On Oct. 11 Titus Ivory took a knee after feeling dizzy while throwing a football to members of his high school basketball team in Charlotte.
A blood clot from his left common carotid artery traveled to an inoperable portion of his brain and caused a stroke.
Today, Ivory will toss the ceremonial opening tip as an honorary captain when Penn State concludes its Big Ten regular season against No. 22 Wisconsin on Alumni Day at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“It will be great to be back,” Ivory said over the phone earlier this week from his home in North Carolina. “ ... The experience that I gained at Penn State will never be forgotten.”
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D.J. Newbill (16.1) and Jermaine Marshall (15.8) continue to lead the offense for Penn State, ranking fourth and fifth respectively in conference scoring. However, recently they’ve gotten help from Sasa Borovnjak, who’s averaging 13 points per game in his last six and coming off his first double-double in the win at Northwestern.
The Nittany Lions (10-19, 2-15 Big Ten) have won two of their last three games and the noon tip on the Big Ten Network could help them seize on recent momentum.
Meanwhile, the Badgers (20-10, 11-6 Big Ten) are losers of two straight and are still vying for seeding in the conference tournament.
Ivory can relate to his alma mater’s recent struggles. His teams also faced lean times before they made an improbable run his senior year.
Though he still takes about seven pills a day and must go for regular and costly brain scans, Ivory has since returned to coaching and even plays basketball a few times a week.
However, the leader of the 2001 Nittany Lions squad that knocked off North Carolina to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 nearly died. Flanked by the support of his wife, family, friends and former teammates, Ivory is now using the harrowing ordeal to educate and inspire.
“It was an eye-opening experience and I definitely feel blessed about how well I’ve progressed,” Ivory said.
He was in his first days as the Hickory Grove Christian High School basketball coach when he suffered the stroke. Ivory was delivering passes to his players on the football field as a fun way to work on their conditioning when he first felt the effects.
Before he knew it he was on the ground drifting in and out of consciousness.
“I would relate it to going under water and then coming up and trying to gasp for air,” Ivory said. “Sometimes you felt like you were just under the water and you couldn’t breathe and then you come up and you’re like what’s going on somebody help me.”
Doctors couldn’t pinpoint an exact cause, but said the event wasn’t related to an underlying condition.
That was of little comfort when his wife, Nicole Ivory, arrived at the hospital.
She went to the emergency room with the couple’s three young children in tow, not yet worried and under the impression her husband had a sports-related injury.
Family quickly briefed her on the situation’s severity.
“The doctors came in and as they were doing their evaluation you could see Titus deteriorating in terms of his speech and his alertness,” Nicole said.
“When the doctors said they believed he was having a stroke, Titus sat up an said ‘no, I’m not having a strrrr and that was extremely, extremely scary.”
The college sweethearts met at Penn State while Nicole’s father, Jerry Dunn, was the head basketball coach. They wed years later as Titus embarked on a professional basketball career overseas.
Dealing with a stroke and its aftermath was unfathomable then.
Family friends have set up a website where donations can be made toward the family’s mounting medical bills.
On the first in the hospital the North Carolina native — who scored 21 points to help Penn State vanquish the Tar Heels in that NCAA Tournament — clung to life while his wife watched helplessly.
The clot was located in an area of the brain that controlled speech and motor skills. Ivory had control over neither.
“The doctor kept asking me the simplest questions,” Ivory said. “Who is she? Who is she to you? What’s her name?”
“I knew all the answers in my head, but they just weren’t coming out I was very scared at that point and I started crying, my wife started crying. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Ivory spent three days in the Intensive Care Unit.
Later, he was released to a rehabilitation center where he underwent speech and occupational therapy.
Always the athlete, Ivory excelled in physical therapy, but grew frustrated at times during speech therapy because he was unable to complete what were once menial tasks.
His diligence paid off though when he returned to his coaching duties in November despite his wife’s hesitations. The pair worked out a deal where he would coach only if he didn’t stand, yell or get too excited.
He made it to the opening tip in his first game back.
“During the jump ball I stood up to get one of my kids to change positions and as soon as I stood up she said ‘sit down Mr. Ivory,’” he said with a laugh.
“I don’t think I could have gotten more support from her. She basically took care of me as well as my three kids. She was the backbone throughout the entire process.”
Ivory finished the season with the help of his assistant coaches and even led his team to its first state playoff victory.
Now, he’s back to work full-time with the Charlotte Police Department working with youths to curb gang violence. He’s not afraid to draw upon life experiences.
“This is about living the best life you can for as long as you can and doing what you guys are doing you won’t get there,” he tells the kids. “And you see what happened to me and how an illness almost killed me ...”
Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers wouldn’t mind if Ivory and other alums shared stories with his team as well.
More than 50 Nittany Lions are expected to attend the game, including two members of the 1954 NCAA Final Four team and five of the school’s all-time top-10 scorers (Joe Crispin, Pete Lisicky, Geary Claxton, Jarrett Stephens and Ivory).
“I’m excited,” Chambers said. “We have a ton of players coming back.”
The second-year coach, fresh off his first conference road win, said Penn State alums have an open invitation to attend games and practices and impart wisdom to his players.
“The other thing that’s important too is that they can come back and talk to our players about their experiences,” Chambers said. “About the times that they were here and what they went through. And oh by the way what they’re doing now (to) shed some light on the future.”
Ivory knows what he will tell the current band of Nittany Lions..
“I’ve seen the ups and downs,” Ivory said. “Not having any respect from anybody in the Big Ten Weather the storm. Play through it and get better everyday. This gym is always open to you guys, so it’s up to you to make the difference.”