This story starts in 1997. I was sitting in the St. Louis airport, waiting for a flight to Fort Wayne. At the time, American Eagle had those small propeller airplanes for non-stop service between St. Louis and Fort Wayne. Multiple flights were loading from the same gate at the same time, and the PA system was poor. I noticed that the gentleman sitting next to me listened closely when Fort Wayne was part of the announcement, so I asked him if he was going to Fort Wayne. Indeed, we would be on the same flight, so I told him that I’d keep an eye on him because the announcements were challenging to understand.
Then, I noticed that he was drawing up basketball plays.
Are you a basketball coach? I asked.
Yes, I am.
I coach basketball, too ... middle school ...
Ah ... that’s the fun age working with kids.
Where do you coach?
Southwest Missouri State.
At this point, I looked at the gentleman next to me with a new curiosity. Are you Steve Alford? Yes! I had just met one of the most famous Indiana basketball figures. He was travelling to a speaking engagement in Fort Wayne.
At the same time, Abbie Kleber lived down the street and was one of the girls on the team I was coaching. She was our point guard on a good team that came just short of the CYO championship.
A few years later, Abbie was battling anorexia. We visited her in the hospital and I was shocked by the effects of the disease. Abbie was admitted into a special treatment program at the University of Iowa hospital. I wanted to do something to help, and I knew that Alford was then the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes.
I wrote a letter to Alford, reminding him of our brief meeting in St. Louis and asking him to reach out to Abbie. Alford called Abbie at the hospital, giving her words of encouragement. That a great shot in the arm for Abbie.
Abbie made progress fighting the disease but had to return to the University of Iowa hospital the following year. Luke Recker, the standout player at DeKalb High School, was now on the Hawkeye basketball team, so I sent him a letter with a similar request to contact Abbie. A few days later, Maggie, Abbie’s mother, was surprised to see a familiar looking 6’6 gentleman walk into the hospital and even more surprised when he asked to see Abbie. Luke spent 30 minutes talking basketball with Abbie and motivating her to fight through the challenges of anorexia.
Abbie recovered to play varsity basketball at Bishop Dwenger High School. She graduated from IPFW with a degree in psychology, medicine and Spanish and is now at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
She will receive her medical degree later this year.
But there is more to this story. Back in 1997, I was the assistant coach to Conrad Cierniak, as we volunteered our time at St. Charles School. We coached teams that included our daughters and my son over several years. Our children and basketball combined to build a friendship between the Peters and the Cierniaks that continues today.
Sadly however, in December 2009, Conrad lost his battle to prostate cancer at the age of 54.
In 2011, we held the first Conrad Cierniak Memorial, a golf outing and silent auction to raise money for cancer research. I decided to reach out to Alford one more time. I sent the coach an email, reminding him of the events over the last 15 years and asking him for an autographed basketball from the University of New Mexico Lobos. Two days later, I received a response, Hi, Rex. The basketball is in the mail. We greatly appreciate the support from across the country from Hoosiers such as Steve Alford.
In the first two years of the Conrad Cierniak Memorial, we have raised $21,000 on behalf of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. Dr. Noah Hahn, at the IU School of Medicine, has reported on significant recent progress in distinguishing clinically aggressive lethal prostate cancer. It is rewarding that our local efforts are contributing to progress at a leading medical research organization to fight this disease.
The 2013 Conrad Cierniak Memorial Outing is scheduled for Sept. 8 at Chestnut Hills Golf Course. If you would like to contribute in any way, contact either Patti Cierniak at 2108 White Plains Court, Fort Wayne, IN 46815 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Rex Peters at email@example.com.