IF LIFE WERE just basketball, brothers leading different schools in scoring would be something that a family might cherish above just about anything. If, however, life - hard, sometimes heartbreaking life - intervened on basketball and everybody came out the other side, that would be worth a celebration.
The Calathes family of central Florida is having a basketball season like no other. Pat, a senior, is leading Saint Joseph's in scoring. Nick, a freshman, is leading Florida in scoring.
John Calathes, a junior at Rollins College, just got his insurance license. He owns an insurance agency with his mother, Dee Calathes McCord. He goes to chamber of commerce meetings with people twice his age. He has already experienced real life - far beyond the insular world of the basketball court.
John and Pat are twins. Once, they did everything together. They were starters on the 10-and-under AAU national champions in 1996. Two of the other starters were Taurean Green, the point guard for Florida's two-time national champions, and Darius Washington, one of the very best seniors in his high school class who went on to play at Memphis and has had a taste of the NBA.
The Calathes twins talked all the time about playing together in college. Their paths were quite clear to them. Then, one day, nothing was clear.
"John woke up one morning screaming, throwing up, holding his head," his mother says.
John was 11 years old. He had an AVM (arteriovenous malformations) on his brain stem. An AVM is an abnormal collection of blood vessels.
AVMs can cause seizures or persistent headaches. Larger AVMs can cause progressive neurological problems by putting pressure on the brain or by altering the blood flow.
AVMs are quite rare, affecting about 250,000 people in the United States. And treatment is quite complex.
His mom estimates John had eight to 12 surgeries or procedures over several years.
"I was just coming back from some basketball camps after one of the surgeries," Pat says. "One of his eyes was pointing [to the side] and one was pointing [up]. Where he's at now is just a miracle."
Where John is at now is in college, studying business, able to do just about everything but "scuba diving and certain roller coasters," he says.
Pat is pursuing the basketball dream. John is just living the dream.
"For a year or 2, I tried to get back [to basketball]," John says. "Then, I decided to pursue something else. If I wouldn't have gotten sick, I would be playing with Pat. That was the dream. Sometimes life has unexpected things.
"I definitely took a hit. I went back and played varsity basketball, but it wasn't ever the same. My skill level was comparable to Pat's or Nick's. It was completely different after I got sick."
So Pat is playing for himself and for his twin. In high school, Pat wore No. 33, but Pat Carroll had that number when Calathes arrived on Hawk Hill in 2004. So he chose No. 12, John's number.
"He's the closest thing in the world to me," Pat Calathes says. "He can't be here with me, so I could represent him right here [pointing to his heart]."
Some numbers are just numbers. This was different.
"That meant everything to me," their mother says. "It was John's dream, too. Now, he is going another way and he's very successful in his own right. But at the time, it was very hard for a teenager to accept. To see your brothers excelling and you just can't do it anymore and you just have to find another path. Midstream, he changed."
It was their father, John Sr., who got the twins started in sports when they were "5 going on 6," he says. First, it was soccer. When the season ended, they didn't want to go back. Then, it was basketball. When the season ended, they wanted to know when the next one began.
Now, he has two sons leading their teams in scoring. That was not part of the plan when he began coaching them.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this," he says.
Nor could their father have imagined the detour along the way.
"It was a terrible thing for John and the family to go through because, any time you're dealing with life-and-death kind of things with a little kid, it's just horrible," he says. "Johnny has one of the best hearts of anybody I've ever met. He's the kind of guy who will walk an old lady across the street."
And Pat Calathes, playing for both of them, has come a million miles since his debut as a confused freshman in 2004. St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli was particularly hard on Calathes, who often played mindlessly.
"It goes fast," Pat Calathes says of his college years. "It seems like yesterday I came in here as a freshman. Had all the hype coming off the 'perfect' season [the Hawks' 27-0 regular season in 2003-04] . . . I was a typical freshman. I had skill, but I didn't really know the game of basketball.
"The coaches here, particularly coach [Mark] Bass, broke the game down for me, had me watching tape with them every day. I really got to learn the game rather than just go out and play the game."
The transformation from freshman to senior is really astounding. As a freshman, Calathes scored a season total of 54 points as a backup point guard. He often looked lost.
Recently, his father was transferring movies of one of his early games to DVD.
"I called Pat up and said, 'Martelli was hard on you, but I'm going to tell you something, man, you stunk it up,' " John Sr. says. "He's come a long way."
Back then, Calathes would catch the ball and have to dribble it before thinking. Now, he sees the game and thinks it.
Back then, his father used to read the St. Joe's online message boards, where it was once written that "this kid should be paying us for his scholarship."
Now that same kid leads his team in scoring (18.0 points) and rebounds (8.4) and is second in assists. He has a current streak of four consecutive double-doubles. As a freshman, he was 4-for-26 from the arc. This season, he shoots 43.3 percent from three.
Calathes averaged 4.8 points as a sophomore, but was coming fast near the end of the season, scoring 14 points in the Atlantic 10 championship game against Xavier. Last season, he averaged 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. He set a school record with 38 consecutive free throws.
The kid who grew from 5-10, 109 pounds as a high school freshman to 6-5 as a sophomore, then 6-8 as a junior and, actually grew an inch to 6-11 last summer, has now adjusted to his body. The same all-court skills he learned at 5-11 are still there at 6-11.
"Freshman year, you come in with a big head, cocky, think you are going to start and score 15 points a game," Calathes says.
Then, reality appears. Over time, you get better. Then, with the right amount of dedication, you become a really good player. Calathes has become that player. Midway through his final season, he in the discussion for first-team all-A-10 and Big 5 Player of the Year.
Each day, Calathes talks to his brothers.
With Nick, it's basketball. With John, older by 20 minutes, it's women.
Dee and John Sr. were divorced shortly after Nick was born. They both have remarried and live 5 minutes from each other. They were always there for their boys - sports, activities, trying to find help for their oldest son.
"As a young kid, my parents were just praying that he would live, praying that he wouldn't wake up blind," Pat Calathes says.
It wasn't a straight-line to a solution.
"Sometimes, it would take them like a week-and-a-half to find out what was wrong," John Jr. says. "My whole morale got real low. There were unknowns constantly. Any kind of treatment options, there were certain things that could go wrong. At one south Florida hospital, they said straight-out if they perform the procedure, they would blind me."
The family chose another option. They learned of Dr. L. Dale Lunsford, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.
Three times in Pittsburgh, John Jr. donned what is called the Gamma Knife, a device that is screwed into the skull for radiation therapy.
"It was like a helmet," he says. "Basically, they had to bolt the helmet down to stabilize my head, so there was no possible way I could move. The things kind of stuck in."
He could not move for 4 hours on three occasions during radiation therapy. Eventually, the therapy worked and he is symptom-free.
He made it back to basketball and played with his twin brother during their senior year of high school. But too much time had passed and too many skills had eroded.
"No question, there is a sense of what could have been," his father says, "but in his own mind and I think in my mind, I've kind of come to a conclusion that things happen the way they're supposed to happen."
John Jr. got on with his life. He became a certified EMT, a lifeguard, a personal trainer. Now, he is a year away from graduating from Rollins and runs Calathes-McCord Insurance with his mom.
"You would look at him now and never tell anything was wrong ever," his mother says. "He is the strongest of all three . . . He's my inspiration. He's my hero. Whenever I get scared I think about him and what he went through. I have no right."
Now, John Jr. is his mom's partner. They all get to see Nick in Gainesville. They fly to Philadelphia to see Pat.
"Pat and Nicky have no idea what life is all about," Dee says.
John Calathes Jr. knows about life. He is living basketball through his brothers. He is living life every day.