The John Stewart Story

The John Stewart Story

Outside The Box

The John Stewart Story

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In 1999, the name John Stewart signified one of the nation’s top basketball recruits as much as an oft-traveled standup comedian still to fully find his feet at mantle of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. If you’d guessed then, there would have been roughly even odds on which Stewart would emerge as a cultural icon. That it was the comedian was perhaps less about his own talent and ability to connect with audiences than it was a horrible tragedy that befell the University of Kentucky commit.

Now a documentary, produced by Louisville TV-network CNJ2, looks back at the shocking, sudden death of Stewart on a high school court during an Indiana high school playoff game. Stewart was a much ballyhooed big man prospect from Lawrence North High in Indianapoilis, the same school that produced Greg Oden years later. In so many ways he was Oden before Oden, heavily recruited by most of the nation’s power programs. He eventually pledged to play for Tubby Smith’s Kentucky squad in Lexington, but months before he would have headed to the Bluegrass state he collapsed and died on a high school court during a heated playoff game.

As chronicled in a look at the documentary and Stewart’s life by the Louisville Courier-Journal, Stewart collapsed on the sideline just after being substituted from the third quarter of a playoff game on March 12, 1999. He was pronounced dead hours later, diagnosed in a post-morten with an a form of Hyperthrophic Cardiomyopathy; a congential heart defect. Since his death, Stewart’s mother Felicia Stewart has worked diligently with Smith and other health and basketball leaders to raise awareness about the condition and try to create a culture where heart screenings are both more accessible and prevalent.

This documentary, titled The John Stewart Story, should go some ways toward achieving that goal, in part by increasing awareness of the foundation Felcia Stewart set up in John’s name, the John H. Stewart Foundation. Smith still looks back on Stewart’s passing as a seminal moment in his life where he was forced to deal with an event far more important than what was happening in a basketball game, even though he was moments away from leading the Wildcats on to the court for an NCAA Tournament game when he was told of Stewart’s collapse.

“I just said, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to coach this game? How am I going to do this?’ ” Smith remembers, although he found a way. The Cats won, igniting a run to the Elite Eight, and he informed the team afterward. “I was probably in shock. I’m still in shock. It’s just like I’m talking to you now and then (you’re gone). I was just like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’ It was just such a sad day.”

“He would’ve taken us to the next level. I don’t think people understand that,” said Smith, who left Kentucky for Minnesota in 2007 and is now the head coach at Texas Tech. “He was a pro. He was going to be one of the best big men I ever coached. We had Nazr Mohammed, Jamaal Magloire, and he was on that level. We would’ve won another championship. During that period is when we had a chance to keep the team at that elite level.

“I’m talking about going to championship after championship. I’m talking about national championship. But God has a plan for us, and John’s plan is still flourishing. His legacy is still flourishing.”

You can stream the entire Stewart documentary at the CNJ2 website. It’s worth your time, and everyone’s efforts to raise awareness about the importance of heart screenings for young athletes.

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