A Conversation with Digger Phelps: Part I

During his 20 seasons as Notre Dame's head basketball coach, Digger Phelps had 14 seasons with 20 wins or more. His 1978 team is the only Irish team to make it to the final four and he shares the NCAA record for most upsets over a number one team.

While none of that is surprising about Digger Phelps, what may surprise you is the battle he is facing off the court.

In an exclusive conversation with Digger, he talks about an opponent that makes UCLA, IU and Marquette look like pickup games.

When you think of Richard "Digger" Phelps, you think of Notre Dame's most winning, and certainly most flamboyant, basketball coach.

What you may not know is that he has been creating impressionist paintings for 20 years and that his usually bright palates turned dark when he found out April 28 that he had prostate cancer.

Seldom at a loss for words, Digger decided the only people who would know besides his doctors would be his family and his fiancée.

"Kept it quiet, I didn't want to talk to anybody. I didn't want people knowing. I just thought 'Let's go, let's get this thing done,'" says Phelps. "Why I kept it [a secret] from April 28 all the way through June 8 was, I just didn't want people saying, 'We'll pray for you' or 'I hope things work out.' You've got to build your own strength."

He let his boss at ESPN know an hour before he had DaVinci robotic surgery at the Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle to remove his prostate.

Seattle is where Digger's oldest daughter, Karen, lives along with her husband, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, and their eight children.

Karen and Jamie founded the Philanthropic Moyer Foundation and are on the board at Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Phelps says it was important for him to have his family around. "Daughters and fathers have a special bond and I trusted that."

Now that it's over, Phelps wants to talk and let other men know that early detection is key.

An admitted control freak, Phelps says when he turned 60 he decided to get a physical every six months, a decision he is pretty sure saved his life.

"I just believe in early detection, I think for all people," he says. "It was bigger, the tumor, than they thought, so they went even wider outside the capsule to make sure there was no damage done when they took it out. You know, let it go, you let it go, you're afraid, believe me, the fear of the unknown is worse than the known, and to wait until it's too late, no."

Always the coach, he says he used his biggest game, when Dwight Clay took the final shot in 1974 breaking UCLA's 88 game winning streak, to inspire his surgeons. He pulled a blowup of the shot out of his garage to show us.

"But that's the shot that beat UCLA, so I tell those doctor's 'This is your UCLA game and if you need Clay to make the shot, that was the shot,'" he says.

It was while he was watching his son-in-law, Jamie, pitch in Boston and giving up five hits off the Green Monster, when his doctor called.

"He says 'You can have two beers tonight.' I said, "Are you watching the same game I am watching?' He says, 'No, you're cancer free.' I cried," says Phelps.

Just as important as his early diagnosis is his faith, Father Hesburgh, and a hidden spot on Notre Dame's campus he calls nothing short of a miracle.

Thursday night at 6:00, Digger Phelps talks more about his faith, how having cancer has changed him and what doctors are saying about his prognosis.

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