The Tree

Share
Jeff Capel III, Associate Head Coach / Duke Men's Basketball - The Players' Tribune

It’s the spring of 2016, I am 41 years old, and the truth is, when they tell us my dad has ALS, I don’t even fully know what it is.

Well, on some level, I know what it is. I’ve known, from my dad’s symptoms, that there is something obviously wrong — he’s been slurring his words lately, almost like he’s had a few drinks. I know, from the tests they’re running, and from his doctor’s choice of words, that it’s bad news. And I know, from (of all things …) having done the Ice Bucket Challenge a couple of summers ago, that this is a disease without a cure. Sitting there with my parents, in that doctor’s office at Duke, and hearing “ALS” … I know. But I don’t know.

My mom knows. Once the doctor has finished our initial talk — second opinions, medications, that sort of thing — he leaves us alone in the room. Almost immediately, my mom gets up.

“I’m going to go use the bathroom,” she says. But I know she doesn’t have to use the bathroom. I can tell from her voice: She just doesn’t want my dad and me to see her cry.

Sometimes the tone of a voice can tell you things that hours of explanation never could. As soon as I hear my mom speak, and see the look on her face as she gets up … that’s when I know.

And as soon as she leaves the room … well, that’s when I find out what ALS really is, in the most 2016 way possible: by googling it on my phone. Two sentences into reading the diagnosis, my heart drops.

Progressive neurological disease.

Average survival from onset to death is two to four years.

No known cure.

I put down my phone. I can’t read anymore.

And then I look across the room … and of course my dad is doing the exact same thing: sitting there, staring at his phone, googling this disease that is about to change his life forever. And then he looks up, and looks at me. And we look at each other. And we just sort of sit there, father and son, not saying a word — each now knowing what the other one knows.

A few minutes later, my mom comes back.

“Where’s that bathroom?” I ask her.

It’s several months later, now, and I still think about that day often. It seems like a blur — the tests, the diagnosis, the gradual realization that things would be different from then on — and not much about it makes sense. But one thing always will:

Everyone cried but my dad.


It’s the fall of 1978, I am three years old, and my dad says yes.

After four years in the Army, my dad, Jeff Capel Jr., has graduated with a degree in health and physical education from Fayetteville State. And he is looking to become a basketball coach.

You know how most coaches tend to get their start from a personal connection? Someone knows someone, who used to play for someone, or coach for someone … something like that? Yeah, well — here’s my dad’s best connection, as a young black man trying to break into coaching in 1978: He still lives in the town where he went to high school.

And so, at 25 years old, Jeff Capel Jr. goes back to Pinecrest High, in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and asks for a job.

And they say no.

But wait, they tell him: You can coach JV — as a volunteer.

And my dad says yes.


It’s the summer of 1985, I am 10 years old, and Bob Staak is sitting right there. Right there — watching Pinecrest High School varsity basketball. Coach Staak is the head coach at Wake Forest, and Pinecrest has traveled to Winston-Salem for the Wake Forest team camp. Coach Staak doesn’t know much about Pinecrest as a team, or about Southern Pines as a town. But they have a player he is looking to recruit, and so he’s there to scout.

The game starts, and the player is as good as advertised. Matter of fact, the whole team is pretty good. Matter of fact … and that’s when Bob Staak notices something.

This Pinecrest coach is pretty damn impressive.

His instructional style … his calm demeanor … their offensive sets … their defensive organization … the plays they’re running out of timeouts — this has to be one of the most well-coached high school teams he’s ever seen. And this head coach: What is he, like 30? Bob Staak sees what he needs to see, finishes scouting the game, and then leaves. But not before making a note to himself:

Jeff Capel can coach.


It’s the fall of 1987, I am 12 years old, and no one knows who threw up on Robert Horry.

Hang on, let me backtrack.

img_4029

My dad is in his second season as an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest — and Bob Staak, Wake’s head coach, has sent him on a last-minute recruiting trip. Gotta see this kid from Andalusia, Alabama. Real big kid, the scouting report says. But he can shoot the lights out.

My younger brother, Jason, and I are always begging our dad to tag along, wherever he goes. And Dad hates how much he’s been away from us while he’s been at Wake. And for whatever reason, on this weekend, those two forces combine — and my dad decides to let me and Jason fly with him on his Alabama trip.

Just to give you a sense of how big of a deal this is: Up to that point, my brother and I have never even been on a plane before. Like, we’re from the country. If our lives up to now were a boxing card, this trip would be the main event. We’re pumped, man.

But before you start picturing a couple of wide-eyed kids climbing aboard some 747, a little perspective: This isn’t big money NCAA yet. This is — how can I put this? — this is the ’80s.

We walk up to the smallest crop-duster plane you’ve ever seen. Jason and I are just looking at each other, and then at the plane, and then back at each other — both scared half to death. But eventually we hop in, and take off, and make it to Alabama without a hitch. We pick up Robert, say our hellos, and then Robert gets on the plane with us to come back to Wake. (Recruiting is a little different in the ‘80s.)

It’s the fall of 1987, I am 12 years old, and no one knows who threw up on Robert Horry.

Having just added a power forward to our traveling party, on our already tiny plane, the flight back ends up being … well … not as smooth. It’s tight quarters: Robert, right in between me and Jason. It’s dark and bumpy. And on this little ’80s crop duster … thousands of feet up in the air … sitting shoulder to shoulder with the 17 year old kid who will one day go on to become Big Shot Bob … somebody starts to feel sick.

And then somebody can’t find their air-sick bag.

And then somebody chooses the worst possible direction to turn.

And then somebody throws up.

To this day, my brother and I can’t agree on who that somebody is, whether it was me or him. Fingers have been pointed. Accusations have been made. No one has admitted anything.

But here’s all we know:

1. Somebody threw up all over Robert Horry.

2. Robert Horry did not end up going to Wake Forest.

As for my dad? He just laughed. A lot of fathers would have been furious, I imagine — their kids messing up a big work presentation at their fancy new job. But our dad? Nah. He apologized to Rob. He tried to help clean up the mess. And then he just laughed.

And when it came time for the next recruiting trip — we were right there with him.


It’s the spring of 1989, I am 14 years old, and Wake Forest has decided to fire their head basketball coach. My dad, still an assistant on Bob Staak’s staff, has been fired as well. That afternoon, Dad picks me and Jason up from school. We’re in the car when he tells us the news.

“Look,” he says, “I just want you to know: Coach Staak got fired today. Which means that I’m out of a job right now.”

Jason is only nine, and probably too young to understand what it means to get fired. But I’m old enough. And I remember those next few seconds well: sitting in the car … my mind racing … panicking … worrying. Are we going to be O.K.?

Abruptly, those thoughts are interrupted by my dad.

img_4031

“Hey — I don’t want you guys to worry,” he says, turning around, looking both me and Jason in the eye. “We’re gonna be fine. I’ve never not worked in my life. We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna be fine.”

And we were. My dad ended up getting another job, only a few weeks later. Our lives stayed the same. We always had a roof over our heads, and food on our table. But more than anything else that happened in the years after he got his next job — with all of the success that he had — what I think most about now, as an adult, is that moment in the car. How my dad told us not to worry, and so we never worried again. How my dad said, “We’re gonna be fine,” and so we just thought, We are.


It’s the winter of 1994, I am 18 years old, and I’m about to begin my second semester as a freshman at Duke. We’re ranked No. 2 in the country. Haven’t lost yet. I am starting, producing and playing good minutes. But even still, the adjustment to college has been tough. I am getting yelled at nonstop by Coach K. And for no reason — or at least that’s what I tell myself. And at least that’s how it feels at the time. It’s a funny thing, being a young man of a certain age: You somehow think that you both have all of the answers, and that you can’t do anything right.

I’m telling my parents, “This dude Coach K is so mean.”

And so every time I get yelled at by Coach K that winter, I’m calling home to complain. I’m telling my parents, “This dude Coach K is so mean.” Or, “Coach is always yelling at me.” Or, “Listen … I don’t think this is working out.” Stuff like that. Also: You know how, as a kid, you develop a sort of sixth sense for what a “mom conversation” is versus what a “dad conversation” is? Well, you better believe I know my dad’s mantra: No excuses. And I also know, deep down, that that’s exactly what I’m doing every time I call home to complain about Coach K: making excuses. So I get real clever about it — and make sure that, any time I do my coach-is-mean bit, I’m talking to my mom. Sorry, correction: I think I’m being clever. And I think I’m talking to my mom. Little do I know, my mom is relaying every single one of these conversations directly to my dad.

Then, sometime in January, my dad comes down to Durham. The team has an off day, so he takes me out to lunch. (Damon’s — classic Dad Lunch.) And we’re at lunch, and we’re talking about whatever. And then all of a sudden, out of the blue, he says to me, “Hey, look, so, when we leave here — let’s just drive back to your dorm room, and we can go ahead and pack up some of your stuff. And then I can take a load home for you.”

Huh? And that’s what I say to him. “Huh?”

And he goes, “It’ll be good. You know — so we don’t have as much to take home with us at the end of the year.”

Now I’m really confused. I’m like, “Dad. What are you talking about?”

And without missing a beat, he goes, “Aren’t you transferring?”

I slowly realize where this is going.

“I mean, you call your mama all the damn time, talking this and that, about how you’re not being treated right, about how you can’t play for Coach K—”

Man, Mom sold me out.

img_4038

“Nah, Dad, it’s—”

And I’m getting ready to go through my whole thing, winding up my list of excuses, when he stops me.

“Let me ask you a question. Are you guys ranked in the country?”

“Yeah, Dad, we’re No. 2.”

“And you’re undefeated, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re starting?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you getting to the gym, getting there early, getting work in?”

“Yeah.”

“O.K. then. Well, look: Like I said, let’s just go on back to the dorm room right now. We’ll pick this stuff up and we’ll take it back home.”

“Dad, nah.…”

My voice trails off, and he let’s me stew in it for a few seconds.

But just a few.

“So let me get this straight: You’re No. 2 in the country. You’re undefeated. You’re starting. You’re getting your work in. And you’re talking about how this isn’t working out?

Don’t let him look you in the eye, I’m thinking. Don’t … let him … look you … in the eye.

“Dad, I’m telling you, you don’t understand—”

And that’s when Jeff Capel Jr. looks me dead in my eye.

“Man, SHUT THE F*** UP. Stop calling home and complaining. And just play.”

And then he gets up, neatly places his napkin on the table, and walks away. I’m talking walks away. My dad literally just leaves the restaurant … gets in his car … and drives off. Sticks me with the bill, too. (Sorry, Damon’s.) Have to borrow the phone and beg a teammate to pick me up. (Thanks, Damon’s.) And though you probably know how this story ends, I’ll tell you anyway: I never call home to complain again. I never think about transferring again.

And I come back the next day and have the best practice of my life.

So when I think about the lessons my dad has taught me over the years, all of those lessons that I wouldn’t be the man I am today without, of course I think of the big ones. Show up. Keep your promises. Appreciate what you’ve got. No excuses. But I find myself just as often thinking of the little ones — those specific lessons that I can tie to a single memory, or even a single day.

Like the day my dad took an 18-year-old kid out to lunch — a kid who didn’t know a good thing when he had it — and taught him that sometimes … you just shut the f*** up. Sometimes … you just stop complaining. And, man: Sometimes, you just play.


It’s the spring of 1997, I am 22 years old, and my brother, Jason, is trying to settle on a school.

When I was going through my own decision process, back in ’92, things were much simpler: I was a top 25 prospect — good, real good, but not making national headlines. And in ’92, my dad was still only starting his college head-coaching career, at Fayetteville State — so playing for him wasn’t really an option. I knew I wanted to play in the ACC, and Duke offered me a scholarship. I committed in the spring of my junior year. Like I said, simple.

But with Jason, a few years later … everything is different. Jason isn’t a top 25 prospect — he’s top five. That might not seem like a huge difference, but trust me, it is. Everyone wants Jason. Further complicating matters, is that my dad is now the head coach at Old Dominion — a much more high-profile school in a much more high-profile conference. And not only that, but he’s been having success, coming off of two trips to the NCAA tournament in his first three years.

And if you don’t think that Old Dominion’s higher-ups, at this point, have their eye on the fact that the coach’s son is a top five national prospect, well — then you must not follow college hoops. Old Dominion wants Jason, bad. In fact, it’s beyond wanting — a lot of people there are expecting my dad to deliver him.

They must not know my dad.

One afternoon, Dad and Jason come down to Durham to help me move out of my apartment. I’ve just graduated from Duke and we’re going to take my stuff back home. We’ve got a U-Haul, we’re loading it up, the whole deal. It’s one of those humid spring days in North Carolina, so we’re sweating from all the heavy lifting — and we sit down for a break. And as the three of us are sitting there, on boxes in my almost empty apartment, my dad looks at Jason and says, “Well, let’s talk about your recruitment.”

By now, Jason has “officially” narrowed his list down to four schools: Florida State, Seton Hall, Old Dominion and North Carolina. Or at least that’s the furthest we’ve discussed it until now. But my dad knows the truth. He knows that Jason’s list of four, in his heart, is really only a list of one. He knows where Jason wants to go — and where Jason has to go. And so he just sits there, between us, and calmly breaks it down.

“Let’s lay these options on the table,” he says. “You’ve got Florida State on there because I’m being rumored for that head-coaching job. You’ve got Seton Hall on there because Tommy Amaker is there, and you love Tommy. And you’ve got Old Dominion on there because … well, let’s just say it: You’ve got Old Dominion on there because of me.”

Jason isn’t saying anything, but he’s nodding along slowly, nervously. This is a tough conversation. My dad keeps his eyes on Jason and continues.

“And that leaves North Carolina, and, son — you have North Carolina on there because that’s where you’ve always wanted to go. That’s the school you have on here because of you. And I want you to listen to me closely, because this is important: You are a great player. And the coach in me would love to coach you. But the father in me? The father in me knows that North Carolina is the best place for you to go.”

I’ve never seen as much relief, and love, and gratitude on a person’s face, as I see on Jason’s face in that moment. Jason and I have spent our entire childhoods idolizing our dad, and rooting for him to succeed as a coach. We’ve been there for every firing and every hiring, every win and every loss. And I can tell how conflicted Jason is — how badly he wants to go to North Carolina, and fulfill his lifelong dream … but at the same time … how badly he wants to help fulfill my dad’s dreams, and give him the professional triumph that would come with landing a top five recruit. If my dad tells him to go to Old Dominion, that day in my apartment, then there’s not a doubt in my mind: He goes.

And so when my dad not only gives his blessing, but actually encourages Jason to play for UNC, well: I can see the weight lift right off of my brother’s shoulders in real time. He knows how lucky he is, to have our dad as his dad. In that moment, more than ever, we both do.

We finish packing up my stuff, and I drive the U-Haul home alone. Jason heads in the other direction, to Chapel Hill — where he commits to play basketball for North Carolina, that very same day.

My dad comes with him.


It’s the spring of 2001, I am 26 years old, and I am about to see my dad cry for the first, and only, time in my life.

We’re in the locker room at Old Dominion — where he has just been fired as the head basketball coach. After a strong start to his tenure there, the program’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse: four straight seasons without an NCAA tournament berth, and two straight seasons with a losing record. Fairly or not, many people at the school have pointed to my dad’s failure to recruit Jason, in the spring of ’97, as the moment that things began to fall apart. Why would we want a coach, they reasoned, who didn’t even think our team was good enough for his own son?

My dad doesn’t know it yet, as he calls the team in for a meeting, but this is the final time that he will ever address a group of student-athletes as a head coach. Old Dominion is the last college coaching job my dad will ever have.

He breaks the news to the team, and it isn’t a big scene. There’s nothing dramatic. He lets them know that he’s been fired — that this was the school’s decision. He lets them know that he didn’t quit — that he would never quit on them.

And then he lets them know that everything will be fine.

It’s gonna be fine, he says. It’s gonna be fine. And the team believes him, and I think I do too.

And then he cries.


It’s the spring of 2016, I am 41 years old, and we are walking out to the parking lot of the hospital. We’ve received my dad’s diagnosis, asked our questions, finished our conversations with the doctors and mapped out our plan. Now there is only one thing left to do.

Everything else.

That’s the one thing they don’t tell you on Google, or on Wikipedia, or on WebMD, when you’re looking up a disease. They don’t tell you that life goes on. They don’t tell you that you have to keep on going — as a son, as a husband, as a father, as a coach — even that very same day. That you somehow have to keep on being a person.

We don’t say much: not in the corridors of the hospital, not in the elevator down, and not on the way to our cars. After everything that’s happened today, no one really feels like talking. Though I’m not sure there’d be much to say, honestly, even if we wanted to. I love you? See you later? Sorry you have ALS? Everything in that moment either seems too general or too specific, too sentimental or too crude. We say our goodbyes and get in our separate cars. My mom drives off with my dad, heading home.

And I head to work.

I drive back to Duke, back to the basketball facility on campus. Park my car. Take a deep breath. I’ve got this, I think. Then I walk into the building and head downstairs, toward the locker room, where we’re having a staff meeting. I get there mid-meeting — Coach K is talking — and so I just sit down. Try to focus. But whatever he’s saying … my mind can only glaze over it. In my head, I’m still in that hospital. Still on Google, on Wikipedia, on WebMD. Still with my dad’s ALS.

After the meeting and practice, I go knock on Coach K’s office door. I ask if he has a second to chat.

Walking into that office, I can’t help but think about my dad … but for a different reason. I think back to how ready I was to leave Duke, as a freshman, all of those years ago. And how my dad is the one who talked me out of it, during that lunch at Damon’s. How my dad saw something in Coach K — maybe a kindred spirit, on some level — and how he knew, in a way that I just couldn’t, that my journey at Duke was something worth seeing through to the end.

And how Coach K, the man I wouldn’t stop complaining about at 18, has become, at 41, the only person in the world who I can manage to say the words to. And so I say them.

My dad has ALS.

I sit down in Coach’s office, and tell him everything.

And then I cry. I try not to break down, of course — but about halfway through I can just feel it coming. Can feel the tears inching up slowly through my body, all the way up from my stomach, those deep-down tears that there’s no point even trying to fight off. And so I don’t fight them. I just sit there, in the office of one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball, and I cry, and I cry, and I cry.


It’s the winter of 2017, I am 41 years old, and the only thing I know for certain is that my dad is still here.

Some days are better than others. There are days like the one where I come home after work, and say, “Hey, where’s Dad,” and there he is: in the backyard, sitting in his chair, drinking a beer and smoking a cigar, like old times. But then there are days like the one when he is scheduled to have a feeding tube put in — a preemptive measure that the doctors are recommending — and I can hear the anguish in his voice when he looks at me, and leans over, and whispers, “I don’t want to do it.”

The best day was actually five days. Every year on campus, Coach K holds a “fantasy camp” — called K Academy — for adults who are 35 and older. And K Academy ends up doubling as a sort of annual reunion for the Duke basketball family. Many of Coach K’s former players come back to Durham for the week, to help out and coach the camp’s various teams. It’s always a great time, and one of my very favorite weeks of the year.

Last year, though, I didn’t come to K Academy alone. Instead, I brought in a good old-fashioned ringer — a guy with 35 years of coaching experience. Last year, my dad was my assistant.

In this business, they say that you can tell the real ones by paying attention to who gets called “Coach.” Sure, all coaches get called “Coach,” to an extent. But with most of them, you’ll also get some “Mr. [whatever their last name is]” thrown in. Or some get called “sir.” Or — especially in the NBA — you’ll just have guys using the coach’s first name. But for a small group of coaches, a select few, it doesn’t matter where they are, or who’s talking to them. Some people are just “Coach,” always. No matter what. And that’s my dad.

And that’s how it went, for those five days at K Academy. I was Jeff. My dad was Coach. I wish the week could have lasted forever.

img_4037

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how good I’ve had it, in my profession, compared to my dad. I’ve gotten to be a part of this amazing coaching tree that Coach K has built here in Durham — and have been afforded some amazing opportunities as a result: head coach at 27, head coach of a high-major at 31, associate head coach of Duke at 39. My dad had it so much tougher: coming up in a decade that was far less welcoming for black coaches — and having to start at the high school JV level, on his own, without any connections. And certainly without any tree.

My dad never once got a head-coaching opportunity above mid-major … and I consider him a much more successful coach than I’ve ever been. And like I said: Sometimes I feel guilty about that.

But then I think back to K Academy last summer, when my dad was by my side. I remember the look on his face, as I saw him see me: in my element, at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where I belong. And it was then that I realized something I should have realized a long time ago — something that I think, in the back of my mind, I’ve always known.

A coaching tree … my dad never really wanted one.

The only tree my dad has ever wanted, I now realize, is a family tree.

And he’s got one of the best ones around. It is a tree that he has loved, and protected, and nourished, for all of his life — through thick and through thin. And as he enters what I hope will be a very long twilight of that life, and as Jason and I both have kids and families of our own, he can rest assured: that his tree is in full bloom. With a strong base, and a tall trunk, and branches that are only just now beginning to reach out into the world. That’s his tree. And that’s his legacy.

fullsizerender

My dad’s ALS, I am sad to report, continues to progress. We are fighting — always fighting — but still, in the end, we are remaining realistic. The truth is: ALS will take my dad’s speech; and it will take my dad’s movement; and yes, there is a good chance that it will eventually take his life.

But it ain’t ever coming for his tree.

That tree belongs to Jeff Capel Jr. — and it will grow, and it will last. And I know this because, on the day when it does, finally, come time to say goodbye, dozens and dozens of people are going to congregate in a small town in North Carolina. And they are going to pay their respects, and share their stories: About what an honorable soldier he was. And what a principled leader. And what a great coach. And what a good man.

And me? I’m just going to miss my dad.

 

capel-sig

Throughout my whole life, I’ve learned the importance of teams. Growing up, I was always around my dad’s basketball teams, and my own. And it’s because of the best team I’ve ever been on — the one of my dad, my mom, my brother and me — that I’ve become the man I am today. Now, the four of us are joining another team: the millions around the world fighting to find a cure for ALS. This is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, but we’re ready to face it the only way we know how: as a team. We’ve partnered with the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, NC to establish the Jeff Capel Jr. ALS Research Fund. It is our desire to raise funds to support their research efforts, with an ultimate goal of finding a cure. To learn more about how to join us in our fight, please click here.

It’s My Turn Now

When my kids read this story someday, I want them to know that I fought this disease and that I did everything in my power to defeat it.

Read More