WILLIAMSTON – It was the biggest game of his five-year career as Williamston’s varsity boys basketball coach — a Class B regional semifinal Monday night against defending state champ and No. 1-ranked Wyoming Godwin Heights — but Jason Bauer was sitting in his spacious family room instead, listening to the game on the radio and reading text messages.
He wasn’t whining about missing the game.
“I can’t complain too much right now,” he said Tuesday morning. “I’m still alive, and so is my team.”
Yes, Bauer is still alive — after doctors found two tumors in his brain and quickly operated on him last week.
And with assistant coach Tom Lewis calling the shots, No. 8 Williamston upset Godwin Heights, 57-55, in overtime.
“Coach told us if we win our battles, Coach Bauer will win his,” senior Kurtis Kodet said. “Every possession — everything we did — it was all about battles. Coach Bauer is one tough guy. He’s doing great now.”
The war Bauer, 36, is raging began a week ago when persistent headaches didn’t go away. He began taking ibuprofen before his wife, Dawn, got him stronger medicine, but that worked for only a day.
Finally, he went to an Urgent Care in Okemos on Wednesday afternoon, and after he vomited there, he was taken to the emergency room at Sparrow Hospital, where he sat in the waiting room for almost 3 hours.
“I’ve heard stories,” he said. “So, I was thinking: ‘Do I fake this?’ I wanted to get back in there because I knew something was wrong.”
There was nothing to fake. A CT scan revealed two brain tumors.
Bauer was in the hospital when the Hornets defeated Lansing Sexton in Wednesday’s district semifinal, but the players didn’t know it.
However, they weren’t shocked when he wasn’t at the game.
“The practice before, he wasn’t himself, we knew that,” Kodet said. “So we didn’t expect to see him at the game.”
On the bus ride home Wednesday, Lewis received the diagnosis from Dawn. He and the other coaches decided they needed to tell the players as soon as they arrived at the school before they heard about it via social media.
“It was definitely sad,” said senior Riley Lewis, who had scored 40 points that night against Sexton. “It was a tough moment for all of us.”
From that moment on, the Hornets’ season became all about their coach.
Bauer, who played at Williamston and Grand Valley State, is an imposing figure at 6 feet 8, but he is not a yeller or a screamer. His players love playing for him, and they adore him away from the court.
“He’s really a quiet guy,” said Lewis, a four-year starter. “He’s not really a people person, per se. For the last four years I’ve gotten to know him well. He’s opened up to me, and I can see he doesn’t do that with a lot of people, so knowing him on a deeper level is really awesome.”
Bauer is young enough to relate to the kids on different levels. He is almost a big-brother figure as opposed to a father figure, and he always is talking about teachable moments that may or may not pertain to basketball.
“It’s just life skills,” Kodet said. “He’s taught me so much. He taught me if you’re 5 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late. He taught me how to man-up and take responsibility for your own actions. He taught me so much outside of basketball. He’s really helped me in my life. He’s a huge role model.”
Less than 24 hours after receiving the diagnosis, Bauer underwent surgery to remove the tumors on the front left lobe.
“All I remember is being wheeled back to the surgery room,” he said, “and the next thing I knew I was awake and they were dealing with me and figuring me out.”
Bauer seems to be doing remarkably well considering the circumstances. The biggest problem he has experienced post-surgery is struggling to find the right words while speaking and texting, which is gradually improving.
“It was more during texting, trying to plug in words,” he said. “Even Riley had said there were a couple of times I texted him and it really wasn’t making sense. But it’s all good.”
It got even better Friday night when Lewis scored 27 points to lead Williamston to a victory over No. 3 Lansing Catholic, Williamston’s archrival.
Before they played Lansing Catholic, the Hornets discussed what Bauer had told them before the tournament. “He told us that we’ve won the league every year, but this year we need to make a run,” Lewis said. “We need to win a couple of trophies.”
The players took trophy No. 1 to Bauer’s hospital room Saturday morning, but it was difficult for them to see their coach in a hospital bed.
“It was a little weird at first,” Kodet said. “Coach has always been a big guy, real strong. He was down, but we picked his spirits up, and he said he was listening to the game.”
Bauer was listening Monday to the heart-pounding overtime victory that earned the Hornets (19-3) a spot in Wednesday’s regional final against Stockbridge (18-5) at Eaton Rapids.
“It was awesome,” Kodet said Tuesday. “I still can’t believe it. It’s a whole day later, and I’ve still got chills about it.”
Lewis, who is averaging 29 points and has committed to play at Hope College, was terrific again in sparking the upset of Godwin Heights, scoring 37 points. He made every key free throw down the stretch to prolong what is becoming an unforgettable season.
Williamston hadn’t advanced to the regionals during Lewis’ career, so March Madness was something new to him … until Monday night.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “This is crazy. I didn’t know what it was like. Last night was really my first tournament experience. It was packed, everyone was standing up, screaming. It was awesome.”
Meanwhile, Bauer is feeling conflicted. His team is winning, but he is sitting at home.
“It takes its toll to where it’s like: ‘How mad should I get or should I just be happy I’m still alive?’ ” he said. “I don’t really have a choice.”
But when he takes a step back and considers everything that has transpired in the past week, he is extremely grateful.
And outside of the staples in his head and a little swelling under his left eye, Bauer looks remarkably good.
“Sitting here listening to the game … it’s good stuff,” he said. “I can’t complain about that.
“It’s exciting to still be alive and kicking and pushing.”
For him and his team.
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
What: Class B Region 11 final.
Matchup: Williamston (19-3) vs. Stockbridge (18-5).
Where: Eaton Rapids High.