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Putting the 'will' in Williamsport

Graff's drive to coachs slows serious illness

Graff's drive to coachs slows serious illness

December 05, 2003|by DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT - Another preseason practice has ended, and Curtis Graff is wheeling basketballs off the Williamsport High School gym floor. Before he heads home, he'll gather practice jerseys and wash them so his team has clean uniforms for the next day.

"It's something that, if you like (coaching), you take it on," Graff said. "I don't have to wash their jerseys, but I do because I like what I do. It's all about the kids."

Those last five words are echoed by thousands of coaches in every corner of America, but when Graff says them, you can be sure he isn't taking those words for granted. Not after this time last year, when instead of leading Williamsport's girls basketball team to battle, he was in the middle of his own battle for life.

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Graff has a very rare form of autoimmune disease - a treatable but not curable condition with which his immune system mistakenly attacks itself and leaves him vulnerable to other health problems.

"The doctors said, 'We've never seen anyone like you before,'" Graff said. "I will have autoimmune disease until I die. It's in remission right now, and I hope it stays there."

From the middle of 2002 until early in 2003, the disease was at its worst, ravaging Graff's body and leaving him weak from both laryngitis and kidney failure. Graff's life bounced back and forth from home to the hospital - and nearly ended twice.

To be sure, Graff wouldn't be alive without the support of his wife, children, family and more well-wishers than he ever expected ("I have a book of cards this thick," Graff said, holding his hands about a foot apart). But he also believes that without the desire to coach, he also wouldn't be here.

"When you're laying in a hospital bed or at home, and you can't be a part of that, but there's a hope that you can be (again), that's what kept me young," Graff said. "I had some bad days, and the thought of (coaching) kept me going.

"Family is always there, too, and you know you have those people. But there's more to life than family, there's something to knowing you achieved something and made an impact on people, and (coaching) is what that is for me. ... Kids do that for you, they make you want to give more to them."

With his wife's blessing and his health stable, Graff has returned to the practice courts with a new dedication to help his players reach their potential, on and off the court.

"There is that in me, that part that yes, I want to win," Graff said. "But I don't talk to them about that too much. We talk about not only how to be better basketball players, but better people. ... I think that's part of my job. I think if we do that, the wins take care of themselves."

"He really, really enjoys what he does, coaching and working with kids," said Williamsport senior Staci Grabill, one of four players who played for Graff two years ago. "He likes taking his basketball background and helping us with it."

Graff turned 58 on Monday, and after what he called "a terrible practice," he was given another reminder of what truly matters.

"My wife made cupcakes for the girls," Graff said. "She told them it was my birthday, and they came over and sang "Happy Birthday." After that, it didn't matter that practice was terrible."

After 34 years coaching basketball and track at Williamsport, where he has also served as athletic director, Graff has a new view of life - both his as well as others.

"It does give you a different perspective on how things can affect people. You always think you care for people, but this is a different perspective. I think you care even more. It's hard to describe. ... You're more like a parent. You want them to succeed even more than you did before."

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