He Was a Standout Ball Player at NKU, Then Went to UK, and is Now Facing His Toughest Challenge Yet
I remember when I first met Todd Svoboda. After all, you always remember getting your first autograph.
It was the winter of 1993 and I was 13 years old. I was in Lexington, ready to watch my beloved Kentucky Wildcats play a college basketball game.
I hadn’t exactly paid to get into the game. See, I was lucky. Because my aunt worked for the student newspaper at Kentucky, I was recruited to help pass out newspapers before the game. For my efforts I was able to get into the arena. I never had a seat, but hey, I was at the game.
When my distribution duties were finished I was able to roam freely, to watch the pre-game shoot-around and interact with all the Wildcat players I’d seen on TV. For that particular game I grabbed a large Wildcat sign so I could collect autographs, something I’d never done before.
With about 30 minutes still to go before game time, other Cats were out practicing their jumpers. But one player – a beefy, 6-foot-9 guy with a buzz cut and big smile – was talking to some fans. I knew who he was – I knew all the players on my favorite team.
I waited until he stopped chatting and asked if he’d autograph my sign.
“Sure, buddy,” he said.
Other names would be scrawled on that sign later. Jamal Mashburn. Tony Delk. Travis Ford.
But Todd Svoboda was the first. Later on I’d find out about his struggles, his achievements and just how great a guy Todd could be.
I remember when I first interviewed Todd. After all, you always remember writing your first book.
It was nearly 20 years later. I was a journalist, and through connections and luck I was able to write a book about Kentucky players and their favorite games.
Todd Svoboda was the first player I called. Not Mash. Not Louie Dampier. Not Kenny Walker. Those interviews would come later.
Why Todd? Maybe because I knew he had a great story. Maybe because he was a fan favorite.
Maybe because he gave me my first autograph. No matter. I wanted him in, so he was in. So I gave him a call and listened to his story. It was a bit like a movie.
He told me about growing up the son of a chemical engineer and going to Princeton High School in Cincinnati, about enrolling in a special engineering program at Northern Kentucky University and UK. He told me about how he excelled in basketball, and how he crossed paths with another area basketball luminary.
“He was my very first recruit,” said former NKU Head Basketball Coach Ken Shields. “I had just come from coaching high school to being hired at NKU, and we needed some players. I went through my first year with the previous coach’s recruits, so he was the first I recruited.”
Todd was a 6-9 center who could shoot and the pair bonded. He told Coach Shields about how his mother died from cancer when he was in high school. He told him how he wanted to become an engineer like his father, who also played tennis at Purdue (tragically, his father would succumb to cancer after Todd graduated from college).
“Todd was very precocious academically,” Shields said. “And we had a program for him at NKU.”
It was a 3-and-2 program, a partnership with Kentucky. In 1991-92, after three years, he averaged 18.1 points and 10.9 rebounds at NKU. The basketball program (then Division II) was on the rise, and Todd even won the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship in tennis, playing singles No. 5.
Todd could have gone into his senior year with a chance to rewrite NKU’s record books. He could’ve become the only basketball player in Norse history to finish his career with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. But academics took precedent. Todd had to leave to complete his chemical engineering degree – the final two years would take place at Kentucky.
(Photo from Bigbluehistory.net)
“It was very hard to see him go,” Shields said. Todd left NKU with career totals of 1,114 points and 770 rebounds.
The NKU program would go on to national prominence, finishing runner-up in the national tournament twice in the mid-’90s.
But in 1992, the question remained: What would Todd do? Kentucky had a loaded basketball team preparing for that season – one of the best on the planet. Todd wanted to be a part of it.
“There were two teams I followed when I was in high school,” Todd said. “UNLV and UK – I just loved that style.”
Years later, I would ask him similar questions for my book, and he explained that Shields wrote a letter to then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.
“I had never met Coach Pitino,” Shields said. “So I introduced myself and I told him that Todd would be coming to Kentucky that season. I told him how athletic he was, and I told him that I thought he could be a real asset to their basketball team.”
Pitino decided Todd could practice with the team, with the possibility to earn a walk-on role by that October. Todd practiced the entire time, never knowing if he would make it or not.
For months Todd worked with the team, going through NBA-like workouts, all the while knowing it may be for nothing. It lasted until just before the start of the season. Then, Pitino and the team congratulated him: He’d made it.
A group of high school and college All-Americans swarmed him, slapping him high-fives and patting him on the back. He was on the team – and he couldn’t have picked a better time. The Wildcats would go on to win 30 games, and Todd would have two unforgettable moments: one where he outscored future NBA star Allan Houston 4-3 in a win over Tennessee, and another where he hit a three-pointer at the very end of a blowout win over Florida State in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight round.
In his one season at UK, he was Final Four bound. The site was New Orleans, and there he saw a familiar face.
“I was able to see him there at the Final Four where all the coaches meet to watch the game,” Shields said. “We hugged and had a nice moment.”
So, you can see why I would want to feature Todd in my first book. He had a great story.
After the book was released in 2007, I asked several of the players involved if they would like to come out to a book signing with me in Lexington. This is always a tough sell, because I’m not paying them anything. It’s just a meet and greet for those players who want to interact with fans.
In short, two players said yes. Then, one of them backed out. The one who came? Todd Svoboda. He had become a chemical engineer working in Lexington and he brought his wife and children.
I brought my wife, and we found their family to be charming. We became closer, and talked ever so often. I told him I was interested in nominating him for NKU’s athletic hall of fame. He reminded me that he was a tennis champ, too.
I saw him again at UK’s alumni game in 2013. He yelled my name from across Rupp Arena and we shook hands. We chatted again and I couldn’t believe how much his daughter had grown. He had three kids by then, ages 15, 13 and 4.
By then we felt more like friends.
I remember when I first heard Todd had cancer. After all, you remember things like that when it happens to people you care about.
It was early June. UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart tweeted the news, and I was shocked. I emailed Todd to see how he was and he told me to call. I feared the worst.
At 42, he sounded tired when I rang. He told me he’d noticed a node on his knee back in February. It was osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer mostly found in teenagers or the elderly. It wasn’t hereditary; Todd said doctors told him it was just bad luck.
For the past several months he’s been in and out of chemotherapy at UK’s Markey Cancer Center. Pitino called to check on him, as have other friends and fans.
He had to have his knee replaced, he told me. And the worst part of it all was the severe nausea. Well, maybe not the very worst.
“I won’t play competitive tennis again,” he said. “But I can probably go and hit some, taking it easy.”
His treatment is working. Todd is once again fighting a hard battle and winning. He says he’s got a couple of rounds of chemo to go, then he’ll be in “surveillance mode” – basically making sure the cancer doesn’t come back.
“My faith has definitely helped me through this,” he said. “Leg is doing better. Still need to strengthen it more but I am getting around okay. I just walk a little slower than before. The thing I’ll miss the most is playing competitive tennis.”
This summer he was out and about in Lexington at a tennis tournament. Later on he traveled up to Cincinnati’s Coney Island with his family. There, he ran in to another old friend – his old NKU coach.
“I was sitting there with my family, and who walks up? Todd!” Shields said. “We got to visit again for a good while.”
So why did I want to tell this story? Maybe it was just for selfish reasons. Honestly, I just thought it needed to be told. It’s a Rudy-like story without an ending just yet. And with a few chemo sessions to go, Todd still needs a little something.
“Just tell all the fans out there – no matter who they cheer for – that I need your prayers,” he said. “And I thank them for that.”
Written by Ryan Clark. Originally published at KY Forward. For more from the "UK: Where Are They Now" series, click here