Los Angeles Times
Monday December 25, 2006

J.A. Adande
Vallely looks for good in the bad

Home Edition, Sports, Page D-1
Sports Desk
27 inches; 999 words
Type of Material: Column

By J.A. Adande,

Christmas with the family wasn't on John Vallely's mind. Neither was induction into UCLA's athletic Hall of Fame. He certainly could not have imagined his alma mater beating USC's football team.

Last spring, Vallely was in a battle with his own body, requiring a new immune system to replace his failed one, requiring heavy doses of anti-this and anti-that, wondering if it was even worth it anymore.

"The way they had to treat me, they had strip me of everything," Vallely said. "You don't care about going forward or backward, you don't even know if you want to be alive."

When it was darkest, he turned to the two most valuable members of his support group: the wife who logged 13 1/2 -hour days by his side in the hospital room, and the coach who dispensed advice over the course of four decades.

One year and one month ago, I first wrote about Vallely, a member of UCLA's 1969 and 1970 championship basketball teams. He had just been diagnosed with a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the body's immune system. In that interview and subsequent conversations, e-mails and one victorious round of golf by the chemotherapy patient over the sports columnist, I was struck by his positive outlook on the world, even a world in which cancer could take his 12-year-old daughter's life and he then had two battles with the disease.

This time it was evident his immune system wasn't capable of fighting the cancerous cells. He'd need a stem cell transplant. That required stripping his immune system down so it wouldn't fight the transplanted cells, then getting the new cells from a donor (all they told Vallely was that the donor was a winemaker who lives in Germany).

He had the operation in Houston on March 15. Then he needed antibiotic, antifungal and anti-rejection drugs while he waited for the new immune system to graft. At times he was so weak that the simple act of getting out of bed and going to the bathroom became a daunting task.

"He's so used to being in control," said Karen Vallely, John's wife. "He's so disciplined. He's focused. It frustrates him not to be totally normal."

Vallely had made it that far thanks in large part to the teachings of Coach John Wooden. This time, he put in a call to Wooden and conceded defeat. He told his coach he'd lost his faith.

"He said, 'Just be patient. It will return,' " Vallely said.

"It's those little teeny bits of inspiration that make you go farther than you might if you didn't have it."

That, and the efforts of Karen, who John said went "above and beyond the call of duty." Of all the advice Wooden gave to Vallely, the time he practically ordered him to marry Karen after they graduated from UCLA might be the best.

"I always look for the good in something," Karen Vallely said. "There's always blessings where there's hardship. I tried to look for them. I know that sounds Pollyannaish, but that's the kind of person I am.

"When we went into this, there were no guarantees. There was a chance he wouldn't even live through the treatment. I just tried to make every day as positive as possible."

I wondered what the blessings could have been, but as she kept talking it became apparent. While they were in Houston for the recovery process, they met Richard Hillman, whose daughter had a guesthouse at her newly built home.

The Vallelys wound up moving in, and one day Hillman's daughter brought home 35 friends who pledged to form an instant support group. Rides, groceries, whatever the Vallelys needed, they had a network at their disposal. They even wound up with a 9-week-old puppy. And while they were there John received a phone call from former UCLA basketball star Mike Warren, who told him he had been voted into the UCLA Hall of Fame, which includes such greats as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Gary Beban, Rafer Johnson, Jackie Robinson and Bill Walton.

In June, John and Karen returned to California. In October, 90 friends and family -- some from as far as New York -- came to the Hall of Fame induction.

In December, John was uplifted by UCLA's 13-9 football victory over USC. The next week, he went with his wife, son and Walton to watch the UCLA basketball team in the Wooden Classic.

At the Honda Center, Vallely and Walton flopped their long legs over the chairs in front of them. Walton offered to give his aisle seat to Vallely. Vallely, who played in about one-fifth of the NBA games that Walton did, said, "No, you've had it worse than me."

Walton, mindful of all Vallely had been through in 2006, made what had to be the most understated comment of his life: "No, John."

Vallely thought he had a chance to air some gripes.

"Can I whine?" he asked.

From two seats away, Karen said: "No whining!"

That's her No. 1 order.

"We don't whine," she said Sunday. "We just push forward and do the best that we can. You're given circumstances that you have to get through. You just do it to the best of your ability."

The payoff is in the chance to do the simple things. A visit to Disneyland with the granddaughter. Spending the holidays with the family in their remodeled home.

Vallely doesn't claim to have the answers to life, only a way in which he chooses to approach it. As he said in his induction speech: "I want to have peace about my effort to be a good husband and father, even though I could not contribute much at times."

From the lows to the highs of 2006, Vallely has emerged with one conclusion.

"For some reason," he said. "God wants me around here a little longer."