From tears to smiles

  • Article by: JIM PAULSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 14, 2012 - 12:03 AM

The sudden death of Kelli Jo Behrens-Coley left holes in the hearts of her husband and daughters. But basketball has helped ease their pain as they coach and play at Minneapolis Washburn.

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With the opponent's shot missing the mark, Chase Coley released early and led the fast break.

At half-court, the long-limbed sophomore center for Minneapolis Washburn took a teammate's pass, pulled away from the defense and deftly converted a finger-roll layup.

It's the type of smooth finish expected from a guard a half-foot shorter than the 6-2 Coley, whose athleticism has college coaches taking notice.

On this night last week, as she turned and ran back down court, she flashed a wide smile -- an infrequent occurrence last year -- that made someone else smile back.

On the sideline, her father Tylor, the Washburn girls' basketball coach, held his grin on his oldest daughter for an extra moment until he caught her eye.

Fifteen months ago, smiles were hard to come by for the Coleys.

"I play basketball to make my parents proud," Chase said. "My mom was around a lot more than my dad before. I used to tell her everything. It's different with dad, but it's better now."

Better than on Nov. 3, 2010.

Unimaginable happens

Kelli Jo Behrens-Coley, wife to Tylor and mother of Chase and her sister, Kendall, was preparing for Kendall's 8th birthday party that day when she collapsed at their Eagan home. She died of a heart attack.

Kelli Jo, a fitness buff and Gophers basketball player in the early 1980s, was 46. A reason for her heart failure was never determined.

"It was the most horrible thing a family can experience," said Rachelle Bigler, Kelli's best friend and roommate in college. "I can't imagine what that must have been like for them."

For Chase, who had just open enrolled at Washburn hoping to play on her father's team, the pressure was suddenly almost too much to bear.

The Coleys had lived in the Minneapolis Washburn district before moving to Eagan in 2007, to a larger house with higher ceilings better suited to the tall family.

Tylor became coach in 2009. The program had endured some lean years, so the arrival of Chase, with her height and skills, was highly anticipated.

"I told the team the year before Chase got here that we would finally be getting a presence in the middle that we didn't have before," Tylor said.

Pain of missing wife, mom

Kelli Jo's death changed everything. Suddenly a single father of two, Tylor heeded Washburn athletic director Dan Pratt's advice and took a leave of absence.

So there was Chase, in a new school and with high expectations, suddenly missing a support system.

"It was tough on her," her father said. "She cried a lot. There was one time in a game when I saw her come out and I thought she was hurt. But she said she couldn't play because she missed mom."

Despite the circumstances, Chase averaged nearly 10 points and more than five rebounds for a team that won only eight games.

Off the court was a different story.

A desire to be closer to their roots led the Coleys to move back to Minneapolis last year. For Chase, the move took some readjusting.

"It seemed wrong, kind of," she said, her voice cracking slightly. "I remember when I used to come home [in Eagan] and I would come in the hallway by the kitchen. The dog would run up to me and I would hear mom's voice say 'Hello?'

"It was like we were just leaving her behind."

Getting back on the court

Tylor Coley returned to the Washburn bench after the holiday break of the 2010-11 season.

The time off was important, he said, but he had to get back.

A player at Grace College, an NAIA school in his home state of Indiana, basketball is his passion. The gym is where he comes alive. For his family, it's a hub of activity, as comfortable as a well-used rec room, the squeak of shoes and the thump-thump-thump of bouncing balls the family soundtrack.

After losing Kelli Jo, Tylor wasn't going to lose basketball, too.

"When Kendall was born, Kelli told me that I had to stop coaching," Tylor said with a grin. "When she turned 5 and went to school, [Kelli] gave me permission to go back and start coaching again. She knew that was something that I needed to do."

His return was just as important to his daughters. Seeing their father happy and working and full of spirit, it gave them hope. During last week's game, Kendall sat with older students in the bleachers, simultaneously enjoying the game and doing homework. On this night, like so many others, the Coleys wouldn't be home before 10 p.m.

"Basketball is a good distraction," Chase said. "It helps to be together."

Amid fierce loyalty, love

The change in Chase Coley was noticeable from the first day of school last fall.

"Her spirit was back. She was upbeat,'' said Washburn boys' basketball coach Reggie Perkins, a close friend of the family. "She walked through the doors and she was smiling."

These days she smiles easily and laughs and dances with a group of teammates who take laughter as seriously as they take the game.

Coley is averaging a double-double -- 18 points and 13.4 rebounds -- while helping the young Millers to an encouraging 13-7 start and first place in the Minneapolis Conference.

"It's getting better," Tylor Coley said. "If it wasn't for basketball, we might have been seeing a therapist two or three times a week. But there really hasn't been time."

Said Bigler: "They're fiercely loyal to each other. They're all they have. You can tell how much he loves them and how much they love him."

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