Spring 2021 Magazine

Alabama men's hoops coach Nate Oats has top-10 team as he honors cancer-surviving wife

The University of Alabama men’s basketball team has a big rematch with Kentucky on Tuesday night as it seeks to protect a newly-minuted top-10 ranking, but that’s only part of why this week will be significant for the Crimson Tide and second-year coach Nate Oats.

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This week is Suits and Sneakers Week, a Coaches vs. Cancer event that unites coaches and the basketball world in the fight against cancer. It’s a fight Nate and his wife, Crystal, know all too well.

During his first year as head coach at Buffalo, Crystal was diagnosed with cancer and the outlook was bleak.

“We were basically looking at a death sentence,” Crystal said in a video posted by Alabama in December.

The initial search results on Google about the type of cancer β€” double-hit lymphoma β€” weren’t encouraging, either.

“We were furniture shopping and I just remember walking in and out of some furniture stores in a daze, trying to act like life’s going to go on normal but knowing this is anything but normal,” Nate said in the video. “There’s a good chance she doesn’t make it. In my mind, I’ve got three daughters. This is not good. Then you kind of get your mind right β€” OK, we can make it. Let’s figure this out.”

Nate said he was prepared to take a year away from coaching to help his wife, but she encouraged him to continue pressing forward. Having those games to look forward to helped serve as a diversion from the cancer fights, they both said.

He also credits that season as the catalyst for him becoming the Christian man he is today. He called the experience “a wake-up call.”

β€œThere were circumstances surrounding that where I had to make some decisions about whether I wanted to be the Christian man that I said I was, or whether I wanted to be hypocritical,” he said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast in 2019. β€œI didn’t want that. So in the last four years β€” three-and-a-half years or so β€” I really had a lot of introspection to where you evaluate where you’re at as a man and what you want.

β€œI really want my children to know me as a Christian father that demonstrates what it means to be a Christian to them. My wife can turn to me as the head of the house and really trust me as a Christian husband and father leading our family.”

They both spoke about how their faith in God led them through that season.

“I just had, basically, goals going through the cancer,” Crystal said in the video. “One of them was just that I was going to glorify God whether I made it or not. I’m here. He chose to keep me here, and I’m super thankful that He did. Whether I was here or not, I was going to glorify Him through the whole thing and not complain.”

Their marriage is stronger now, too, Nate said.

“I wasn’t a perfect father, a perfect husband,” he said in the video. “But I think sometimes you go through some tough times and you kind of have to pull together. I think it pulled us together through all of that.”

Crystal is now five years cancer free.

Nate was hired at Alabama after a successful run as head coach at Buffalo, where he led the Bulls to three NCAA tournament appearances, including runs to the second round in both 2018 and 2019. He was named MAC Coach of the Year twice and guided Buffalo to three MAC Tournament Championships in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

He now has the Crimson Tide ranked No. 9 in the latest AP poll β€” the highest ranking for the program since January 2007 β€” and sitting at 13-3 on the year, a perfect 8-0 in SEC play.

Alabama beat Kentucky, 85-65, in Lexington on January 12 and is looking to build on its nine-game winning streak. Oats knows his team has a target on its back now and is hoping it can avoid a letdown against a talented Kentucky team.

“We’ve talked about the hunter being the hunted,” he told reporters on Monday. “Whether teams are hunting you or not, you’ve got to maintain the mindset that you’re still the hunter. You’ve got to go after teams. You’ve got to come out with an intensity level that they have to match.

“Hopefully we can maintain that mindset even though we’ve climbed up into the top 10, which is great for our guys … All the hard work you put in to get there, one bad outing and you’re probably out of it. We’ve got to bring it every night. We’ve got to stay focused. The stuff that we can control, we’ve got to be great at.”

He preached a similar message to his team ahead of last season’s SEC regular-season finale, referencing Proverbs 16:18.

β€œI try to read the Bible every morning,” Oats said. β€œI gave them a Bible verse. I told them they might be able to quote it with me. β€˜Pride cometh before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.’ I think it was applicable 3,000 years ago. It’s still applicable today. So let’s make sure we’re not overlooking anybody, that we don’t have a spirit about us that we don’t have to bring an effort. We do.”

Oats was hoping to see his team make a run in the SEC tournament last season and make it to postseason play, but the season was ultimately halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a more experienced team this year, Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC and looks poised for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But Oats isn’t allowing himself or his team to look that far ahead just yet.

“If you talk about winning an SEC championship down the road, that’s distracting from the game tomorrow,” he said Monday. “Really, handling success is just handling your business on a day-to-day basis … How do we make sure we don’t have a letdown tomorrow? Well, you have a great practice today and you get locked in.”

Alabama and Kentucky will tip off at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday in Tuscaloosa on ESPN.

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