there. A whistle around his neck. With the enthusiasm he had for that first practice in 1964. That was 612 victories ago, a total that ranks him as the state's second-winningest coach behind DeMatha's Morgan Wootten.

"I feel that I've been very, very blessed to be able to do what I always wanted to do all along for 30 years at Gibbons," he said. "So many good friends and the players. Not just the great ones, but they all are great kids. We have an awful lot of super kids.

"If life ends tomorrow for me, I have been very fortunate. I've had a full life. I've been able to do what I've always wanted to do, and, fortunately, I was able to do it at a great place, Gibbons."

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