Stan still has his laugh

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

They were cruising the Caribbean last week when Phyllis Albeck turned to her husband of 52 years.

"I know you don't feel this way," she said, "but if it hadn't been for the stroke, we wouldn't be here right now. You'd still be working."

That is the trade that has been made, not by Stan and Phyllis Albeck, but for them.

Albeck, a former assistant coach with the Raptors, is back home in San Antonio. He has a media pass for all the Spurs' home games. At 72, he can now enjoy his five children and six grandkids. He has time for travel, time for Phyllis, but the basketball life that sustained him until he was stricken in the Raptors dressing room in December 2001 is now out of reach.

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A stroke has left one of the game's most brilliant storytellers struggling to get the words out.

"There is progress," said Phyllis, who acts as therapist, taskmaster, confidante and caregiver, "but right now for us it's about keeping what we have."

Every day, Stan and Phyllis work for three hours. Electric massage for his shoulders and neck, pulley work to bolster his right side, hot wax and forms to keep his fingers from curling. Stan rides the exercise bike for two miles. Then, Phyllis reminds him that it is time to read out loud for an hour. Reading helps squeeze the words past the relays scattered by the stroke and out into the open.

Basketball was the other woman in Stan Albeck's life and Phyllis Mann was fine with that from the moment she spied a visiting high school basketball player in her hometown of Pontiac, Ill.

"He flirted with me," Phyllis says with a laugh. "At least I think he flirted with me. He already had a girlfriend. It took me two years to break it up."

They were married back in Pontiac when Stan was on leave from the service. Phyllis had just graduated high school.

Seventeen times they moved. They worked the whistlestops -- Peoria, Ill., Pacific Grove, Calif., Marquette, Mich. Albeck was an NBA head man in Cleveland, San Antonio, New Jersey and Chicago, an assistant under Lenny Wilkens in Atlanta and Toronto.

It wasn't an easy life. The game was still developing. Minor league and college coaches were paid miserable wages. "We had powdered milk and wore hand-me-downs until I was about 15," remembered their son Jon.

For many of those years, Albeck had one assistant coach on the bench. When he came home, Phyllis was there to commiserate on bellyaching players and meddling general managers.

It was Phyllis who made every city an adventure. The kids learned about tuna fishing in San Diego. They were introduced to horse racing in Louisville.

She said cried for a month when he was fired by San Antonio. "Those were great guys," she said, "Ice (George Gervin) and Artis (Gilmore) but I told Stan, I go where you go."

There were always stories. Stan canned Phil Jackson for wearing a Panama hat to a job interview with the Bulls. He survived the American Basketball Association and coached Michael Jordan.

There were also plenty of tales about home; like the time Phyllis delivered twins in the middle of a blackout, lit up by a portable generator.

The stories may now be told by others, but the laughter is still there.

"The best thing I remember about my Dad is his laugh," Jon Albeck said. "He can laugh just the way he used to and that's pretty cool."

Toronto, said Phyllis, was lovely. The care for Stan at St. Michael's Hospital was first rate. "The Raptors were so kind," Phyllis said, "and the people at the Rehabilitation Centre are responsible for Stan being able to walk today."

There were hard times, still are. Stan found Wilkens' firing by the Raptors in 2003 tough to take. "It was like his connection to the game was now gone," Jon said.

He had been told that the 18-month mark would be a benchmark but when his progress stalled, he was devastated.

But there is the travel and the kids and when the weather is too hot to go outside, the Costco across the street is air conditioned.

And there is Phyllis.

When Stan takes the phone, he struggles but manages to name the countries he visited on the cruise.

"You've got a great one taking care of you there, Stan."

"I do," he says, and then you hear the old Stan and the laugh his son so covets.

"I sure do."


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