NEW YORK -- Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy walked deliberately and cautiously onto the Madison Square Garden court for Thursday afternoon’s practice.
His wife, Mary, was sitting in the stands watching every move.
“It’s been a journey, certainly been a journey,’’ Mary said. “I didn’t know a month ago that we’d be able to do it.’’
Kennedy’s arrival for the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, where the Aggies will begin play against Mississippi State on Thursday (ESPN2, 7 ET), is being celebrated by his family and the Texas A&M community. He might not have been the national name that some Aggies fans yearned for at first, but he was a natural choice to replace Mark Turgeon, who left for Maryland in the spring, and he has endeared himself to the fan base.
Kennedy went full speed ahead once he got the job, even with a nagging shoulder injury that bothered him throughout the offseason when he was recruiting and speaking everywhere that asked. He went on a team trip to Europe in August, which ended up being a huge plus since he would miss so much of the preseason in October.
But in September, he crashed. And then came the diagnosis -- he had the early onset of Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s not the disease he has to overcome now,’’ Mary said. “It’s overcoming the exhaustion. He didn’t really sleep for five weeks. He’s a man that needs to have eight hours a night, and everyone that knew him from the previous staff knows he needs eight hours. He had about two hours a night for five weeks.’’
The recovery has been slow. He has had little energy and he is psychologically dealing with the diagnosis as well. His wife said the anxiety surrounding the diagnosis has been “life-changing.”
“I’m getting better every day and getting stronger,’’ Billy said. “Travel is a new experience. I’ve been laying around for so long. I’m trying to get back the mental and physical strength. When you go through the exhaustion like I did, it’s hard to get your swagger back and your enthusiasm.’’
Mary said her husband’s shoulder injury -- he hasn’t had a chance to take care of bone spurs in that area of his body -- contributed to his lack of sleep. And then came all of the recruiting and everything else associated with a new job. What the Kennedys didn’t know was that he was also about to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“We’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,’’ Mary said. “We knew there was stress, and looking back on everything we should have seen how important sleep was. He needs to be able to recharge. And he never had the opportunity to recharge. Looking back I think we would have addressed things differently. But blessedly, we could be dealing with what they are raising money here for [cancer]. This isn’t life or death. It’s just life-changing.
“He’s certainly not himself. In the mornings he’s slower. But physically, he’s fine, aside from the initial shoulder thing.’’
Mary said it was “God’s plan” to have him in College Station, noting that had he remained at Murray State the nearest major medical facility would’ve been two hours away. College Station is near Houston, offering up plenty of options.
“We don’t want to be anywhere else,’’ Mary said. “Murray is fabulous, but major medical [facilities] and an airport are two hours away. It can be 10 degrees in Murray, Kentucky. He can’t go out and run in 10 degrees. It’s going to be 85 degrees in College Station. There are so many things and resources for him, and we couldn’t ask for anything more from the Aggie Nation.’’
Kennedy was out of sight from the basketball team for a month. He returned last week and coached against Southern on Sunday afternoon.
“Basketball-wise, I was out of it,’’ Billy said. “I’ve only been back about five days. I’m just trying to catch up and get to know these guys. I’m relying on my assistants for just about everything.’’
Billy did hire an experienced staff, notably associate head coach Glynn Cyprien, who has been the interim coach during his absence.
“I’d like to say he’s back for the long haul, but it’s day to day,’’ Cyprien said. “It’s hard to predict. Coach’s health is a day-to-day challenge for him.’’
It's a challenge he's facing head on, though.
“I’ve just got to keep pushing through,’’ Bill said. “I don’t try to do too much. I’m fighting fatigue. I know I have to back off and figure it out at this time of the year.’’
Mary said her husband won’t go on the road recruiting anytime soon. Cyprien and the rest of the staff will take care of those responsibilities.
“I’m exercising and getting a little bit better every day,’’ Billy said. “It’s not as much the physical side as it is the mental side. I just pray I get better every day. There has been so much exhaustion to deal with. I crashed. I hit a wall. I’m now trying to get my whole body back 100 percent.’’