DANVILLE — Those who have spent enough time around Brian Barber can recognize he’s in the room without even seeing him.
That laugh. It starts off slowly then picks up in volume when he’s particularly struck by something humorous. And it was missing from Danville’s basketball practices — though Barber’s practices aren’t usually a laughing matter — at the beginning of this basketball season.
The veteran Danville coach was hospitalized for two weeks after what was supposed to be routine hernia surgery on Oct. 21. Doctors discovered his spleen had been nicked during surgery, he said, leading to severe internal bleeding. Barber, 46, was in intensive care for four days, breathing with a ventilator, following two more surgeries to repair the damage.
“I told my dad and brother in the recovery room (after the first surgery) that I wasn’t feeling well and I just dropped like a sack of potatoes,” Barber said. “They rushed me off and I ended up having three surgeries in two days. It ended up taking a six-hour operation on the third surgery to get the bleeding stopped.”
Barber spent the next six weeks recovering at home and eventually returned to his teaching role. He slowly worked his way back to watching basketball practice, but turned over control of the team to a veteran group of assistant coaches, led by Mark Artman, Rick Foster, Todd Hanni and Matt Stewart.
Artman, who has been on staff since Barber’s first year in 1999-2000, coached the Warriors to a 5-0 start. Barber returned to coach his first game on Dec. 27, a 68-61 double overtime win over Henryville in the Jeffersonville tournament. Danville went on to win three more games in Jeffersonville, including 56-55 over Cathedral in the championship.
“The pressure was on,” Barber said. “I thought they might shoot me right back out if we’d lost one of those games.”
The Class 3A No. 10 Warriors (9-0) begin play in the Hendricks County tournament semifinals Friday at Plainfield as one of eight undefeated teams remaining in the state. The fast start is something of a surprise considering Danville graduated its top two scorers, Ryan Cloncs and Jake Elliott, from a 21-5 season.
But 6-6 junior Alec Burton (17.0 ppg, 10.8 rebounds) and 6-4 senior Zach Callahan (17.0 ppg, 6.9 rebounds) have set the tone for a team that relies on contributions from all four classes.
“We didn’t really know (what to expect),” said Artman, a former head coach at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. “We knew we had some talent but knew we’d be really young. We decided early on that we’d just go one at time and just go play. This has been one of the best groups we’ve had that way.”
Barber went through a similar situation in 2012, when he underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor the size of a fist from the middle of his horseshoe kidneys, which are fused. He developed blood clots after the surgery and has been on blood thinners ever since. The hernia developed after the surgery in 2012, when he was cut from his breastbone to waist.
He figured he’d be in on Friday and out on Monday, ready for the start of practice.
“I’m doing good now,” he said. “I still have a little bit of issue when I eat, but nothing major. I’ve lost 25 pounds, which is good. I needed to lose that anyway. I drink a couple smoothies a day and eat one meal. It’s just one of those things. It’s always harder on your family than yourself in those situations. They are ones that have to be there hour after hour. It’s crucial to have those people around you.”
That reaches to basketball, which is like an extended family at Danville. Artman and Foster have been with Barber all of his 18 years there. Hanni and Stewart have played for Barber and coached under him.
“They really all kind of share the load,” Callahan said of the coaches. “They have their own different roles. Everything pretty much stayed the same. We didn’t know everything that was going on (with Barber), but the coaches stayed in touch with him the entire time and let us know.”
Over time, Barber has delegated more responsibility to the assistant coaches. His thought is that the philosophy not only empowers the coaches, but might allow him to coach longer.
“I think that’s the key if you’re going to stay in this business,” he said. “When one person tries to do everything, none of it is very good. You’re going to miss something. I try to tell young coaches that the key to this is to surround yourself with good people. Good things will happen.”
It’s showed on the court for Danville. At a recent practice, the ball barely touched the floor as the Warriors worked it around for open shots.
“Our chemistry is really good,” Burton said. “We’re good at finding the open man and we’re having fun.”
That leads to smiles and, on occasion, a laugh from Barber. Though there is some confusion over whether he actually gets credit on his record for the five wins at the beginning of the season.
“Our principal asked me that,” Barber said. “I don’t know. I told him I’ll take credit for the wins and (Artman) can get credit for the losses.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleNeddenriep.