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Air Force assistant basketball coach Drew Long on leave, fighting cancer

January 21, 2014 Updated: January 21, 2014 at 7:25 am
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For two months, Air Force men's basketball has been without one of its assistant coaches.

On Monday coach Dave Pilipovich at last addressed the long absence of Drew Long, but not before taking a deep breath and choking back a wave of emotion.

"He's having his personal battle with cancer right now," Pilipovich said.

Long, 32, has been in Houston with his wife and three young daughters since Thanksgiving for treatment of rectal cancer. Part of his colon has been removed and two weeks ago he began chemo and radiation treatments.

"He's doing well," Pilipovich said. "High spirit, high energy. We think about him often, talk to him daily and text him. He texts the guys and checks in on us."

It was in Houston where Long received the cancer diagnosis. He grew up in that area and his parents still live there with his sister across the street. He figures to stay there through the five-week chemo process.

"As he said, the kids are excited," Pilipovich said. "They're down with grandma and granddad. But they can detect something is wrong and he's not well."

Long was an assistant at Colorado under Jeff Bzdelik and came to Air Force under former coach Jeff Reynolds. Pilipovich retained him after replacing Reynolds.

Long has a history of stomach issues and was diagnosed with Crohn's disease while in college at Northwestern. He began losing energy this past spring, the result of losing blood. He chalked it up to the same problems that had plagued him in the past. He explored it more thoroughly after struggling through a trip to Virginia early in November for the All-Military Classic.

It was shortly after that he learned the dreaded news and told the team that he would be taking a medical leave. He didn't say anything about cancer, but word quickly made its way to the players.

"It was a shock to everybody," freshman forward Hayden Graham said, "but it kind of hit me hard."

Graham, like Long a Texas native, was among the players recruited by the assistant. Long was the first to approach Graham and tell him that Air Force was interested, and he was also the first to explain to Graham's family what being a cadet would require.

"He was the one who drew me into this place," Graham said. "I trusted in him and listened to him, what he had to say about it. We had a really good bond. We still text and talk a lot."

Long's wife, Melissa, created bracelets in Drew's honor that have the word, "Fight," as well as some inspirational letters.

Graham never removes the bracelet, even when ordered by upperclassmen to do so.

"It's not coming off," Graham said. "I'll take the punishment."

A familial vibe permeates the Falcons program. Pilipovich's wife sits in the same spot during every home game, along with her daughter, and is seated next to the wife of assistant Steve Snell. After games, assistant Nick Welch's three young boys take over the court.

The family is clearly hurting as one of its own is in the midst of a serious fight.

"You know that blockout we missed on Saturday? It doesn't mean that much," Pilipovich said. "The offensive charge call? The missed wide-open 3? When you think about it, this is the most important thing - getting him healthy and being there for his wife and kids and living a long life."

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