His success on the courts may stem from his beginnings on the diamond
Don Meyer has vivid memories of playing baseball in Grand Junction.
“There was a lion in right field,” he said of the old Grand Junction Zoo that used to be part of Lincoln Park. “I remember Rick Miller from Michigan State, he ended up playing with the Red Sox, he would hit balls into the parking lot and the lion would be upset. That was kind of funny.”
It was in the late 1960s when Meyer was pitching — and coaching pitchers — for the Grand Junction Eagles semi-pro baseball team.
“Throwing batting practice to Sam (Suplizio) was an experience,” he said. “He would hit line drives all over the place, hitting the top half of the ball with the bottom half of the bat.”
When he was playing for the Eagles, Meyer was coaching baseball and basketball at Western State College in Gunnison. His calling was basketball, though, and it’s served him well.
More than 40 years later, Meyer is one of the most successful NCAA men’s basketball coaches of all time, with 923 victories, second only to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who finished the 2011-12 season with 929.
Meyer retired from coaching at Northern State (S.D.) after the 2009-2010 season, two years after he was nearly killed in a head-on collision with a semitrailer truck hauling 90,000 pounds of grain.
The wreck, on Sept. 5, 2008, broke every rib on the left side of his body, tore the diaphragm away from the bone in his chest and caused internal injuries. It also crushed the lower part of his left leg, which, after several operations, was amputated below the knee.
That, however, wasn’t the extent of what doctors in Sioux Falls, S.D., found. Meyer was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer, which are small, slow growing tumors, usually in the gastrointestinal system.
Two months later, Meyer left the hospital.
“I probably left a little early but from a mental standpoint, it was important to get out,” he said. “We were starting the season and I had missed all the practices up until the last few. We were playing an exhibition at Minnesota and Purdue and I got to make that trip. I wanted to see our kids, I needed to see and watch them a little bit. Gradually I kept working, and my assistant coaches were great. Gradually we got back to where we needed to be.”
Meyer will tell his story in Grand Junction today as the keynote speaker at the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series tournament banquet at Two Rivers Convention Center.
“I keep getting different ideas and putting them in a folder or in my book and eventually the talk shapes up,” he said of his speaking engagements around the country. “It really shapes up about a half-hour before, once I talk to people and know where they’re coming from. This is a big honor. It’s a big-time tournament.”
Jamie Hamilton, the JUCO chairman, was at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention this winter and heard Meyer speak. He had read Buster Olney’s book on Meyer, “How Lucky You Can Be,” and was impressed. And when Duane Banks, the longtime Iowa baseball coach who lives in Grand Junction and is on the JUCO Committee, told Hamilton that he played baseball with Meyer on the Eagles, it was a no-brainer.
“I didn’t know Duane knew him,” Hamilton said. “He said, ‘I played with him with the Eagles, he’s interested.’ We got back on Sunday and Monday we called him. He said, ‘Yeah, just tell my assistant to put it on my schedule.’ The good thing about baseball people, they all remember each other. We’re very pleased Coach Meyer is coming to speak at our banquet, and Duane was very helpful on that. He’ll have a good message.”
The accident that changed Meyer’s life came when he was leading a caravan of cars on the way to a preseason team retreat. It’s thought Meyer fell asleep and drifted across the highway into the path of the semi. The five cars behind his were filled with his players and assistant coaches — Meyer was the only one in his car, and the only person injured.
Getting back on the basketball court was like therapy, but he knew in December of 2009, the 16-hour days were taking their toll.
“I was beat down pretty good,” he said. “Standing up at the games, the first year I was in a wheelchair and then I had a cane, but I wouldn’t use it during the game and I probably should have. It was just physically ...you’re getting to that stage, I was 65 years old and had had heart surgery. I’ve got cancer and one leg is cut off a little bit and I’m bald. If anyone wanted to negative recruit against me, they could pick two of the three. I needed to get out for the good of the program; I would have killed myself. I wasn’t able to put in 16 hours and I think a job like this is a 16-hour-a-day job or you’re not getting it done.”
He doesn’t dwell on the accident or his cancer. Carcinoid cancer often takes several years before tumors cause symptoms. He takes injections once a month to help control symptoms and sees his doctor “whenever the doctor feels is a good time to look.” Sitting for long periods of time causes back pain, and he gets a massage once a week.
His speaking engagements keep him busy — he has several in the next few weeks, including at the 75th anniversary of the NAIA men’s basketball tournament in Kansas City, Mo., and he was honored at the NCAA men’s Final Four in April.
“The big thing that really helps you is if you’re trying to help somebody else,” he said. “The more you’re busy and help other people, the less you think about what you’ve got. Praying for yourself ... you’re better off praying for other people. Obviously you want to be healthy and be around and help more people, but focus on other people.
“You’ve gotta be a point guard, take your mind off yourself. How can we make all these other people more effective. That’s really good. You need to take a serve and leadership approach.”