Gone, but not forgotten
Published: Thursday, March 31, 2011
Updated: Sunday, April 3, 2011 20:04
Tanner Milson thought he was in trouble. UNC Wilmington men's basketball coach Buzz Peterson had just called the freshman guard out of the gym, prior to the start of team practice, Jan. 30.
"Coach called me out of the gym and I was like, ‘OK, what's going on?' Milson recalled. "He was like, ‘Come to my office for a little bit.
"He just kinda asked me if I had a feeling for what was going on. I was like, ‘Oh no, I hope I didn't get in trouble with classes or anything else like that.'"
Milson wasn't in trouble, but as the son of basketball coach, David Milson, he was familiar with situations when his father's players were accused of wrongdoings.
"All that stuff was running through my head," he said. "I was like, ‘My dad is gonna kill me.' This is going to be bad."
The news was worse than Milson imagined. Peterson told him to call Glenn Hartson, a former assistant of David Milson's Cedar Hill High School boys' basketball team in Texas and a family friend.
Hartson told him his father, at the age of 53, was found dead in the family home.
Despite being a non-smoker, David Milson had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer. "He told me that my mom had found him at the house," Milson said. "It didn't look like anything had happened, didn't look like he was in distress of any sort because he had the phone right next to him, had his bowl of oatmeal ready to go and had the TV on a fishing show. Just ready to have a day of rest."
In the office, Milson, Peterson, UNCW head of basketball operations Brooks Lee and team chaplain Dave Yearwood were devastated. "I just broke down and started crying," Milson said. "They were all crying. It was definitely the hardest moment of my life."
Peterson told him he needed to go home to be with his family. Milson missed the Feb. 2 game against Georgia State, but opted to return to Wilmington for the Feb. 5 game against William & Mary. The funeral was held that day at 9 a.m. The UNCW coaching staff booked Milson on a flight from Dallas to Charlotte, where team managers picked him up at the airport.
Milson said he made it back to Trask Coliseum with 48 minutes left until tipoff.
After the game, Peterson said he thought the "chances of Tanner getting back here on time were pretty slim, but God willing, we got him back here.
"I was on the board writing and he came in there with his cowboy boots on and everything," Peterson said. "You could see it in his eyes, he was ready to go; he got dressed very quick."
Milson was back because that's what his father would have wanted him to do. While playing for his father in high school, Milson never missed a game and in 31 years of coaching, David Milson only missed two.
"He loved watching me play more than anything," Milson said. "He loved watching me shoot the ball." His father had flown in from Texas to attend eight UNCW home games.
David Milson always sat behind the Seahawk bench, about 10 rows up in the bleachers. He'd wear two pairs of sweatpants and a black, pull-over jacket. Slouched over with a hand on his chin, he'd silently critique his son. As his high school, AAU and youth league coach, he knew more about Tanner Milson's game than anyone else.
When the 19-year-old would miss a shot or make a mistake, he'd frequently look up in the stands where his father would make gestures to point out what needed to be corrected. Milson said, "I loved it that way."
A Magic Man
David Milson wanted to be friends with everyone. According to his son, he'd walk through the hallways of Cedar Hill High School, daring someone not to smile. If you were having a bad day, he'd do his best to fix that.
"That's one of the things that I didn't really notice until I got into high school and that's why I think he touched so many people's lives," Milson said. "At school, he was always walking up and down the hall smiling, making jokes with kids, doing magic tricks... he was always doing magic tricks, doing whatever he could to talk to people."
In the cafeteria, he'd find someone eating alone and talk to him or her the entire lunch. David Milson would make it a point to find that person again throughout the week—in the hallways, lunch room, outside or anywhere—and give him or her company.
"He was always thinking of other people," Milson said. Then, David Milson would see a similar situation in someone else at school the next week and repeat the whole process.
"I feel like my dad touched enough people and is continuing to work in people's lives," Milson said. "He lived the way you'd want to live.
"He made a friend out of anybody. That was just who he was."
‘Everything happens the way it's supposed to happen'
David Milson had a history of health problems. "He had Hodgkin's disease (lymphoma) when he was a junior in high school, so he had to have his left chest muscle removed and part of his lung," Milson said as he pointed to his own left side.
For years, his father received numerous chest X-rays. David Milson was suffering from a nagging cough and shortness of breath shortly after he retired from his lengthy coaching tenure. The doctors saw small spots on both of his lungs. What was first thought to be scar tissue was later determined to be adenocarcinoma.
Milson wasn't overly concerned, though. His father began chemotherapy and it seemed to be working. However, David Milson began to retain water in his ankles, arms and face. In the morning, he'd be "swollen," according to his son, but by the end of the day, it would go away.
Adenocarcinoma has been blamed for his death, but Milson said it isn't clear. "To this day, we don't know what actually happened to him," he said. "A lot of the doctors suggested that it could possibly be a blood clot getting loose from one of his arteries and going into his heart or into his lungs or something like that.