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Finding comfort in basketball

North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq lost his mother to cancer recently

The late Debbie Khaliq, North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq’s mother, poses for a photo with her three grandchildren. (Photo provided)

His team had just won its record-setting fourth SAC Holiday Tournament championship in a row in late December when North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq noticed he had a missed phone call.

Leaving a voicemail was his mother, Debbie Khaliq.

“It was very difficult for me to hear because she talked about how proud she was and how nice it was to see us win,” said Shabaz about the message. “It was one of those messages where you knew it was one of those goodbye messages. It was more her saying it was the last thing she would see in terms of basketball.”

Last summer, Debbie underwent an examination after complaining of shortness of breath. Upon further investigation, numerous blood clots were discovered in her lungs.

Additional tests revealed the worst – stage 4 gallbladder cancer.

The diagnosis?

Six months without treatment. Six months to a year with aggressive treatment.

“At the time I don’t think she comprehended the diagnosis or the fact that it was terminal,” Shabaz said. “It was hard for her, but my sister and I comprehended right away what was going on.”

As the Legends celebrated SAC tourney title No. 4, Shabaz’s mother was bedridden, unable to experience another North Side championship firsthand.

Long a supporter of her son’s basketball career – first as a player at North Side and Earlham College and then as a coach – Debbie was the primary at-home parental figure when Shabaz and his sister Sarah were growing up. The siblings’ father Abdul was in their lives before and after their parents got divorced, but it was Debbie who tended to the children’s day-to-day needs, as most mothers do.

“She was primarily the one who was always around and did the necessary stuff,” Shabaz said. “Being an active and involved child I remember spending a lot of time with mom.

“We were very close along with my sister. It was kind of a triangle of people.”

As Debbie’s health deteriorated, particularly at the onset of winter, Shabaz struggled with how to cope. While Sarah was able to spend time with their mother without breaking down or struggling to display too much emotion, Shabaz found it nearly impossible.

“It was very hard for me to go and spend time with my mom or see her in that state without getting emotional,” Shabaz said. “I always credited my sister in being to do that. I didn’t have the ability to do that, so my time over there was always difficult.”

While no time is a good time to face losing a loved one, Shabaz was lucky in that he could turn to basketball when he needed an escape. With his mom struggling with the aggressive gallbladder cancer, Shabaz continued to coach his team as best he could.

“There is no true way of dealing with it, but my way was engaging myself in work, basketball and those things that take your mind away from accepting the inevitable,” Shabaz said.

Shabaz remembers his mom’s pride in her son, particularly when he took over the head coaching job at her alma mater, Elmhurst. Ever the feisty one, Debbie would not hesitate to tell her son what she thought.

“When she watched the holiday tournament, she said, ‘They didn’t even really talk about you,'” recollects Shabaz. “I said, ‘Mom, it isn’t about me.’

“She was that type of person.”

For the Khaliq family, there was a positive that came from Debbie’s fight with cancer.

“Unfortunately, when people are terminal you know the time is coming, but you also have the opportunity to express your gratitude and your emotions and what they meant to you, all those things you would regret not saying,” Shabaz said.

Debbie held on courageously, but towards the end her health deteriorated dramatically. The final stages of the cancer that eventually took his mom was the worst for Shabaz.

“She just wasn’t the same person,” Shabaz said. “That was the hard part to accept, that the person that you are visiting towards the end wasn’t the same person that you had known.”

Debbie passed away on Jan. 30 at age 59.

Shabaz struggled through the week of her mother’s passing. But the support he received from his team and the North Side community at the wake and the funeral surprised even him. After missing most of that week, he returned to coach the team that Friday, an 84-66 win over Bowman Academy.

“It is one thing to have sympathy, but it is different to be there for that person,” Shabaz said. “The support I have from people at North Side says a lot about the type of character we have here.”

When remembering his mom, Shabaz frequently mentions just how proud she was in his and his sister’s accomplishments.

“Sometimes I think she got more out of (basketball) than I did with the social recognition,” said Shabaz. “People would ask her, ‘Is that your son?’ and she would say, ‘Yes it is.’

“She was definitely a No. 1 fan in myself and our team. That’s just who she was.”

As the Legends enter regional play this weekend, they are led by a man whose mother’s support helped drive him to where he is today.

“Her support was tremendous,” Shabaz said. “She wasn’t a sports fan per se, but she was very supportive of myself and wherever I was.”

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