Kevin Massey, who is Kentucky basketball’s newest student manager, has been on a transcendent journey – a journey which has taken him from death’s door, after the discovery of a tumor on his brain stem on Feb. 7, 2010, all the way to UK’s campus, where he now finds himself an integral part of the Wildcat family.
His journey began like an unwelcome lightning bolt from the heavens, as Kevin, then a 16-year old, three-sport sophomore Indianapolis’ Franklin Central High School, was stricken with a nightmare scenario.
“I was playing basketball and I noticed my shot was really off, so I told mom I needed to go to the doctor,” Kevin said. “So we went and everything checked out fine. Then two days later I woke up and couldn’t walk.”
After first seeing Kevin that fateful morning, his mother Ruth knew all was not right with her son.
“The minute I saw him I knew something bad was wrong,” Ruth said. “He actually looked like a stroke patient. His face was drooping and the whole right side of his body was weak. You could tell he was struggling to walk and use his (right) leg. So we went to the emergency room. They got him right back, and the doctor came in and said his CAT scan looked fine, and that they would do an MRI the next day, but that they didn’t see any tumors or brain hemorrhage.”
Relief crept into the Massey’s psyche as Ruth’s worst-case scenario seemingly did not play out.
“I remember, distinctly, getting on the elevator and thinking, thank God it’s not a brain tumor or brain hemorrhage because that’s what I was really worried about,” Ruth said.
Cruelly, the relief the Massey family felt would be short-lived. The next day, the doctors performed an MRI and found a tumor on the brain.
“I asked (the doctor) to show me a picture of it because I have some medical background, so I wanted to see what they saw,” Ruth said. “The minute I saw it, I knew right away it was really, really bad.”
Like any mother who has just seen something so horribly frightening, Ruth reacted emotionally.
“I lost it,” Ruth said. “I would have to say that was the only time I went and screamed and cried … cried like a baby.”
It is just after this point in Kevin’s journey that Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari heard, via an old coaching friend, about the teenage UK fan living in Indianapolis who was dealt one of the most cruel hands imaginable.
“Within two days Coach Cal made his way to Indy and sat with us and prayed with us for a while,” Ruth said. “He talked to Kevin and it was very, very neat. We all cried like babies that day, too.”
After Cal’s initial visit to see and support the Massey family, more bad news came, tearing at the seams of their sanity.
“The very next day (after Cal’s visit) is when Kevin had the massive brain bleed in the brain stem, and we were given the talk by the doctors (that this might be the end for Kevin),” Ruth said. “He had lost the ability to swallow and was moved to the ICU. They did another MRI and found he had a massive brain bleed in the Pons (among other functions, the Pons section of the brain is responsible for relaying sensory information between the cerebrum and cerebellum).
“They called us into the room and said, ‘Kevin has about 24-hours (to live), there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do. Let’s give it a couple of days and then you guys will have to make the decision to turn off his life support.’”
Ruth desperately searched the doctor’s face for signs of hope, but the Masseys were instead met with what the doctors described as the reality of this most dire situation.
“The doctors said if he does (survive) he’s not going to be anything besides a vegetable,” Ruth said. “They said, ‘He’s not going to know who you are or speak to you or anything. With his type of cancer, the best-case prognosis was maybe (he would live) nine months,’ but with his brain bleed on top of that, they said there wasn’t much hope of anything. But Kevin proved that wrong.”
Kevin, lying on what was supposed to be his death bed, continued to fight and persevere, and after 45 days in the hospital he was released to go home.
“When he came home from the hospital, I honestly think they sent him home to pass away,” Ruth said. “Kevin couldn’t hold his head up, he couldn’t stand at all, he weighed 100 pounds and couldn’t talk. He was really an infant in a 16-year-old’s body.”
Live, though, is what Kevin did. Through the tremendous support of his family, friends and the on-going monitoring and caring shown by his idol, Coach Cal, Kevin fought to get better.
Although hundreds, if not thousands of people, including a very large portion of the Big Blue Nation, have aided and abetted in Kevin’s slow-but-sure improvement through their notes and calls of support to the Massey family, it is Calipari’s visits which have been key to motivating Kevin to overcome what many considered a death blow.
“I don’t know if Kevin would be doing as well as he is if it wasn’t for Coach Calipari,” Ruth said. “Kevin has been a die-hard UK fan forever, and just to have Coach Cal come in and say, ‘Kevin, you know, I’m just a dad too, and I really care about you and I want you to do well.’ ”
Kevin began doing so well that he was eventually allowed to return to high school, a step of monumental proportions on his road to recovery. And it was on a visit to Kevin’s school that Calipari offered him an opportunity most teenage Big Blue fans only dream about.
“(Coach Cal) came to Kevin’s school and said, ‘Kevin, if you do well in school, and you graduate, you will become a manager on my team,’ ” Ruth said. “From that day forward Kevin got a whole new outlook on things, like yeah, I really can do that.”
Said Kevin: “He gives me something to strive for. No matter how successful he gets, he doesn’t stop caring about other people. In my life he gives me the goals to shoot for to help me to get better.”
Ruth takes Kevin’s kind words about Coach Cal for herself, as she also gives great credit to Calipari for motivating her son to recover.
“I don’t think Kevin would be here, here on earth, I mean, without Calipari,” Ruth said.
As Kevin continued to defy the doctor’s gloom-and-doom prognosis, the Massey family was faced with the reality of whether it was best for their son to go to college in Lexington, two-and-a-half hours away from their hometown of Indianapolis, or would it be wiser to find a suitable university closer to home.
Ball State, just 45 minutes from the Masseys home, was ranked the No. 1 disability school in Indiana. Ruth felt like the short drive would give Kevin independence while also keeping him close by in case something happened.
Kevin, though, resisted attending any school other than Kentucky.
“Kevin believed in his heart that (UK is) where he needed to be,” Ruth said. “He prayed on it more trying to figure it out.”
The talk of attending Ball State quickly subsided, though, as Ruth received an unexpected letter from the school.
“He got a rejection letter from Ball State,” Ruth said. “I held onto that and didn’t show Kevin, but we hadn’t heard back from UK about whether he would get in or not. Within a couple of days, though, we got a phone call from the (UK) admissions office and (they said) ‘Kevin is in.’ ”
Ruth wanted to keep the wonderful news a secret from Kevin, at least until the time and situation was right. Not much later, the Masseys loaded up their vehicle and drove southeast to Lexington.
Finding out Kevin was accepted to UK happened “right before spring break,” Ruth said. “So we brought him down here (to UK) and I wrote on a piece of paper for him to see, ‘Kevin, congratulations, you are a new member of the University of Kentucky.’ ”
Obviously, Kevin was ecstatic about the news of his dream coming true. It was a battle won.
“At first I was in tears, I really couldn’t think at all,” Kevin said. “It was like, oh my gosh, I finally did it, I’m really going to do this. I was so excited I was tired for two days.”
The Massey family is now content to know their son, a boy who has overcome so much, is landing exactly where he needs to be.
“Now, I’m just trying not to be selfish and want him with me all the time,” Ruth said. “I need to let him go on his own. You know God has a plan, he was meant to be here.”
Removing any lingering doubts that may have been present about Kevin being so far away from home was the Massey’s’ recent visit to UK for freshman orientation.
“We came down and met with coach (John) Robic — Coach Cal was out of town — and he was just like Kevin’s dad,” Ruth said. “He said, ‘No. 1, you have to do well in school, and then be a manager.’ He said, ‘You have to make sure you’ve got your grades right and work hard (in the classroom).’ And then he brought him over here (to Kevin’s future dorm room) just like a father bringing a son, taking measurements of the room and making sure everything is right.”
In Kevin’s role as a Wildcat team manager, he isn’t looking for preferential treatment. He just wants to be one of the guys.
“I don’t want them to treat me any different than a normal manager, but if they do that’s fine,” Kevin said. “I’m still going to try to do everything I can.”
Suffice it to say, the “everything” Kevin can do is limitless. He has battled back from an adversity very few ever conquer, and putting limits on him is risky business.
“He’s got a lot of muscle tone back in his body, and he weighs about 200 pounds (up from 100 pounds only a year ago),” Ruth said. “You keep telling him whatever he can’t do, and he’s gonna do it.”
Like many teenagers who grew up rooting for the Cats, Kevin can’t wait to get started in his managerial duties because he’ll be right where he likes it, in the middle of the Big Blue action.
“I’ll feel like I’m one with the team,” Kevin said. “Every time I go into Coach Cal’s office in the Joe Craft Center, my eyes get real big and I am real excited to be there.”
Although it is Kentucky fans who should be thankful that the Massey’s have shared their spectacular son with the Big Blue Nation, it is Ruth who thanks UK fans for supporting Kevin through its prayers and words of encouragement over the last two years.
“I personally would love to thank the (UK fans) for their prayers and their well-wishes and everything,” Ruth said. “The support that we feel when we’re down here makes me feel a lot better about leaving my baby boy here, and it allows me to be able to be two-and-a-half hours away and know that if I needed somebody, I could call any one of 100 people that I’ve never met before and they would be there to help him. Saying thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but really, thank you.”
Article written for coachcal.com by Ken Howlett