UI hoops scorer Clements discusses cancer battle

UI hoops scorer Clements discusses cancer battle

The official scorer at Illinois basketball games for 30 years, Tony Clements was forced to watch Illini games this past season from a hospital room and at home. A cancer diagnosis and a stroke sidelined the popular 67-year-old, who has been a fixture at UI Campus Recreation, the Virginia Theatre and United Way. Since then, a who’s who of friends and dignitaries have reached out to Clements, who has also been part of local comedy for years. Clements caught up with our Marcus Jackson for an update on his battle:

What has the outpouring of support meant to you?
Oh, it’s been wonderful. The whole recovery thing depends on staying positive, having a great network. Everybody’s been great, but particularly the Illini nation. Lovie Smith called me, (former Illini basketball player) Deon Thomas has called me. I went to basketball practice on (June 24). The DIA bought me dinner one night. It’s been great. I did some things I hadn’t done before. I went to the football barbecue this year, which I had never done. It was great to see all those people, too. My days are as busy as they’ve ever been in some regards because I’ve got therapy and doctor’s visits included in that.

You didn’t know Smith before this, right?
I didn’t, so that was great of him. There’s been so many people who have on their own decided to reach out. I didn’t decide to go to basketball practice, but (UI associate athletic director for event management) Holly (Stalcup) set that up and asked for me to come over to practice. The coaches have been great to me. They’ve been sending me cards. I also got a card from (former Illini men’s basketball coach) Bruce Weber. I’ve had a lot of support. It makes you wonder how people go through this without that level of support, because you’ve got to have that.

How did it feel to be back around the basketball team?
It was great. They actually had me talk to the team, too, which was nice. I wasn’t prepared, but I did it anyway. The guys were generous and thanked me for coming to practice. It was great to watch them. It’s an exciting time at Illinois, and that’s what’s been raising my spirits — the Lovie (Smith) thing, and all my anticipation for the basketball season has helped me, too. Anticipating the football season has helped. My reports have been good, so that’s helped me. I don’t know how this will all come out in the end, but my therapy has been going very well. I not only do physical therapy, but therapy to help me with my concentration and my memory. All that’s coming back pretty good. The concentration becomes a problem because you can’t ask me to do more than three things because I won’t remember.

What has been the hardest part of all this for you?
There’s been a lot of things that have been hard for me. Getting dressed is difficult; it takes twice as long to get dressed. Getting out of bed on your own is a challenge. There’s been all kinds of physical challenges, things you take for granted. Getting ready for the day is a two-hour ordeal; it just takes forever. If you’re going to have breakfast, that takes forever. Mike Haile has been helping me out because he takes me for workouts. I’ve actually played golf four times, so that’s helped. My therapists last Friday all went to the driving range with me. I can’t golf anymore like I used to, but just to get out there is enjoyable when I can do it. I can walk around the neighborhood some. When you have a stroke, you realize when you’re walking, you pay attention to more distractions, like the car coming down the street, so you have to be careful when you’re doing that. I’ve actually spent more time on my deck with friends and guests than I have in the whole time I’ve lived here. We like sitting out on the deck, but I have a lot of people who call and stop by. I had a lady here visiting from New York the other day, and I said, “I must really like you because I’m awake.” I get so fatigued after the radiation that it’s hard to stay awake during the day. Because of the steroids, it’s hard to sleep at night. I take like 14 pills every morning, nine pills every night. I have so much medication. Most of it is seizure-related medication. I have seizures, and I had a stroke. I had one seizure that lasted 50 minutes. I’m very fortunate. When I go to therapy, I always think I see somebody worse off than I am. I don’t know if they are, but I say “Wow, if I had that, I don’t know if I could handle it.” I’ve been to some cancer-support groups and I feel fortunate when I’m in those groups because some of those people have been dealing with that for 20 years. These are survivors. One thing I want people to know is that even when you survive, you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

How much did you miss being at the games last season?
I missed it a lot. I liked being that close. I got calls from officials like (Ed) Hightower, Ted Valentine. They were all very nice. I enjoy being around the officials. I miss that a lot. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back next year. I don’t know what my situation will be by that time. My hope is that I could get back.

What’s your favorite memory from the past 30 years at the games?
When officials come out and they give you the wrong number, I would shake my head. They would say “42” and I would shake my head, and they would tell you the shooter but not give you the number of the guy the foul was on. I had another time where the official injured his finger, so one finger would stay up all the time and I would have to subtract a number every time he gave me a number.

How much has your sense of humor helped you through this?
It’s helped a lot. I’ve been able to maintain my sense of humor. People hear some of the things I tell them about this and they say, “You should do another show because you’ve got all this stuff.” The problem is I wouldn’t be able to remember and concentrate on the stage to do it. I’ve got great stories from being in the hospital. I was in the hospital for 21 days, in a nursing home for 10 days. My sense of humor helped me throughout all of that. Nursing homes are tough, too. You see people in there who are in there for five months, six months. I was in there 10 days. The sense of humor helps a lot. I told the doctor right before the surgery, “I have all these people praying for me, so if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to give prayer a bad name.” I do MRIs and the whole hospital knows, when I do an MRI, you’re going to have to knock me out because I can’t handle it in those little things. I had coffee (last week) and I had friends that could tell I was getting better because I was able to engage better and focus better. My sense of humor was similar to what it was and they noticed that. That lets you know it’s getting better. I don’t know what this would be like if I lost my sense of humor. One of the drugs I take is phenobarbital, and they had written it on the board and when I woke up I saw it and thought I had done something where they put me on probation.

Who’s going to have a better year this year, the Kansas City Chiefs or the Illini?
I’ll say the Illini. I’m looking forward to this. I hope we don’t expect too much for football season. I think the Illini are going to be surprising this year. I’m hoping the Chiefs have a good season, too. The (Chiefs’) schedule sets up pretty good. The Illini schedule sets up pretty good, too.