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In sickness and in health, and in basketball

Posted Sunday, January 11, 2009 by Bob Baird - The Journal News

On Thursday evening, Luke Houston's family and friends gathered in the Pearl River High School gym to watch him get hot in the first half of his varsity basketball game, hitting three 3-point baskets for the Pirates.

The Houston clan has spent decades in that gym, one basketball practice or game at a time. Luke's dad, Kevin, and uncle, Jerry Jr., played their high school basketball there. Jerry Jr. is now the varsity coach and his father, Jerry Sr., is an assistant coach. Luke's mother, Liz, cheered there as a Pirette. And just before Christmas, Liz Houston was on the sideline in her wheelchair, cheering for Luke and his teammates in Pearl River's Christmas Tournament.

A lot of her Pearl River friends hadn't seen Liz for a while, and they told her how good she looked. She thanked them and assured them she was feeling well - as well as could be expected after almost five years battling an insidious killer called scleroderma. The disease can turn skin to leather, deform extremities and in its worst forms, can attack internal organs.

The spot where Liz Houston sat before Christmas came to be known as "The Zone," and that's where the family and friends were Thursday, just hours after her funeral at St. Margaret's Church in Pearl River and a celebration of her life at the Elks Club. Just a year ago, almost 700 people jammed the club for a benefit that raised thousands of dollars for the Houstons to help modify their home, buy special equipment and provide support for Luke and his two sisters while mom and dad searched for treatments that held out hope, if not a cure. The event brought out the Pearl River community, but it also brought out friends from the Houston family business - basketball.

Kevin went on from Pearl River to lead the nation in scoring his senior year at West Point, earning him a spot in the Army Sports Hall of Fame. Until Liz's illness, he coached youth and high school basketball near their home in New Windsor. Brother Jerry Jr. went on to play at Dominican College and then coach. Jerry Sr. in the past year has been honored for his play at St. John's University with selection to its All-Century Team and a key role in a St. John's segment in the Top 50 Moments of Madison Square Garden. He's retired after a long coaching career at Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers. Kevin's sister, Gina, teaches at niece Leanne's school and coaches her team.

Last week, hundreds turned out again at Wyman-Fisher Funeral Home in Pearl River, at St. Margaret's and the celebration later. Among those at Thursday's events were Kevin's high school teammates and Luke's teammates, too. Kevin's backcourt partner at West Point, Randy Cozzens, made the trip from Dallas, where the Houstons visited several times. From St. John's, there were former coaches Brian Mahoney and the legendary Lou Carnesecca and Mel Davis, who went on to play for the New York Knicks and is now on the university's Athletic Department staff.

At St. Margaret's, Barbara Miranda of Suffern, one of Liz Houston's five siblings, spoke of her sister's love for Kevin and their family and Kevin's love for her. Taking comfort from the faith that Liz is in a better place with their mother and father, Miranda told a packed church, "Those who know and love her know God has a special mission for Liz."

In his eulogy, Kevin's West Point classmate and brother-in-law, James Gagliano, recalled how Liz would sneak her future husband away from the Military Academy, hiding him under blankets in her car's back seat. During Liz's illness, "She looked at the thorn bush and marveled at the beauty of the rose," Gagliano said. She was an expert at deflection, he said, always answering questions about how she felt with comments about the children's latest games or achievements.

Giving voice to what he was sure were Liz's feelings, Gagliano spoke directly to Kevin: "You embodied the words 'in sickness and in health.'"

It wasn't long after she lost her mother in April 2004 that doctors put a name to what had been ailing Liz. Just weeks later, I invited Kevin Houston to be the speaker at the upcoming Journal News Scholar-Athlete of the Year dinner. When I asked if he'd like to bring his wife, he said he wasn't sure. His wife had just been diagnosed with scleroderma, and he wasn't certain she'd feel up to it.

I spent the next hour or so telling him about my daughter Tracy's experience with the disease. She was diagnosed in 1996, but had symptoms for several years before that. About a year later, the disease attacked her kidneys and she spent 10 days in intensive care. With aggressive treatment and doubtless much luck, she responded. Her illness had hit a plateau, I told him, adding that while there is no cure, doctors have gotten better at treating the impacts. There was promising research going on and a movie about the death of comic Bob Saget's sister had introduced the public to scleroderma.

Tracy and Liz spoke for a while, sharing thoughts about the illness and what the future might hold. All the time, Kevin and Liz were searching out new doctors and new options, drawing upon the Scleroderma Foundation and learning all they could.

Around the time of the Friends of Liz and Kevin benefit last March, Liz entered a clinical trial involving a Novartis drug, Gleevec, that has been successful in treating leukemia, an abdominal cancer called GIST and others. The hope was that the drug might shut off overproduction of collagen, one of the body's building materials that can cause the skin, blood vessels or internal organs to stiffen.

Liz and Kevin were at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan early on the day of the opening round of the Christmas Tournament. Unlike Tracy, scleroderma had attacked Liz's lungs, but that day her doctor was pleased with how they sounded and her blood work was good, too.

She enjoyed the tournament and Christmas at home in New Windsor and in Pearl River, where Luke has been living with Kevin's parents. That Saturday, she had a sniffle, but wanted to go shopping. By early Tuesday morning, she was in St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital. Chest congestion turned out to be pneumonia. When Liz breathed on her own after a stint on a respirator, it gave rise to hope. But a fever was hard to control and her lungs weren't providing needed oxygen.

Daughter Lauren, home from her junior year at college, seldom left her mother's side, where family and friends - sometimes as a many as 50 - made visits.

On Jan. 3, "she had a very peaceful, painless exit," Kevin Houston said.

One Pearl River game was canceled last week, and on Thursday Hastings coach Dennis Hurley - whose father had given Jerry Houston Sr. his first job at a summer basketball camp almost 40 years ago - reached out to Pearl River Athletic Director Tom Collins. He offered to postpone that day's 4:15 game so the family could have more time with friends.

The Houstons opted to move the game to 6:15 p.m., allowing the family and friends - and Liz, too, in spirit - to be there as Luke scored 13 points to help Pearl River to an overtime victory, 69-66.

Additional Facts

FYI

- To learn more about scleroderma or to make a donation in Liz Houston's memory, contact the Scleroderma Foundation, Tri-State Chapter, 59 Front Street, Binghamton, N.Y. 13905.
- Contributions are also welcome to a fund for the Houston children's college education at Friends of Liz and Kevin, c/o Bill and Cathy Guerci, 595 Blauvelt Road, Pearl River, NY 10965.

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