Patrick Reusse: He does it for the cause and from the heart

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2008 - 6:59 AM

His mother's illness is one reason a senior on St. Thomas' basketball team has a family fundraiser to fight Huntington's disease.

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St. Thomas basketball player B.J. Viau was 9 when he asked his father if the family could raise funds to fight Huntington’s disease.

Photo: Elias Adams, University Of St. Thomas

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The St. Thomas men's basketball team was going through its last practice before the Christmas break on Tuesday afternoon. The Tommies were 8-0 and sitting No. 3 in the latest national rankings by D3hoops.com.

This lofty status comes off as a bit puzzling when you see the lack of height that coach Steve Fritz is dealing with again this winter. Anders Halvorsen, a backup sophomore center, might be close to his listed 6-8.

The rest of the program heights appear inflated, particularly the 6-6 for Al McCoy, the starting center. Al would be required to stick a wet finger in a light socket -- causing his dreadlocks to go airborne -- in order to reach 6-6.

"We're a bit undersized, but we make up for it with the energy we bring to every game," guard B.J. Viau said. "Steve uses 10 or more players, and we pressure teams defensively for 40 minutes.

"It would be tough to find a group of guys that loves to play basketball more than we do."

Viau was on the Eastview team that lost the 2005 state Class 4A title game to Hopkins. The loss came after Blake Hoffarber's infamous toss while on his back forced a second overtime.

Viau spent his freshman season seeing much of his action on the Tommies junior varsity. He was a reserve as a sophomore, which was the last season for the Big Three of Isaac Rosefelt, Bryan Schnettler and Mike Keating.

The departure of the three seniors left the Tommies of 2007-08 with modest expectations -- outside the program, anyway.

"We knew we were going to be good," Viau said. "And when the season ended the way it did, everyone said, 'It was a great year,' but we were disappointed."

The Tommies were 22-4 heading into the Division III tournament. Included was a startling upset at Winona State, the eventual Division II national champ. And then the Tommies were upset on their home court by Buena Vista in the tournament opener.

There are four seniors who would like to leave St. Thomas on a higher note: starters Viau, McCoy and Lonnie Robinson and backup point guard Brett Tuma.

Viau's hopes for March are such that a later date -- April 5 -- has been chosen for the Viau family's annual Hoop-a-Thon (hoopathon.com) in Apple Valley.

The funds raised (approaching a half million dollars) are directed toward research for Huntington's disease, and for a very personal reason:

Debbie Viau suffered her onset of the disease 13 years ago, when daughter Emily was 12 and son Bryan Jr. (B.J.) was 9.

A few months later, the Viaus went to a fundraiser in Minneapolis. It was built around basketball, and there were perhaps 50 people in attendance.

On the way home, B.J. asked his father, "You think we could do something like this in Apple Valley?"

The Viau family's first Hoop-a-Thon was held in 1998, and $6,000 was raised. It's become a combination of basketball and community fair, with a goal of raising $40,000 to $50,000 annually.

Huntington's disease is a debilitating affliction that reads like a combination of Parkinson's, Tourette and MS. It is strictly hereditary. And it has struck Debbie's family from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for generations.

The cause -- a faulty gene in chromosome 4 -- was not discovered until 1993.

Anyone who inherits that gene will develop the disease at some point. Often, it arrives in the 30s, as it did with Debbie, and there also can be a late onset after age 50.

"If a parent has Huntington's, there's a 50 percent chance that a child will inherit the gene," B.J. said. "There are tests that can be done earlier in life that indicate whether you have the gene."

Viau was sitting on a fold-out row of bleachers in the Tommies arena. "I haven't been tested as of yet," he said. "It's an emotional situation."

The Viaus went through an extremely emotional situation a couple of years ago. There was a group residence for Huntington's patients opening near the family home in Apple Valley. The residence had a limit of four patients.

"It was sort of a situation where, 'It's now or never to get Mom this type of care,' " B.J. said. "So, she lives there, and we visit all the time."

Bryan Sr. also picks up his wife and they attend B.J.'s games at St. Thomas. Steve Fritz, the Tommy of all Tommies on this campus, choked up slightly when asked about Debbie Viau.

"She's an amazing lady," he said. "The whole family -- B.J.'s dad, his sister ... he's a great kid from a wonderful family."

Debbie came home on Christmas Eve and will spend the next few days round-the-clock with her family.

"No one enjoys Christmas more than my mom," B.J. said. "It will be a great time for all of us."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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