Sunday, August 12, 2018

The high school basketball coach and the dentist. Separated by 30 years and 1,000 miles

This memory popped into my head today while on a bike ride.  I am training for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI this October representing the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training.  My mom passed away in May 2017 of Leukemia.  I am funding a research portfolio to cure blood cancers that takes lives without apology.

A few years ago, I read a book by John Wooden titled, A Game Plan for Life, the Power of Mentoring.  The first half of the book profiles seven people that mentored him in his life and the second half of the book contains essays from seven people that he mentored.  Great book!

I am a basketball fanatic.  I love all kinds of basketball - high school, college, pro, men's, women's, you name it, I love it.

I played high school basketball at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL.  I was a one of the top players on my teams in 8th grade up through sophomore year. Then I became average at best.  I stopped growing at 6'2" and it became harder to compete.  A game that came very easy to me, now became extremely difficult.  the story I told myself.  As I moved to the varsity team, I didn't have the work ethic that was required for me to be the best.  I had many other interests that seemed much easier at the time than basketball- girls, partying, music, etc.  My parents were getting a divorce at that time and I was acting out as a typical teenager.

Varsity photo (1986)

I never played college ball.  In fact, I didn't pick up the ball again until late into my college years. I loved watching the game, but had no interest in ever playing again.

As I read this book, I thought about my coach Ken Sartini (Sar) and how much of an impacted  he had on me; realizing this 30 years later!

I decided to try to find him.  I did an internet search and quickly found him on a basketball coaching website.  I filled out the contact form.  He replied immediately.  (see below)

We reconnected the next time I went to Chicago ( I live in Denver, CO).  I took him to dinner and we talked for hours.  We each shared all the highlights and lowlights in our lives. We reminisced about my high school years and the years beyond, his coaching tenure, his retirement, etc.  After retirement, he befriended an adolescent that he "coached" in life.  He had no kids of his own.  It seemed like this kid brought him so much happiness.

Though I never fully realized my basketball skills on the court, the lessons he taught me were present in every part of my life - work hard, focus on the details, focus on the fundamentals,  the power of team,  interdependence, sacrifice, being straight with my dialog to others, trust the process...I can go on and on.

We stayed in touch.  He gave me advice on bow to be a better dad to my son who was really into basketball at the time. We both agreed that it wasn't in his or my best interest to be his coach.

 We exchanged communications either email, text or spoke regularly for the next two years.

One day, I heard through the grapevine, that he was sick- very sick.  He had Leukemia.  I told him he could beat it.  He was a tough SOB.

He said, it didn't look good.

I asked some specific questions, but got no answer.  A few months later, I got a call from his partner. He was in hospice and didn't have much time.  He was in and out of a coma.  I asked her to put the phone to his ear.  I took this opportunity to thank him one last time - for everything in high school, to the lessons he was teaching me today.  She said he smiled as I spoke.

He passed the next day.

So glad we reconnected and rekindled our relationship.  It was extremely special to both of us.

I have a visual of Coach Sar giving the Big Guy upstairs pointers on how to properly execute a bounce pass...


I am competing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii this October representing the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. 

To donate to my quest to cure blood related cancers, please follow this link:

I am sober, a husband, father, dentist, advocate, endurance athlete, speaker, writer, leader and follower.  My blog - If you like it, please follow me on my adventures. If you love it, please share! If you hate it, thanks for reading. It's not for everyone...

Our original email exchange. 

Message for: KenSartini
January 28, 2013

Coach Sartini,

Not sure if you remember me....Brett Kessler, Maine East HS Class of 1986.   I was thinking about my experiences playing for you in the "good old days"  and I was hoping to catch up at some point. 

I live in Denver, CO - married with 4 kids.  I am a dentist in practice for 18 years.  My 10 year old son is a huge basketball player/fan.  I find myself teaching him the lessons that were taught to me by you!  What a gift it is to watch him grow and to watch his love for the sport grow.  

I want to thank you for giving me all you gave.  As I look back, I am realizing that the lessons that I learned while playing for you have been invaluable to me in my life.  

I may not have been your best player.  I may not have had the best attitude, and probably as a result didn't meet my potential on the court.   

Over the years, I have made mistakes; some big, some little.  But just like in the game, I always found that by consistently working the fundamentals, great things have always been right around the corner for me.  You were always a stickler for the fundamentals! 

I am VP of the Colorado Dental Association, I do leadership presentations around the country trying to inspire my colleagues to live their best life possible.  Here is a link to my blog.  This particular one I think you will find it is pretty cool.

I plan to travel to Chicago this March for a meeting.  Not sure where you are living these days.  My email is  My cell is 720-989-7960.  If you are around, I would love to catch up!

Brett Kessler

Hi Brett -
I sure do remember you..... you were a good kid! Trying to think back about your team.... no really great players (?) but a lot of good ones that played together.... that I was a stickler for! 
 I am so glad that you are so successful now... Being a dentist can be a tough job... knowing that you inflict pain sometimes.  A nice family, 4 kids, wow, I sure am getting old.
Your 10 year old is a basketball junkie.... that's great!!  Bball is a great sport.. glad to hear that he is into it big time.  IF there is anything I can do to help, just give me a yell.  I write for two sites... Breakthrough Basketball and I have a lot of the stuff we ran on Coaches Clipboard... I think that these are the two best sites out there.  10 years old, a good age, just wait for the teenage years  ha ha ... that all changes... but, IF you have taught good values... he will turn out to be just like you and your wife. 
By the way, I think I am a "Dukie" too..... I think Coach K does a great job and runs a  clean program. Duke looks like a great place to send your son to school, player or not.   NO, Coach K is  not a Saint but I sure wasn't either.  Chris Collins, an assistant coach played at Glenbrook North,  he was a good kid and a darn good high school player.
As I was reading this I cant tell you how much it means to me to hear from you..  I'm glad that I made a positive influence in your life and that you took the time to tell me.  I don't remember you as having a bad attitude... I know that I was tough to play for... pretty demanding I guess....heck,  I know!  I always felt like I got the best out of my players and that they played hard for me.
I think I was tough on fundamentals.. learned that in my first year  from Don Presern, football/wrestling coach when I came to East in '75.
I would love to see you again... I live in Arlington Heights so I'm sure that we can find a day to meet for lunch or dinner.  My cell # is -
Take care and stay in touch,

I am sober, a husband, father, dentist, advocate, endurance athlete, speaker, writer, leader and follower. The blog -  If you like it, please follow me on my adventures. If you love it, please share! If you hate it, thanks for reading. It's not for everyone...

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