Documentary Honors Fallen UK Basketball Recruit and Lawrence North Student John Stewart
[ editor’s note: The following story was written by Kyle Tucker, reporter, Louisville Courier-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ]
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Fifteen years ago, a prized University of Kentucky basketball recruit died on the court during a high school playoff game. Sunday night at 8, an hour-long documentary will bring John Stewart to life again — for those whose memories have faded and those who never even knew of the “gentle giant,” his enormous potential or his tragic end.
Thomas Beisner, host of “Kentucky Sports Television” on cn|2, was a student at UK in 2003 when then-Wildcats coach Tubby Smith honored Stewart and his family on what would’ve been his Senior Night. It was an emotional scene. It left a deep impression.
“Since then, I’ve always thought about their family,” Beisner said. “I just felt a connection to that story. I always wanted to try to make a documentary.”
But by the time he had the training and resources to tackle such a project — “Wildcat Forever: The John Stewart Story” is his first documentary — Beisner was afraid to call Stewart’s mother, Feleica. He didn’t know how to broach such a sensitive subject.
“Four nights in a row, I sat up at 1 in the morning at the computer, trying to send an email,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t send it. I can’t send it.’ On the fifth night, I just said a little prayer, hit send and went to bed. By the next morning, Feleica had written back: ‘I’m so grateful. Whatever you need.’ “
She was thrilled that someone wanted to share her son’s story.
She’s been on a mission for a decade and a half — with an assist from Tubby Smith — not to let another child die like hers. John Stewart, an agile 7-foot center from Indianapolis, a top-50 recruit who couldn’t wait to be a Wildcat, already had 10 rebounds and 22 of his team’s 33 points midway through the third quarter of a regional championship game on March 12, 1999.
But moments after asking to be taken out of the game, he collapsed on the sideline. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause: a congenital form of idiopathic Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. Stewart had never shown any sign of a heart problem. He’d been cleared to play sports with a standard physical.
“It’s left a rough place in my heart, because I thought I was doing everything to keep him healthy that a parent is supposed to do,” Feleica Stewart said. “But you have to go a little further, look a little deeper.”
She started the John H. Stewart Foundation in 2000 to help raise awareness of heart conditions in children and improve screening. Her work has seen more than 5,000 kids screened, about 10 percent of which she said were found to have an ailment, some of them life-threatening.
“My frustration was that John was not the first to die of this disease,” she said. “If some mother who lost a child before mine would’ve picked up the mantle and run with it, maybe mine would’ve lived.”
Tubby Smith, now the coach at Texas Tech, serves on the foundation’s board of directors. He attends the annual fundraising gala. He answers whenever Feleica Stewart calls.
Smith’s voice still quivers when he remembers John’s sudden passing.
The Wildcats had a game that night, too, a first-round NCAA Tournament game against New Mexico State in New Orleans. Smith and Stewart had talked just the day before, each wishing the other good luck and imagining a not-so-distant future in which they’d be making postseason runs together.
Smith was getting dressed for UK’s game when he got word of Stewart’s collapse. He was boarding the team bus when he learned Stewart had died.
“I just said, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to coach this game? How am I going to do this?’ ” Smith remembers, although he found a way. The Cats won, igniting a run to the Elite Eight, and he informed the team afterward. “I was probably in shock. I’m still in shock. It’s just like I’m talking to you now and then (you’re gone). I was just like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’ It was just such a sad day.”
And who knows how it changed the course of Kentucky’s history – and Smith’s legacy there. He won a national title in 1998 and reached that Elite Eight in 1999 but then sputtered a bit. There was a second-round exit, two Sweet 16 losses and, in what would’ve been Stewart’s senior season in 2003, a disappointing defeat in the Elite Eight for a team talented enough to win it all.
“He would’ve taken us to the next level. I don’t think people understand that,” said Smith, who left Kentucky for Minnesota in 2007 and is now the head coach at Texas Tech. “He was a pro. He was going to be one of the best big men I ever coached. We had Nazr Mohammed, Jamaal Magloire, and he was on that level. We would’ve won another championship. During that period is when we had a chance to keep the team at that elite level.
“I’m talking about going to championship after championship. I’m talking about national championship. But God has a plan for us, and John’s plan is still flourishing. His legacy is still flourishing.”
That’s why, despite Beisner’s initial fears, Feleica Stewart called it “a dream come true” when he reached out about a documentary.
She wants people to remember. She wants to make John’s life – and his death – count. So she’ll drive from Indianapolis to Louisville on Sunday night to watch the debut of this movie about her boy with Beisner in his living room. (Videographer Bradley McKee and editor Drew Cook were also involved in the project.)
She expects to “cry and cry.” Some will be joyful tears, because this is bittersweet for her.
“I still long for my child,” she said, “but this is how I deal with it, keeping his memory alive. Just like everybody knows LeBron’s name, my desire is one day that everyone knows John’s name. He would’ve definitely gone on to the pros and everybody would’ve known his name. He would’ve been a household name.”
Kyle Tucker can be reached at (502) 582-4361. Follow him on Twitter @KyleTucker_CJ.
WILDCAT FOREVER: THE JOHN STEWART STORY
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: cn|2 (Channel 2 for Time Warner Cable subscribers) or watch a replay online at mycn2.com
How to help: Learn more about John H. Stewart Foundation and how you can get involved at www.johnstewartfoundation.com