Sunday, October 13, 2002

Coach eases back to court

Hugs all around for Huggins

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sure, he has lost some weight. But there was no other visible difference in Bob Huggins on Saturday morning.

The University of Cincinnati basketball coach appeared in public and met with the media for the first time since he suffered a heart attack Sept. 28 at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Huggins, 49, appeared to be his old self, speaking softly and joking with his players and taking shots at the media. He later coached his team's first practice.

"As far as being on the floor and preparing to be on the floor, I'm going to do what I've always done," said Huggins, beginning his 14th year with the Bearcats.

"I think I'm intelligent enough to know if I get tired and I don't feel good, I should stop, which I fully intend on doing."

Assistant coach Andy Kennedy said Huggins was "probably 60 or 65 percent of what he normally is" during Saturday's 3 -hour practice. Huggins was "up and about, addressing the team and doing his thing."

"He was involved," Kennedy said. "He didn't raise his voice much, and I know there were a couple of times that in the past he'd have probably snapped for two minutes. But he didn't.

"He probably sat more than normal, but even in a normal practice he's going to sit. I think physically he looks great."

During his press conference, Huggins told reporters:

He expects to be on the sidelines when the Bearcats tip off their regular season Nov. 23 against Tennessee Tech. "I don't know why I wouldn't be."

He has not been told to change his fiery and animated ways during games. "I have very intelligent doctors. They know I'm not going to do that. Their goal is to get me back to as close to normal as I can be."

He never doubted he would attend the team's first practice Saturday along with festivities planned to go with it. "I had fully intended to be here from the time it happened."

Nobody suggested to him that returning two weeks after a heart attack might be premature. "It would've been a whole lot more strain on me sitting at home wondering what's going on than being here."

"I feel really good," Huggins said. "I've been exercising a little bit. I've lost a little bit of weight.

"I've already started therapy. I've got some tests coming up in the next couple weeks that will pretty much tell me where I am. From what I understand, it's hard to tell this close. But in the next couple weeks they ought to have a good idea where I am and what I can do." Huggins has been working out on a treadmill, stationary bike and rowing machine. He's also walking three times a day, something he never did before.

He is also getting rest.

His heart is being monitored regularly. It will be a couple of weeks, he said, before he can lift weights and try to get some strength back.

There is a history of heart problems in Huggins' family. His father, Charlie, had a heart attack before the age of 40.

Mr. Huggins, who has the second-best winning percentage among active Division I coaches (.744), said that looking back, there were symptoms he ignored.

"I should've done a better job of staying in shape," he said. "I didn't work out enough. I didn't work out at all. There are signs if you really look for them. I probably didn't look for them.

"You've got to take care of yourself." Huggins underwent a non-surgical procedure the day of his heart attack to insert a stent to clear a clogged artery.

He was in The Medical Center, Beaver (Pa.), until being transferred by jet ambulance to Cincinnati on Oct. 2. He remained at Christ Hospital until this past Monday, when he was released to go home.

"If it's your time to go, it's your time to go," Huggins said. "God decided it wasn't my time to go.

"... I was out of it the first day and a half to two days. They had pumped so much morphine in me ... I don't remember everything, but I remember going to sleep. I slept for a better part of two days."

UC chose to hold "Breakfast with Bob" on Saturday morning to acknowledge the first basketball practice. It had decided to do away with Midnight Madness last month.

The cheerleaders and dance team performed before the UC players came out to take the floor. The man everyone came to see remained in the basketball office. Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson sat courtside next to UC President Dr. Joseph Steger. Members of Huggins' family, including his parents, were a few chairs down.

One sign hanging from the stands read: "Take it easy, Coach. We love ya, man!"

The TV cameras were aimed and ready. Out strolled Huggins with his wife, June, to a standing ovation.

He shook hands with Robertson and the Bearcat mascot, then went out to center court, where he sat on a wooden swivel chair for most of the program.

"This wasn't my idea," Huggins told the crowd. "I'm a laid-back guy."

Shoemaker Center had quieted down when a shout came from the stands.

"Glad to see you!" An estimated crowd of 3,200 stood again and applauded.

"I just want to thank everybody for everybody's concern," Huggins said. "It's overwhelming."

Then, it was business as usual. He introduced his team, getting off his chair to shake hands and hug each player.

Before a 20-minute scrimmage, there were taped messages played on the scoreboard from Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino and UC football coach Rick Minter.

Mr. Huggins said he hears daily from UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour, a close friend. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sent flowers this past week, and Temple coach John Chaney was the first to send a fruit basket to Christ Hospital.

"My closest friends in the world are coaches," Huggins said. "I don't know who in the country hasn't dropped a line."


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