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Everday Heroes: NKU Basketball Player Fights Off Cancer

This article comes to RCN from partner KY Forward and is written by Steve Flairty.

As a kid joyfully playing the game of basketball in his hometown of Edwardsville, Ill., a St. Louis suburb, Dustin Maguire learned a couple of important things quite early. He learned how to properly shoot the ball, thanks to the coaching of his father, and the skill became his biggest asset.

“I wasn’t the most talented or athletic … but if I was open, I was going to make it,” said Maguire.

He also developed a hard-nosed way of playing the game and the credit there goes especially to his older brother, Derek, who played thousands of backyard one-on-one games against Dustin. “I idolized my older brother, who is now a police detective. We’re still close,” said Maguire. “He taught me how to compete. We were always butting heads together, but he made me better.”

His scoring talent led to high school and AAU hoops success, and he was named as a large-school all-state player in Illinois. This resulted in serious interest from numerous Division 1 colleges. He accepted a scholarship from St. Louis University, near home and where his father and brother could easily watch him play. That happened because he set down extremely tough practice standards for himself. “I had to transform myself from a ‘big guy’ post player to a guard who could shoot the ball.” The 6-foot, 5-inch Maguire did that with an over the top work ethic in high school, staying after practices and doing hundreds of extra shots. “I wanted to be the best I could from the time I was a very little kid,” he said.

The lessons from his father, brother and others along the way helped prepare him, however, for something much more significant than the rigors of playing basketball. The sudden deterioration of his health with the threat of his life being snuffed out in his early 20s was a true game changer.

The first bout with serious health issues came during his second season at Northern Kentucky University in 2009-10, the school where he transferred after leaving St. Louis when a coaching change took place. Maguire showcased his skills by an impressive season the year before at NKU when he averaged 15 points per game, scoring 33 points against Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in his first game, and leading the nation in free throw shooting percentage. He was named as a pre-season All-American by The Sporting News, and it appeared he was on his way to accomplishing big things in his chosen sport—in college and possibly professionally. But stuff happens…

He played only the first eight games his second year year at NKU when something of serious concern appeared unexpectedly. “I started having great pain and got a lump down in my groin area,” he said. “It was awful.” After seeing a urologist and hearing the diagnosis, the emotional pain was even more intense than the physical. Dustin Maguire had testicular cancer. He would need surgery, along with chemotherapy. He was devastated, maybe for the first time ever. “Time just stopped,” he recalled. “Everything was roses before that. The idea was hard to take. I was big and strong and only 22. I thought I was Superman.”

Maguire had his left testicle removed and received chemo treatments. The doctors told him the surgery and treatments were successful, that he would need recuperation time, and also warned him of the small possibility that the cancer might reappear. He also was told he could resume his basketball playing after he recuperated.

He had been given a reprieve from a terrible sentence, or so he thought.

Maguire got back on the court, but then a nagging and painful bulging disc in his back, not related to the cancer, became an injury he tried to play through. Maguire found it patently undoable, despite his best efforts. He badly wanted to play professional ball after college, even if it was in Europe. “It was all about getting back on the court (for me),” said Maguire, “but it was foolish pride. I’d go to class, practice (basketball), then go lay in bed all day.”

His coach at NKU, Dave Bezold, became highly concerned with Maguire’s physical condition and encouraged him to think about a life not playing ball, to consider normal, daily issues of happiness and being healthy. Maguire began to come to that acceptance, too, and soon decided to “retire” the ball-playing aspect of life. “Coach Bezold let me keep my scholarship even when I couldn’t play,” he said. “A lot of college coaches see players as replaceable chess pieces. But Coach Beez was behind me a hundred percent.”

The bulging disc issues after the initial cancer surgery and not being on the ball court were huge, but they soon became secondary. What Maguire hoped wouldn’t happen did happen. The cancer came back. Stuff happens…

“I was told there was a small chance it could come back,” he said. “I began having night sweats, and…” By the time the official bad news came, Maguire was already using his time away from basketball quite wisely. He had enrolled in NKU’s Chase Law School—and was still on scholarship. Typical of him, he worked hard, strived continually for excellence and was successful. But law school, along with being around the NKU team, would have to be put aside for a while. He went back to Edwardsville to be treated and to do some reflective thought.

Maguire lost his hair and gained lots of weight. “It was a very tough time for me mentally as well as physically,” he said. “I was used to getting smiles and nods from people, especially as I walked around campus.” That part continued, but now the looks came for “a completely different reason. I was completely bald and had no eyebrows,” he said. “What a humbling experience that was.” He remembered, also, seeing a television news piece about him back in the St. Louis area during that period. “I tried to never feel sorry for myself during the whole process, but that night, I stayed up the whole night crying,” said Maguire. “That was the low point of the entire experience.”

But for Maguire the frustration didn’t get him down indefinitely. He’d learned too many positive life lessons from people like his father and brother. His objectives, though challenged often with the “What is the purpose of this?” question, were to meet each experience with confidence, to do the work that needs to be done to get better—even when part of that is the chemotherapy. “You have to be mentally tough and just knock off each day of the calendar (of the chemo treatments),” he said, “and go with that focus every day.”

He also gained a new understanding about his life, encouraged by his coach at NKU. “As I get older, I see that sports aren’t everything,” said Maguire.

Coach Bezold remarked that Dustin’s teammates, when thinking of their own tough times, “realized he had it a whole lot tougher, and they could see how he had lost his hair and had a bloated face. Made them think they had it pretty good.” Bezold said, too, that Maguire “was the one person I knew that if these health challenges came, could handle because of his mental toughness.”

Mike Maguire, Dustin’s father, noted that his son’s example to him was monumental. “From the time of his original cancer diagnosis, through his treatment and cure, he was so strong and brave. He actually comforted me! I have looked at life differently since,” Mike said.

Today, Dustin Maguire says he is “happy to be without cancer and without pain.” He is back in law school at NKU and planning to graduate in 2014. He also serves as a graduate assistant coach for the NKU men’s basketball program. The future looks bright for the personable Maguire, with a career in law or even the possibility of full-time coaching or “whatever passion I develop,” he said. One thing is for sure. He will focus on being the best he can be and will work extra hard, day by day, to fulfill his goals. He is a gamer, for sure.

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes” series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3,” due to be released in December 2012. Contact Steve at [email protected] or “friend” him on Facebook.

PHOTO: Dustin Maguire