Since it was moved to shortly before Christmas in 1985, the annual Missouri-Illinois “Braggin’ Rights” basketball game has become a harbinger of the holiday season, an auxiliary window on the advent calendar around here.
For the time being, anyway, the game has ebbed from the national relevance it has enjoyed, including nine meetings in which both teams were ranked. But even when the teams are in, uh, transitional times, the games still are fiercely contested:
Witness Missouri on Wednesday cutting a 20-point deficit to 60-57 with a minute left only to ultimately fall 68-63.
The intensity of the meetings coupled with the context in this time of year could be summed up in MU assistant coach Brad Loos’ recollection of the aftermath of last year’s 72-69 loss.
“Illinois just ripped our heart out with a last-second shot,” he said.
Nevertheless, last Christmas morning his then 4-year-old daughter, Rhyan, still woke up early and proclaimed, “Santa’s here!”
In a more just world, a year later Loos still would feel like to lose a game on a last-second shot is to have his heart ripped out.
Except he knows what that really means now:
The helplessness of seeing Rhyan suffering from cancer (stage 4 neuroblastoma) and losing her hair and being weak and nauseated and dehydrated and wondering why.
“It makes you step back and really think about what’s important in life,” he said. “You don’t realize how good you’ve got it until you really face true adversity.”
No one, of course, is facing it quite like her, and her courage and resolve are something to behold.
Days after her third round of chemotherapy, for instance, she would not be denied participating in her school’s Christmas program.
So up on stage she went with her classmates to sing a few Christmas songs before her legs weakened.
Then she simply rejoined her family in the front row, where mother Jen, a Kansas City native, had remained within the few feet of her she has stayed almost continuously since the diagnosis in October.
“That was unbelievable,” Brad Loos said. “I still can’t believe she did it.”
Brad couldn’t be there that day because he was with the team at Arizona, where he bore witness to yet more of the outpouring of support for his daughter, the Rally for Rhyan cause that has 8,795 likes on Facebook and 13,313 visits on CaringBridge.org and countless mentions on Twitter (#rallyforrhyan) and $34,234 raised from 240 donors on a GoFundMe.com page on her behalf.
In Tucson, Jen’s uncle, Fred, made a Rally for Rhyan sign that ended up in hands of analyst Bill Walton and Wildcats cheerleaders and being sent out all over social media just like so many others have.
This sort of thing has been happening for months now, with shoutouts and fundraisers from all over the state and, in fact, nation, not to mention the ardent support of coach Kim Anderson and MU players who are ever-mindful of her.
Loos and his family appreciate every one of the “million” heartfelt gestures, but the one that comes to mind first on Wednesday is that of the little girl in Rhyan’s school who made her own birthday party into one for Rhyan – asking that all gifts be for her.
These sorts of things, as it turns out, never get old.
“Oh, I’m telling you, it’s unbelievable,” said Loos, adding that about any time they all seem to be struggling with this “somebody else does something nice” that makes a difference.
Through all this, Loos at times asks himself, “What did we do to deserve this?” He doesn’t mean the cancer, though, but all the love.
And he thinks not just of his girl but those kids he sees in hospital rooms by themselves and what can be done to try to help them all affected by the underfunded cause.
Which helps explain why the Loos family already is exploring a way to work with Olathe-based Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer, which seeks to create awareness and increase funding for childhood cancers.
Their own path, of course, remains to be reconciled.
The five-year survival rate for children 1-14 was 68 percent as of 2010, the most recent date reported by the National Cancer Institute.
Per the current plan, Rhyan has two more rounds of chemo ahead before doctors will try to remove the tumor.
Then comes a sixth round of chemo and stem-cell replacement, which would be performed at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City.
Meanwhile, Rhyan will still go to school when she feels up to it and still be cheered by older brother Brady and little sister Charli.
And whether she’s at home or in MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital, you can believe she’ll probably still wake up Christmas morning and say, “Santa’s here!”
And it will sound like even more sweet and beautiful than it did a year ago to those around her.
“This,” Loos said, “has put a lot of things in perspective.”