When Will Brown was a teenager, back when he was playing pickup games at Stony Brook's Pritchard Gymnasium and taking chemistry class at Miller Place High from Joe Castiglie, Stony Brook's coach, his life took a weird turn.
A 205-pound junior who was getting recruiting letters from major Division I basketball programs, Brown suddenly became a skinny 160-pound kid getting sleepy every day. He missed seven weeks of school and visited what seemed like every doctor on Long Island before he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a condition that causes severe intestinal inflammation and other havoc.
Brown heard then for the first time what he would hear over and over for years: "I don't know if you'll be able to play basketball." So he considers it a gift that he not only played but became an All-Long Island high scorer, a star at Dowling and a coach who has led Albany to two NCAA Tournaments.
It would be an upset if Brown's freshman-oriented, eighth-seeded Great Danes (2-14 America East, 7-24 overall) beat the Seawolves, but you never know. Albany lost to Stony Brook by only six at Pritchard in January and by two in Albany two weeks ago, on Muhammad El-Amin's jumper just before the final buzzer. Besides, it was an upset that Brown had a career, let alone one that landed him in the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame last month.
"I know a lot of people in that Hall have better resumes than I do, so I'm really humbled," he said on the phone from his office.
His official induction on May 6 will be a tribute not only to what he has achieved but what he has overcome, and rather quietly. Brown's players don't even know about the Crohn's.
Before he was diagnosed at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, his condition was called a viral infection. After a 31-point game for Miller Place in 1989, he said, "It gets to me in the third or fourth quarter."
His coach at the time said it might not be a good idea if Brown kept playing. The coach happened to be his father, Bill.
The younger Brown was recruited by the University of Pennsylvania, where his illness flared. He was told he couldn't play and that he was lucky he could "settle" for an Ivy League education. "I said, 'Hey, I can't do that,' " he said.
He transferred close to home and collected more than 1,000 points and 500 assists at Dowling. An admitted basketball junkie, he took a job as an assistant coach at the College of St. Rose - and his illness hit him the hardest yet.
"I remember being on the phone to my dad, saying, 'I just need to have surgery.' They took out 31/2 feet of my intestines. Knock on wood, it's been good for the past 13 years," he said.
(Although he has been battling Lyme disease this season.)
Brown went 90-10 as coach at Sullivan County Community College, interviewed unsuccessfully for the Stony Brook job in 1999 (at 27), took over at Albany in 2002 and turned down the St. Bonaventure job in 2007.
He has had some great moments, none better than the night in 2006 when his team led No. 2 Connecticut by 12 in the second half of Albany's first NCAA Tournament game.
So he has been where Stony Brook wants to go. "I've gotten to know [coach] Steve Pikiell over the years. He's a great guy, he works really hard," Brown said. "As a head coach of a young program, you go for a while and see light at the end of the tunnel, but sometimes it seems very dim."
He is impressed with Stony Brook's heart and talent. "Thank goodness El-Amin is graduating," said the coach who knows how far Stony Brook has come - and knows what it's like to come a long way.