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Big John--still in the hearts of many

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Lisa Salberg Find out more about Lisa Salberg
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  • Big John--still in the hearts of many

    Lawrence North wants it 'for Big John'
    Death of Wildcats' Stewart 5 years ago provides extra incentive for coach, players.

    The wife of Lawrence North basketball coach Jack Keefer (pictured) says she thinks he repressed his feelings after John Stewart's death in 1999 as he helped others deal with the loss. -- Robert Scheer / The Star


    By Pat McKee
    March 26, 2004

    In the middle of a postgame celebration Saturday, Jack Keefer experienced a flashback on the Bedford North Lawrence High School gym floor.

    While euphoric players and fans swirled around the Lawrence North boys basketball coach following the Wildcats' 63-54 semistate victory over Bloomington North, Keefer suddenly was so choked up he couldn't speak.

    All he could think about was an evening five years ago in Columbus, Ind. It was the night John Stewart, a senior who led the 1999 Wildcats to a favorite's role in the Class 4A tournament, died.

    "We missed out then," Keefer finally uttered, his eyes filled with tears. "But these kids, even though it's been five years and they don't have a direct link to that team, they're trying to make their coach happy."

    Current seniors Joe Ash, Anthony Sargent and Stefan Routt, who have helped No. 1 Lawrence North (28-2) to Saturday's 4A state championship game against No. 6 Columbia City (25-3) at Conseco Fieldhouse, were seventh-graders when Stewart died.

    They remember interacting with Stewart, a 7-foot, 275-pound University of Kentucky recruit, the way many youngsters do now with 7-foot sophomore Greg Oden.

    "I remember going to the Keefer Basketball Camp for kids, and every kid wanted to go to that camp just to be around him," Ash said of Stewart, who collapsed during a regional game against Bloomington South and died of a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

    "Everybody knew him because he was such a star, but I had gotten to know him because he and my brother (Jeremy) were friends. I remember how he'd pick me up and throw me around and stuff. He was a big-hearted person. Everyone always felt warm around him."

    Sargent was at the regional game five years ago, a game that was stopped in the third quarter when Stewart collapsed at 7:01 p.m. on March 12, 1999. Medical personnel at the scene did what they could, and Stewart was taken away by ambulance.

    After the Wildcats requested a resumption of play following a 32-minute delay, No. 1 Bloomington South edged No. 2 Lawrence North 55-50 in overtime. After the game, Keefer and his team learned Stewart had died.

    "We talked about what happened during this year's regional," Sargent said. "I can't explain it all, but we all came out real hard that day. We wanted to do it (win) for Big John."

    Routt recalled the shock of five years ago. Although team members know of Stewart's death, it is not something on which the players have dwelled.

    "Coach wants us to focus on what we need to do rather than play for emotional reasons," Routt said. "But it does give us a bigger incentive."

    Jan Keefer, the coach's wife, understands why her husband is emotional about Stewart.

    "I think Jack repressed his own feelings," she said. "At the time, he was there for the kids, for the parents and for the school community. He helped everyone through it, but he never has taken the time for himself to get through this.

    "While winning (a championship) now doesn't bring John back -- nothing can ever completely heal that wound -- it helps, helps in some way. Although it sounds corny, Jack looks at his program as more than a series of teams. They are a program, and every team and every kid are connected."

    That explains why Chris Hill, the current Michigan State junior and a Lawrence North sophomore in 1999, called his ex-coach on March 12 to ask what was being done to observe the five-year anniversary of Stewart's death. And that explains Keefer's mix of emotions when outsiders last week might have expected nothing but joy.

    "The way I look at it," Keefer said, "is we owe Big John one."
    Knowledge is power ... Stay informed!
    YOU can make a difference - all you have to do is try!

    Dx age 12 current age 46 and counting!
    lost: 5 family members to HCM (SCD, Stroke, CHF)
    Others diagnosed living with HCM (or gene +) include - daughter, niece, nephew, cousin, sister and many many friends!
    Therapy - ICD (implanted 97, 01, 04 and 11, medication
    Currently not obstructed
    Complications - unnecessary pacemaker and stroke (unrelated to each other)

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