Utah Jazz: Jazz center Kosta Koufos honors dad

At age 9, Koufos lost his father to cancer.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One of those "Jazz Fans Parking Only" signs hangs on the door, part of a collection of towels, pennants and mugs direct from the team store at EnergySolutions Arena to the guidance counselor's office at GlenOak High.

More than just a proud mother, Kathy Koufos wants to deliver a message to the aspiring doctors, the future Broadway performers, even the kid who came into her office recently declaring he wanted to be a professional wrestler.

"Whatever you want to be, you can," Kathy said. "Kids have to have dreams and they have to be passionate about something. I feel very strongly about this. All of us have to be passionate about what it is that we want to do."

Her youngest son, Kosta, is living his dream at all of 20 years old, having finished his rookie season with the Jazz. But he didn't reach the NBA simply because he was blessed to be 7 feet tall, even if he did pray for height when he was younger.

Instead, Kosta poured himself into basketball with a dedication like few others following the death of his father when Kosta was 9. A decade later, Alex Koufos' fate still raises questions about faith and fairness for those who knew the highly regarded hematologist/oncologist.

After years spent at hospitals from Columbus, Ohio, to Cincinnati to Montreal, Alex came home to work at Akron Children's Hospital only to be given a death sentence with a rare form of bile duct cancer that ultimately took his life in April 1998.

"As a priest, when you hear these things, it stops you in your tracks and you say, 'How could this be, Lord?' " the Rev. Dan Rogich said. "'How could this be that someone who gives their life to fight this disease ends up succumbing to it?'"

Kosta remembers playing catch with his father in the backyard growing up and setting up model train sets after Alex got sick. He was too young to understand everything that was happening and now can only wonder what his dad would think of his NBA life.

"I think he would've been proud," Kosta said. "At the same time, too, he would've told me to stay focused and keep working hard. My dad was a very good doctor and he worked hard in what he did and he just believed in doing the best job."

The void Alex left had to be filled by Kathy, who got a crash course in how to raise a basketball star, as well as Rogich, a former Division II basketball player at Franciscan University, who became a mentor to Kosta at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Canton.

"Believe or not, there's a lot of tears just watching him, because he deserves it, really," Rogich said. "We're proud of him. We're proud of his accomplishments. He really worked hard for this. He's one of our kids, he's just one of our kids. We just feel so close."

Fighting cancer

Dr. Carl E. Krill Jr. considers the day he found Alex Koufos sitting in his office at Akron Children's Hospital almost as a gift.

Not only had Alex trained in one of the best oncology programs in the country in Cincinnati, but he also had gone on to do research work at the Ludwig Institute in Montreal, where he helped detect a Wilms' tumor gene leading to a form of childhood kidney cancer.

"He was a perfect, perfect fit for us," said Krill, now the retired former director of hematology and oncology in Akron, "but he was a perfect fit for everybody else, too."

Having grown up in Canton and attended medical school at Ohio State, Alex decided to come home. He worked for eight years in Akron, treating children with leukemia and other cancers, before he was stricken with cholangiocarcinoma in November 1996.

"It was very heart-rending," Krill said, "because coming from oncologists and physicians, if you see somebody who develops jaundice and they have no pain, it's a very bad sign."

Alex knew the survival rate better than anyone for a cancer with no genetic links. The family still traveled to centers in New York, Baltimore and Buffalo, N.Y., before Alex started intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the University of Michigan.

"We knew, but we admired his courage," Krill said. "I must admit that a year-and-a-half after he was diagnosed, I was encouraged and I thought he was doing well."

So much so, in fact, that Krill started to envision a future in which Alex would succeed him as director at Akron Children's. Alex continued to work at the hospital, including various weekend shifts, until the month before his death.

"I'll never forget how he would smile when I'd ask him how his kids were and what they were doing on this Saturday," Krill said. "He would always smile a knowing smile and say they were attending Greek school."

But Alex developed an infection and had to be hospitalized. The family traveled to Pittsburgh in pursuit of a liver transplant, but Alex was told he wasn't a candidate. He died there April 26, 1998, at age 45.

Alex's stature as a doctor could be seen in the number of people who came to his funeral.

"It wasn't just parents of patients who had survived the cancer," Kathy said. "It was also parents of patients who had died. They shared with me how compassionate he was and how dedicated he was."

Whenever he is home, Kosta visits his father's grave in the Forest Hill Cemetery. He thinks about him every day, while Kathy confesses to saying prayers at critical moments in games. Nothing explains why cancer came after Alex.

Did Kosta ever consider following in his father's footsteps as a doctor?

"He had talked about that at some point," Kathy said. "He was interested, but the kids would see how much time their dad put into it and how much time he was away from the family. It wasn't something that they really seriously considered."

The hospital still holds a memorial lecture in Alex's honor each year. Krill retired two years after Alex's death but still watches Kosta play on television and checks box scores every morning. "We really loved Alex," he said, "and we miss him greatly."

Basketball 101

As tough as it was for Kathy to raise three children after her husband's death, nothing could have prepared her for life as the mother of one of the country's top high school basketball players.

She worked in education, her husband in medicine. Her oldest son, Vasilios, played in the high school band while her daughter, Maria, sang choir. Yet Kosta developed into a sweet-shooting center recruited by every top college program in the country.

GlenOak coach Jack Greynolds Jr. has a favorite story from Kosta's sophomore season, when Kathy didn't know the difference between the Big Ten and Mid-American conferences.

"She's like, 'Somebody from the Big Mac Conference called him,' " Greynolds said. "I said, 'Really? Is that the Hamburglar or Ronald McDonald?' That was kind of like our inside joke for a long time: 'Did any Big Mac schools call you lately?' "

But Kathy schooled herself in the various coaches and conferences. She went to all of Kosta's high school games, spent her summers traveling to AAU tournaments in Las Vegas and met with coaches from Thad Matta to Rick Pitino to Tom Izzo.

When Kosta played for Greece in the Under-18 championships, Kathy made the trip to Spain. She pulled all-nighters during his lone season at Ohio State, missing only three of his games as she covered hundreds of miles of interstate in a Ford Windstar van.

Once the Jazz drafted Kosta in the first round last year, Kathy had one more homework assignment.

She stayed up late putting together a packet to study on the flight to Utah for Kosta's introductory news conference, all about the players on the roster, Jerry Sloan and his coaching staff, even the franchise's Stockton-to-Malone history.

During Kosta's rookie season, Kathy stayed up late watching Jazz games, with a computer at her side for stats. She spent lunch periods reading newspaper stories and even had bookmarked some Jazz blogs. She has scrapbooks for every season of his career.

When Kosta was playing, Kathy would be his biggest critic. "She'd be like, 'You did this-and-this-and-this wrong,' " he said, adding that it was anything but a negative: "That's the reason why I've been good, because she's never lied to me ever."

While the Jazz were on their annual pre-Christmas trip, Kosta took the first step in repaying his mother. His brother helped Kosta surprise her with a fully loaded Ford Edge "with wonderful rims, I kid you not," Kathy joked.

"She deserves it," Kosta said. "She deserves a lot more. I'm going to always be in debt to her because of what she's done for me in my younger years."

Closing the gym

The stories of Kosta's work ethic are legend at GlenOak. He broke his foot his junior year, yet would scoot around the court on a stool to take 500 shots some days, making sure somebody kept watch in case his mom was coming.

That same year, after a loss to rival Massillon in which Kosta missed a three-pointer in the final seconds, Greynolds remembers him going back out to the court and not leaving until he had hit 100 shots from that same spot.

Playing in the NBA is "his dream, but then it's one we knew was going to happen and something that he worked for forever," said T.J. Sutton, one of several former high-school teammates still at GlenOak.

"He did more than anybody I've ever seen. He was here from whenever the gym was open till whenever it was closed."

Kosta wore No. 31 in honor of Reggie Miller and played pickup games with LeBron James in high school, but considered playing in the NBA a fantasy until he was selected to the McDonald's All-American game as a senior.

Yet Kosta's background couldn't have been more atypical for a one-and-done college player. He was a member of the National Honor Society, graduated with a 3.7 GPA, and took college courses through Kent State while still in high school.

At Holy Trinity, he was the "world's tallest altar boy," Rogich jokes. His robe still hangs in a closet at the church, far too long for any other server to wear.

The plan always had been for Kosta to play at least two years in college, but he faced a decision about declaring for the draft after earning MVP honors in the NIT.

Only 19, Kosta already had turned down multimillion-dollar offers to play in Greece, honoring his commitment to Ohio State instead. Kathy and Rogich asked Kosta whether the NBA was in his heart and where he thought his game could best develop.

"The way I look at it, the younger you are in the NBA, the longer you have to learn more," Kosta said.

He was projected as a lottery pick before the draft, but slid to the Jazz with the No. 23 pick. The hometown Cleveland Cavaliers passed on Kosta, who hadn't even worked out for Utah. But Kathy now says she couldn't have been happier with where he ended up.

"I don't think we could have had a more perfect fit," Kathy said. For his part, Rogich jokes that within an hour of Kosta being drafted, he had calls from two Greek realtors and two Greek priests in Salt Lake City.

The second-youngest player in the NBA last season after Golden State's Anthony Randolph, Kosta didn't turn 20 until Feb. 24. He averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds but played in only 48 games, getting an education in waiting his turn.

For being so young, though, his rookie season went smoothly. He lived in a one-bedroom condo downtown and started the year taking online courses, before he could fully appreciate the demands of the NBA schedule.

While the Jazz were in the playoffs, Kosta tried to visualize what it would be like on the floor. He returned home to Canton to work out in advance of playing in summer league with the Jazz and the European championships with the Greek national team.

"I just love the game," Kosta said. "I love playing it, I love working hard at it and I just love my situation."

At the same time, John Shoup, Kosta's 11th-grade chemistry teacher, can't help but wonder if he wouldn't trade everything in basketball for the chance to bring his father back.

"You could sense some of the intensity that he plays with," Shoup said. "He's going to carry that and that'll be a good thing and a bad thing for him. He'll always want to prove something to his dad."


Kosta Koufos

Position » Center

College » Ohio State

Height/Weight » 7-0/265

2008-2009 Jazz stats » averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds but played in only 48 games during rookie season

» Koufos was the second-youngest player in the NBA last season after Golden State's Anthony Randolph. Koufos turned 20 on Feb. 24.

» Koufos went to Ohio State for a year after turning down multimillion-dollar offers to play in Greece.

» The Jazz selected Koufos with the No. 23 pick in last year's NBA Draft.