LAWRENCE — A couple of lessons have been passed down to Aldrich men from generation to generation: Never make excuses, and don't show weakness.
It's no secret that Cole Aldrich, Kansas basketball's star center, has not played up to his preseason first-team All-American billing during the first third of the season. His energy level is down, and so are his numbers. KU coach Bill Self says he thinks Aldrich may have bronchitis, which could be hurting his breathing. But Aldrich won't take the bait.
"I've got no idea," Aldrich said. "I call it some crap in the throat."
That comment was quintessential Cole. He and his father, Walt, like to see themselves as being a good one-liner away from the next topic at all times. On to the next one: Self also mentioned that the health of Aldrich's family has been a factor in his early-season struggles. On this subject, there was nothing for Aldrich to say other than the painful truth.
"Yeah," Aldrich said, "my grandma's not doing very well right now. She's struggling. I don't know how long she's going to live anymore. I'm hoping she'll still be there when I go home."
As Aldrich went on to reveal that Ann Aldrich, Walt's mother, is terminally ill with lung cancer, his voice shook as he spoke. There were no tears, but then again, he's an Aldrich.
"My kids don't show a lot of emotion like that," said Kathy Aldrich, Cole's mother. "Their dad kind of taught them that boys don't cry."
Aldrich, a 6-foot-11 Minnesotan, is known as the team goofball, and that assumption isn't too far off. The guy does walk around without one of his front teeth — it was knocked out last season — because he doesn't take himself too seriously. But he can be plenty serious, too, especially when it comes to family. Kathy Aldrich says Cole has never lost anybody this close to him.
Aldrich went home for a day before Thanksgiving to see his grandma, but she didn't know who he was. For years, even as she battled diabetes and legal blindness, she was one of Cole's biggest fans. Once he played at Kansas, she could listen to the games on TV.
When things weren't going well for the Jayhawks, Ann Aldrich would run into the bathroom and change clothes.
"She was so superstitious," Kathy Aldrich said. "She loved his basketball."
Ann was diagnosed with lung cancer early this last summer, and doctors immediately knew the disease had spread too far for there to be any chance of a cure. She has been in hospice for five months, longer than anyone could have expected. Kathy Aldrich says that having to watch her suffer from afar has been the hardest thing on Cole, who has called Kathy each of the last three days.
"He is under a lot of stress," Kathy said. "I talked to him (Monday), and I said, 'You know Cole, maybe part of you not feeling good is stress. I really believe that stress can be a huge factor in your health.' "
Without his physical ailment and the lingering sadness about his grandma, Aldrich would already have good reason to be stressed. After bursting onto the national scene last season as a sophomore, averaging 14.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, he decided to return to Kansas for his junior season instead of entering the NBA Draft. This fall, he has been under a more invasive microscope. The Jayhawks have been No. 1 all season, and Aldrich began the year as a popular national player-of-the-year pick.
But he hasn't looked like the same player who put up a triple-double against Dayton in the NCAA Tournament — he's putting up averages of 11.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks — and it's becoming easier to understand why. Aldrich's roommate, junior guard Tyrel Reed, says that Aldrich has been battling this sickness for about a month.
"He just can't get over it," Reed said. "He's had a lot of coughing, a lot of stuff in his chest. It's taking his wind away. I know he wants to go out there and fight. I just don't think he's got his body and his mind to connect together quite yet."
Fellow preseason first-team All-American Sherron Collins is waiting for his dance partner to return.
"It's crazy," Collins said. "I'm just trying to stay away from him so I won't get the bug. I think it's affected him a lot. I can see him gasping for air more than he usually does."
Aldrich is using an inhaler now. He says he has not considered taking any time off in an effort to get well sooner. And hey, he may have scored just five points against Michigan on Saturday, but the team is 10-0.
"I'm an unselfish person," Aldrich said. "Whether I get this number of shots, that number of shots, as long as we win at the end of the day, I'm happy."
That's an oft-used sports cliche, but it's a believable one with Aldrich. He may be projected as a future NBA first-round draft pick, but Aldrich is living in the moment — no matter how tough that has been of late. In just one day, he'll be back in Bloomington, Minn., with his family. It's clear to Kathy Aldrich that his visit home has been occupying his thoughts.
"He calls me up and asks me what everybody wants," Kathy said. "He worries about giving the family gifts."
The only gift Aldrich can give his grandma is his time. Kathy told him that he didn't have to go see her in her current state, but Cole had no hesitation.
"I said 'She's not going to know who you are, I don't think,' " Kathy said. "He goes, 'She'll probably just sense that we're here.' "
The Jayhawks, who face California at 8 tonight at Allen Fieldhouse and don't play again until a week later against Belmont, just hope that Aldrich gets some rest.
"He's going through a little funk right now," Reed said. "He knows he's an All-American, and we know that he is. He just has to get up to that level, and once he is, it's gonna be great for us."