You probably don’t know that Cardinal Stritch has the No. 2-ranked men’s basketball team in the country in NAIA Division II. Or that it is coached by Drew Diener, of the Diener family out of Fond du Lac that has achieved so much at the high school and college basketball levels.
You’ve probably never caught a game at this small campus on Milwaukee’s northeast side known more for its nursing and higher education degrees than its basketball conquests. This is where the shadow of Wisconsin and Marquette college basketball always will be cast.
But to Ty Stacey, the little field house, smaller than some area high school gyms, is basketball heaven.
Perched on the edge of his motorized scooter, he doesn’t merely examine but deeply appreciates the pivoting feet, the ankles that flex and knees that bend.
“I fell in love with the game because it’s something I can’t do,” he said.
Cardinal Stritch is having a great season. It’s charging into the conference tournament Wednesday with a 27-3 record. The Wolves have depth, heart and talent. And a little voice that is constantly telling them to push harder.
That would be from Stacey, who by title is the team manager but in reality is the official hustle coach.
“We get yelled at all the time by Ty,” said shooting guard Tony Smit. “Just a little constructive criticism.”
To know how a young man with no coaching experience or any authority can still nudge his peers to play harder, all you need to do is meet the 21-year-old Stacey.
“If I feel like those guys aren’t hustling. It kind of offends me,” said Stacey.
He’s got a mop of tousled brown hair and eyes that are the deepest blue. He’s full of confidence and good-natured one-liners.
He also has spastic cerebral palsy.
The condition constricts his muscles, restricts his movement and pulls him inward when he is really meant to stretch out. Just getting out of a chair and into his scooter is an exercise. He can walk only for short distances. It sucks.
That’s why he gets on the guys so hard. In his eyes, it’s not just a rebound – it’s the honor of being able to get that rebound. It’s not just a sprint back on defense – it’s the glory of being able to sprint. These guys are privileged to be out of breath. Stacey reminds them of this at practice as well as at games.
How he ended up here to begin with is a journey. He tried a year at Carroll University and then a year at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh but never really felt like he was in the right spot. As soon as he got to Stritch last fall, he knew he was. The campus is interconnected such that he can travel from dorm to class to field house on his scooter without going outside and dealing with the Wisconsin weather that dominates a school year.
He’s a political science major thinking about applying to law school – if his dream doesn’t work out.
He wants to coach.
Cardinal Stritch basketball has changed Stacey’s outlook on his future. His sister and best friend, Karson, is a freshman on the women’s basketball team. He used to give her shooting tips back home on the driveway. Now he quizzes her on the offense. She had doubts she could manage class work with basketball in college, but he encouraged her and assured her she was capable.
“He makes me want to go to practice every day,” said Karson.
“She plays for me, kind of,” said Stacey, “and I live through her, kind of, in a basketball respect.”
Stacey first became a gym rat seven years ago when the basketball coach at Fond du Lac High School, Adam Zakos, suggested he be the team manager. He couldn’t do the laundry or haul equipment, but he could run the clock and get water.
“I had always loved basketball,” said Stacey. “I just never thought that door would be open to me.”
Being a Fond du Lac guy, Diener kept up on his old high school team. He has two players, Smit and Nick Ford, from there; and his father, Dick Diener, a Wisconsin high school hall of fame coach at Fond du Lac for more than 20 years, is his assistant coach. They all knew of Stacey’s work with the high school team. They had a brief meeting with the Stritch basketball team to welcome Stacey as their new manager this year and explain his situation.
“The chance coach gave to me really means the world to me,” said Stacey. “He didn’t have to do this. This can’t be the easiest thing to do. He knew who I was, but you never actually know what you have to deal with . . . until you actually deal with it.”
What Stacey meant, but did not say, is that everyone could have considered him a burden. Players or student manager Derek Woelffer need to carry him on and off the team bus. It is helpful when they are patient.
But what Stacey maybe doesn’t know is that the Stritch players seem to like giving an assist as much as they like making a basket. And they just see a fellow competitor anyway.
“Ty has the heart of a champion,” said Smit.
Stacey has had three major surgeries: at 8, 11 and 14 years old. The file on him at the doctor’s office is thicker than a Milwaukee and Waukesha phone book.
“They have pretty much broken all the bones in my lower extremities,” said Stacey. “My bones started to concave on each other, so they started to get crooked. When that happened my spine started to curve.
“It would be difficult for me to walk on my own because my spine is curved. It’s something you’ve got to deal with.”
Every surgery meant learning how to walk again. Karson remembers her older brother in a cast from the waist down and trying to imagine the unbearable pain. “Yet all you could see was how strong he was,” she said.
Stacey said the surgery to lengthen his hamstrings – a daylong process that involved cutting his muscles – left his own doctor in tears.
“He knew the gravity of the situation and what I was going to have to go through,” said Stacey. “But to me, it’s just all in the plan, you know? I know things like that seem like a major deal to other people – but I look around me.
“I’m lucky. There are people in my position who can’t talk. Can’t feed themselves. I’m not here to say it’s not difficult, because it is. It’s hard for me to be negative.”
That attitude, he said, comes from his parents, Mark and Dawn Stacey. Ty’s twin, Dylan, is hearing-impaired and he’s studying and pursuing his dream in golf course management.
“It’s not that they don’t feel bad, but they won’t let me be negative,” said Stacey, “because they realize it doesn’t do me any good.”
If his back were straight, Stacey would be about 6 feet 2 inches.
“I’ve got long arms, too. I’d be the perfect point guard,” he said, doing a terrible job concealing his grin.
But since he can’t play, he runs the clock at practice and the scoreboard at games. He’s not crazy about pouring cups of water for the guys but sees opportunity even there.
“When you come off the floor, you’re usually getting yelled at for something stupid,” said Stacey. “They get enough coaching there. I can be the guy at the end of the bench to say one nice thing.”
So when Isaac Quinn turned the ball over twice and missed a box-out in a game, he came to the end of the bench and looked at Stacey.
“And he was ready for me to yell at him,” said Stacey. “And all I said was, ‘I really like what you’re doing with your beard.’ “
Diener recognized the passion for the game in Stacey and decided to nurture the coach in him. He sends Stacey out with other assistants to recruit players. That also allows Stacey to begin networking, which is essential in the world of coaching.
He also asked for Stacey’s help in getting the team to rebound better on offense, a tired old topic to Diener but a critical element to his strategy to win.
“I was trying to find something that I could make his,” said Diener, a former high school All-American who went on to star at Saint Louis University.
Stacey hounds guys like Chad Mazur and Jeremy D’Amico to get after the rebound. The Wolves are out-rebounding their opponents by almost 11 a game.
“I truly believe he’s made us better,” said Diener. “He’s constantly a voice there. When he’s yelling at guys for not going to the glass, it’s hard for guys to turn around and say, ‘Get off my ass,’ you know?”
Stacey said if he is to coach one day, “I’m going to do it the right way.” That means practice starts on defense, rebounding is not an afterthought, passing is a requirement not a bailout and there are absolutely no excuses for not hustling. When Stacey watches bad basketball, he finds himself screaming at the TV.
Stacey is determined to get everyone to see him first – the smart student, the basketball fan, the loyal friend – and the scooter second.
And then to coach.
“Knowing him, I don’t think he’ll stop until he gets a coaching job,” said Karson. “He is not going to let his disability keep him from anything he wants to do.”