Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the March 12, 2006 editions of The Kansas City Star
The King Air 200 builds up speed, lifting into the air toward Branson. Larry Holley looks out the window. He thinks of the first time he saw her, in a nightclub with some friends. A week later, he'd found her number from information and called, starting with, "You don't really know me, " and soon working his way to "What are you doing Friday and or Saturday and or Sunday?"
He can't forget Ann saying yes to Saturday. He can't forget four months later, when she became his wife. He looks out the window, lost in the morning clouds, wondering how their wonderful life together became a series of one-act plays, a drama lived day to day. Each of those days is hard, but today, a Friday, will be one of the toughest. It will certainly be one of the longest.
Beeping from the cockpit snaps him back to the present: flying in a private plane, rushing to coach his William Jewell Cardinals in the NAIA Division II basketball tournament, then rushing right back to Ann's side at Liberty Hospital. In late January, she went in because of trouble breathing. She quickly deteriorated to her present state, heavily sedated, suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome. She's breathing through a ventilator, unconscious, fighting for her life.
Always a man to keep score, Holley has been watching as the percentage of ventilator-aided breathing slowly falls. It's down to 65 percent now and needs to be down to around 30 percent before she can breathe on her own. Sixty-five is an improvement, though, and that's enough for Holley to smile.
"Today is six positive days, " he says.
His team faces a tough opponent. Win, and he'll spend the night in Branson, his first away from Liberty since Ann got sick. Lose, and their season, his respite from endless hospital days, will come to an end.
He isn't sure he should even make this trip.
"If something were to happen to Ann, I would be devastated that I wasn't there at her bedside, " he says. "When I'm in Liberty, I'm never more than five minutes away. But the plane is at my disposal."
They climb higher and higher, the ride a gift from a friend, just one of a thousand little acts of kindness that have gotten the Holleys through. It climbs up toward heaven. Sitting in a gray-leather seat, Larry Holley clutches a snapshot of his entire family, back when they were whole.
"It still doesn't seem like this is real, " he says. "It's like it's happening to someone else. It can't be happening to Ann. She's so healthy and full of life. One day, she's feeling fine, and the next day, she's code blue. ... I have no idea where these 31 years have gone."
You know Larry Holley, or you know someone like him. He's what we think of when we picture a coach, someone who's spent a lifetime winning games - 715 in Holley's case - touching people, becoming the glue between generations who share the love of a sport. This year was setting up to be another fantastic one. The team, which had been upset as top seed the previous year in the national tournament, featured five seniors. He and Ann were expecting their first grandchild, from daughter Lindsay.
Ann had always been the epitome of a coach's wife, sharing in the wins and the losses, proud of his four NAIA Final Fours, of the local powerhouse he created in Liberty. Once she fried 124 pieces of chicken in their kitchen for recruits. Nothing was too much trouble for Larry or the three girls.
"Mom's always been there, " Lindsay says, "right by his side."
In late January, she was at a game, as usual, but something was wrong. She hid it, but Ann Holley, a heavy smoker, was having trouble breathing. Three days later on Jan. 29, a Sunday morning, she told Larry to take her to the emergency room.
Their nightmare began. Doctors drained fluid from her lungs, liters of it, and told the family that she was lucky to be alive. Still, things seemed to be turning around. They moved Ann out of intensive care to the general population. Always feisty, she argued with doctors about when she'd get to go home.
Then, almost two weeks after Ann first arrived, Larry left the hospital for a pregame shootaround. He kissed her goodbye. An hour or two later, as he was walking off the court, his cell phone rang. It was Lindsay, telling him that something was happening, can you please get back here.
Soon, Ann stopped breathing. Code blue. Elevators swung open. A dozen or so people worked over her. She fought for her life. In the waiting room, Larry and his three daughters sat across from each other.
"He turned ghost white, " Lindsay says. "I've never seen him look like that. I just sat my hands on his hands and prayed."
Doctors asked them to help calm Ann down as they restored her breathing. Larry held her left hand. The girls held her right. They stroked her hair, talking calmly, Larry using his best coach's voice.
You're doing great.
They made it through that, and another close call, and now Ann remains in critical condition. She wasn't awake when Lindsay gave birth in this very hospital. She wasn't awake, but Holley is putting pictures above her bed on the ceiling, so when she finally comes to, that little baby girl will be the first thing she sees.
Those are the memories that lurk in Holley's mind, even as he sits in the Branson High School coaches' office. He's on the ground now. It's around 1:30 p.m, and he's reviewing film and trying to reimmerse himself in his team. The flight was quick, 45 minutes, and he met the fellas for one last practice.
Slowly, he gets lost in the mechanics of the game. Assistant coach Sean Dooley helps him.
"Do you have this, coach?" Holley asks.
"It's a read of the guard, " Dooley says. "He can go high, or if he goes flare, it's two different sets."
"Here's the other part, " Holley notices.
"Yes, " Sean says
"You got that, right?" Holley asks again, making sure.
"When he's going away, " Dooley says, confidently, "it's a pick and roll. When he's going to, it's a back screen."
"That's hard to guard, " he says. "I hope they don't run that very much."
Holley gets up from the chair, puts down the television remote and walks to the court. His team waits. When he comes through the door, one of them yells, "There he is." They all stop everything and applaud.
Over to the side, two of the assistant coaches' wives talk. They've known Ann forever.
"Did you hear him say she's down to 65?" says Janet Sutton, wife of assistant Tim Sutton.
"That's as low as she's been, " Sue Kariker says.
"She'd be upset if she knew what she was missing, " Janet says.
"She's gonna be pissed when she wakes up, " Sue says. "You know Ann."
After practice, Holley takes out his phone. Standing by the bus door, he breathes and dials. A nurse answers.
"This is Larry Holley calling. Can I talk to someone about my wife, Ann?"
The kids whoop and holler in the background, all the normal sounds of a basketball road trip.
"Hi, " he says when the call is transferred. "It's Larry Holley."
"I'm doing OK, " he says. "We just finished our pregame. I thought I'd call and see what the latest on Ann was."
Another pause. He smiles wide.
"Oh, yeah, " he says, "down to 60? Good, good. Sixty percent is the lowest she's ever been."
He listens a bit more, then says, "If I don't hear from you, I'll call you after the game."
Standing near the bus, Janet pats him on the back. Today is a great day.
It's time to get dressed, the playoff game just hours away now. Holley stares at the five ties laid out on the floral hotel bedspread. All are similar, but he doesn't know which one to pick. He's paralyzed.
"My wife always picked it out, " he says.
With consultation from the team's bus driver, he chooses a gray one, knots it tightly and sits down to wait. He checks his cell phone. It's been ringing off the hook; his bill jumped to $500 when Ann got sick.
Everywhere he goes - gymnasiums, gas stations in Branson, high schools - someone stops to offer a prayer. People have been leaving cookies outside his door, for him to find when he comes home. Friends bring him food, offer to do his laundry. Half a dozen offered use of their airplane to fly him down to Branson and back before and after each tournament game.
His e-mail inbox has filled up. Former William Jewell employees. Fellow coaches. College teammates. Referees. Even opposing players, like the note he got from Dustin Bevard of Lindenwood: "I just wanted to send my best wishes to you and your wife. I have been praying for her and her health for the past few weeks. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family."
These notes keep him going. He tries to constantly act chipper, but the people close to him know better.
"He's tired, " friend and Rockhurst coach Mark Nusbaum says. "He's not gonna tell people that he's physically and mentally tired."
Holley's not just getting support. He's giving it, too. After dressing and going outside while the kids load onto the bus, he calls a former player who is now a coach. Holley wants to congratulate him on a successful season. Soon, at about 5:30 p.m., it's time to go. Just before Holley climbs aboard, assistant coach Lee Kariker holds something up in his hand.
"Hey, coach, " he calls.
Lee is fighting cancer, and one of Larry's cousins made him a small wooden cross that fits neatly into your hand. Since Ann got sick, Lee's been letting Larry carry it during games. Holley walks across the parking lot, fingers the cross and returns to his seat. The bus rumbles forward, but Larry is rubbing that wood methodically with the index and middle finger of his right hand. He's praying.
The pregame locker room is quiet.
"The word for tonight is trust, " team chaplain Kim May begins.
Everyone nods. That could describe the entire season. This team has learned how fragile the world around them can be. Holley's tried to maintain some calm. The players, especially the seniors, have noticed and reciprocated.
"His players reflect him, " says John Vickers, coach at William Chrisman High and a former player of Holley's. "They're all about class. They're close-knit. They play basketball the right way. It's pretty amazing when you think about all the adversity they've been through."
Now, near the end of the season, the guys know how important they've become to Holley. After Wednesday night's thrilling win over Southern Oregon, star Drew Mathews pulled his coach aside, let him know what was going through his mind during the heart-pounding overtime.
"Coach, " he told him, "I thought of you, and I didn't want this to end."
When the game begins, the Cardinals battle the College of the Ozarks in their raucous home gymnasium. It's soon clear William Jewell will also battle the officials, who, from the bench, appear to never have actually seen a basketball game before. Still, the teams trade buckets back and forth, down to the end. With 4 seconds left, College of the Ozarks' Andrew Boyce is fouled in the lane and makes two free throws for a one-point lead.
This is it.
Jewell throws a home-run pass. Mathews gets the ball and drives. It looks as if he is fouled, but no whistle blows. The shot falls harmlessly to the ground.
For a moment, Holley sprints after the refs, livid. Then, halfway across the court, something stops him. He turns, shakes the Ozarks coach's hand and walks slowly to the locker room. Inside, the only sounds come from the arena's sound system and the players' sniffles.
"I'm proud to be your coach, " Holley says. "I'm proud to be your friend. I'd walk with you anywhere. Sometimes, life isn't fair. It isn't fair right now for Coach Kariker. Life isn't fair right now for my wife."
The athletic director asks them to bow their heads and say a prayer for Kariker and Ann Holley. In a low monotone, the players begin: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Holley looks as if he's crying. The chaplain puts his hand on Holley's shoulder.
The King Air is taxiing again. It's past 11 p.m. For the first time in more than a month, Larry Holley can think about what comes next. He's not sure whether he'll have to renovate the house any, since Ann will need significant physical therapy. He's not sure about anything other than today.
"When she wakes up, " he says, smiling, "she's gonna be shocked I missed three games to be with her."
The plane rises. He fiddles with his wedding ring, the one he wrote a hot check for 31 years ago. He imagines what they'll do when she wakes up.
"We'll probably hold hands and hold each other and just be thankful, " he says. "I'm sure we'll take some walks."
Their home is still being redecorated by Ann, so some rooms are works in progress. That hurts to look at, to see her unfulfilled dreams spread before him every night. There's where the swing set they want to put in for the grandchildren will go. There's a naked wall, waiting on artwork. All of that is on hold. The house is quiet.
"I walk into the den and there's no music on, no television on and Ann's not there to have a conversation with, " he says. "It's tough to go to bed without her there. It's tough to sleep."
The airplane shakes violently, fighting through the clouds, taking him back to her side. He looks through the front windshield to see the lights of Kansas City ahead. One of those twinkling diamonds is Ann's hospital. She's had a great day, taken some huge steps. He can't wait to see her.
"Whatever it is, " he says, "we'll get through it."
At 12:57 a.m., Holley is back where his day started, walking through the sliding glass doors of Liberty Hospital. The white light of the hallway is startling. He knows the directions like he knows a pick and roll. He doesn't need the "ICU 2nd Floor" sign.
In the elevator, he takes off his glasses, resting his tired eyes, still wearing his suit from the game. He wants to congratulate Ann on the progress. But when he enters the intensive care ward, the nurse recognizes him. She doesn't seem happy. He knows what's coming next.
"Did you bump her back up?" he asks.
"Seventy, " the nurse says quietly.
Just feet away from the nurse's station, Ann Holley fights for her life. The only noise comes from the rhythmic click of the ventilator. Three monitors track her vital signs. A note on the door, posted by Lindsay, demands: Positive Comments Only. Larry goes to his wife's side. She's completely sedated, but he believes she knows when he talks to her.
"Hey, sweetie, " he says, "how you doing?"
He leans over the bed.
"Sweetie, we lost a tough one tonight, " he says. "Our season is over."
His voice lowers.
"Our season is over."
He looks for a positive sign. Then he notices: Her eyes are open. It's the first time he's seen them in what seems like forever. She's not awake; it's just an involuntary reaction. That's fine. He'll take it.
"Look at your eyes!" he says. "Look at your eyes!"
"Her eyes are open, " he calls out to the nurse.
"She's not tracking or anything, " she cautions him.
Holley just smiles. He believes.
"Wow, sweetie, " he says. "Way to go. Super. Way to go. I'll be back to see you tomorrow, sweetie. Get some rest."
Then he turns to go, walking down the ICU hallway, leaving part of himself behind. There's another long night ahead, waiting for her to come home.
Editor's note: Ann Holley died on March 24, 2006. Below is Wright Thompson's obituary that appeared in the next morning's Kansas City Star:
Ann Holley, wife of longtime William Jewell College men's basketball coach Larry Holley, died early Friday morning after a lengthy illness. She was 53.
"She wasn't in pain, " Larry Holley said. "She actually, when I was talking to her, in her last few seconds, she opened her eyes and looked right me. Then she blinked them and closed her eyes. The girls were right there and saw. They couldn't believe it. She looked right at me. I told her to continue to look over us. She closed her eyes, and she was gone. She's not struggling to breathe any more. She's not in any pain."
Ann Holley went into Liberty Hospital in late January because of trouble breathing. Doctors quickly diagnosed her as having acute respiratory distress syndrome. After a string of days marked by improvement, she developed an infection this week. She died at 1:18 a.m., surrounded by her husband and three daughters.
The outpouring of love and support during her illness only confirmed what friends and family already knew: Ann Holley, like her husband, touched many lives. She was a talented decorator and real-estate agent and a faithful coach's wife, standing by in victory and defeat. They still laugh at her frying 124 pieces of chicken for a house full of recruits once. Stories like that one are surely filling the Holleys' Liberty home this weekend, as friends gather once more to offer support.
"It's been amazing, " Larry Holley said. "She is so loved by so many."
Ann Holley is survived by her husband, Larry; her children, Lindsay, Lauren and Lacey; a sister, Marty Bowser; and one grandchild, Reagan Brett.
Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Park Lawn Northland Chapel at Interstate 35 and Missouri 291, Liberty. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Gano Chapel on the campus at William Jewell.
"Ann was a very vibrant and energetic person, " family friend Troy Sheeley said. "She was the life of every party and could often be seen doing a dance routine with a dish towel to the tune of `Macho Ann' (`Macho Man' by the Village People)."