January 22, 2013
Wainwright Court unveiled
Friends, family honor basketball icon battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Mark Wainwright sits beside the banner in his name, presented to him Monday at the Cortland YMCA after the basketball court was named in his honor Monday night.
Of course, no one wished for this occasion to happen.
So for those hundred-plus family members and friends and co-workers and teammates of Mark Wainwright who ignored Monday evening’s sudden snow squall to be on hand as the Cortland YMCA gymnasium was officially named in his honor, this was one of those bitter-sweet moments.
Entering the gymnasium riding his wheelchair on an evening when his Dark Horse sponsored basketball squad was scheduled to start league play in the Masters Division — at the exact entrance spot where a graphic designating this as Mark Wainwright Court will eventually be placed as part of the gym floor being resurfaced in early May — emotional tears flowed from the humbled honoree and crowd members alike.
Speech has become a whisper of late as this former standout Marathon Central athlete from the Class of 1982, past SUNY Cortland basketball performer and local court legend battles the dreaded and incurable Lou Gehrig’s Disease. If Wainwright did have a microphone at his disposal, perhaps he would have repeated those immortal words spoken by Gehrig at Yankee Stadium 74 years ago:
“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man in the world.”
The admirable traits that made former New York Yankee Hall of Famer Gehrig so special are also part of Wainwright’s make-up.
“You know, it’s Lou Gehrig’s Disease and he’s like our Lou Gehrig because he’s that good,” said Tim Phillips, a longtime friend and teammate who along with YMCA executive director Don Kline conducted a brief ceremony where a Mark Wainwright Court banner with his number 44 inscribed on a basketball was unveiled.
“It’s so ironic,” added Phillips of the Gehrig-Wainwright character comparison. “He’s just a really great guy, always there to do anything for you, always generous and out-going, always very busy and very involved, planning this and taking care of his kids.... just a phenomenal friend.
“It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Still a couple seasons shy of his 50th birthday, Wainwright is handling this recently diagnosed disease with the same envious Gehrig grace. Or as another former teammate, close friend and fellow Marathon alumnus Don McEvoy pointed out: “If I were in his shoes, I’d say ‘Why me?’ And I’ve never heard him say that once, ‘Why me?’
“He’s always been positive and has said he’s going to deal with the hand he’s been dealt with, and that is Mark’s character,” added McEvoy. “Whatever the odds, he’s going to deal with it. He’d rather be warming up tonight than having this in his honor, and his teammates now don’t even want to play this game because their emotions are all over the place.”
Indeed, the Masters Division game would not be played. In the score sheet submitted with the results from last night’s four scheduled contests, for the Dark Horse game the final score would simply be reported as: Mark Wainwright 44.
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE how many games Wainwright has played at the Tompkins Street gymnasium, where he and his teammates once reeled off 88 consecutive victories over a four-year span in recreation league play.
“We had ‘em at one point, up by two with no time left, and he makes some crazy play and they end up beating us,” remembered Doake Brown, who played against and alongside Wainwright.
“There was a great game we played in summer league, when we played against Frank Hodge and a bunch of Cortland State guys,” added Brown, Hodge among those on hand last night. “They missed a free throw, he took two dribbles and takes a shot from just over half-court at Beaudry Park... and we win. That’s what he did. He was so good. We’d throw him the ball and stand around and watch him play.”
The rangy, lithe frame was built for basketball, and was also a plus as a talented goalie during his scholastic soccer days at Marathon.
“He’s stronger than you think he is, and in basketball he got better at stuff,” said Brown. “He wasn’t a great shooter, and then be became a great shooter. He always had the inside game and he could get up and down the court. He was just tough.”
Just last March, Wainwright was playing with his local team in a tournament in Buffalo and felt something was wrong.
“He was joking that his jump shot was short and we just said, well, you’re getting old and out of shape like the rest of us,” remembered McEvoy. “And he say, no, something else may be going on.”
Soon, Wainwright was visiting his doctor and a month later traveling to Johns Hopkins in Maryland where he was first diagnosed with ALS — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — that is now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig Disease. In simple terms, it is where a person’s muscle matter simply loses nourishment.
“Even if something were bothering him, he would play. He’s even played hurt on a bad ankle or something and you wouldn’t know it. He wouldn’t let anyone know it,” said McEvoy. “And this was one of those things where I think he’d been feeling bad for a period of time and just considered it another part of the aging process you battle through. It was just another obstacle he had to overcome and I hope he can overcome this.
“It’s very, very unfortunate. It happens to the good ones.”
PART OF HIS BASKETBALL life has been coaching his two sons — Ryan Wainwright (currently a freshman on the Homer Central junior varsity) and younger brother Justin the pride of their dad and mom Patty. This is a basketball family, as the boys’ grandfather Jack Wainwright — one-half of the infamous Jack and Jim Wainwright twins — had been one of Marathon Central’s finest, too.
“He’s going to enjoy every last breath, and I think a lot of that has to do with his family, his two boys who he adores,” said McEvoy.
That’s why everyone wanted to do pay tribute to Wainwright, whose fellow fond workers at UPS were also part of last night’s crowd.
“It think all of his friends came up with the idea,” said the YMCA’s Kline of having this locale become Mark Wainwright Court. “He’s a great person and he’s been here forever.”
Besides naming the court in his honor, the league will soon become known as the Mark Wainwright Masters League and a future father-son tournament is in the works. Money will also be raised for a potential scholarship fund, so as Kline stated: “People will never forget him, that’s for sure.”
“I played with him, against him, and he’s a better friend than he is a basketball player,” said Brown. “I love him to death and he’s the best. We’ve all known him for so long. Basketball, yes, but he’s a friend who’d do anything for you.”
“Of all the teams I’ve ever played on, he’s been the best teammate I’ve ever had,” added McEvoy.
“You could see with all the people here, how well-respected he is in the community both on and off the court. His legacy will live on long after he passes, and I hope he stays with us a long time,” he added. “He’s a battler and he’ll fight it to the bitter end, that’s for sure. When the odds are against him, he always seems to rise to the occasion.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe