Buffalo's Nate Oats juggles coaching, supporting wife's cancer fight

Buffalo coach Nate Oats was the Bulls' top assistant under previous coach Bobby Hurley. Courtesy Buffalo athletics

As the coaching staff of the Buffalo Bulls readied to break its own minihuddle moments before the season opener against Pitt-Bradford, first-year head coach Nate Oats turned to his assistants for advice on what word to chant.

The common response in these cases is typically something like "win" or the team's nickname.

But not on this night. The thoughts of Buffalo's entire staff turned to Oats' wife of 17 years, home and lying on her back in excruciating pain with a pounding headache, missing the night she had envisioned almost since the day she met her husband.

Less than a month before Oats' first game as a Division I head coach, Crystal Oats had received a phone call informing her that she had cancer -- a rare and difficult form to treat called double hit lymphoma.

And so, each time Nate Oats looked into the stands during that game, whether it was during the national anthem, a television timeout or immediately following his first victory as a Division I basketball coach, Crystal wasn't in her familiar seat, behind the bench in the front row.

"She wanted to come -- so bad," Nate Oats said. "But she couldn't. She couldn't even stand up.

"It sucked that she was missing."

In her absence, Oats and his staff broke their first pregame huddle together with a shout.

"Crystal!" they yelled.

Oats' debut wasn't supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be a full-fledged celebration for a guy who got an improbable chance on April 11, two years after leaving a position Detroit's Romulus High and two days after his former boss Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State.

"This was our dream," Crystal Oats said of Nate's elevation to the helm of a rising program fresh off its first NCAA appearance.

Though the dream continues to coalesce as the Bulls are 3-2 on the season, a real-life nightmare had come in the form of that phone call.

"One of our best friends died 10 years ago of lymphoma, so my first thought was, 'I'm going to die,'" Crystal said. "I called Nate right away."

Nate recalled what followed.

"My phone kept ringing during a staff meeting," he said. "Then she texted me and told me to call her right away. I called and she was screaming that she had lymphoma."

Crystal cried plenty. Nate, who rarely gets emotional, cried as well -- mostly when informing others, and especially when the couple had to tell their three daughters, Lexie, 11, Jocie, 6, and Brielle, 3.

"It was awful," Crystal said.

"The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," Nate added.

At first, Crystal did what many do when diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. She researched all she could and began to have panic attacks after reading the grim prognosis.

"She started freaking out," Nate said.

But the couple found success stories. They prayed and found solace in the fact that the cancer is barely in Stage 3 -- bad but not the worst-case scenario.

Now, Crystal is fighting.

She already has undergone one round of chemotherapy at the Roswell Cancer Institute, with the next one set for Friday. Even though the pain has increased, her sense of humor is back, evident while demanding that no photos of her without hair be seen with this story.

But the Oats family knows this will be a long, arduous fight. The doctors will be extremely aggressive in treating this form of cancer by administering two different kinds of chemotherapy. After six rounds of chemo, Crystal will then need a bone marrow transplant.

"I'm going to fight as hard as I can," she explained to Lexie. "I told her, 'I believe God's in control and if he wants me to live, he's not going to let me die.'"

Nate was prepared to step away from his dream and take a leave of absence from his job to focus on his wife's fight. Buffalo athletic director Dan White told Oats to do whatever he felt was best.

But Crystal put the kibosh on Nate's idea.

"Absolutely not," she told her husband on the subject of stepping away. "No chance."

One day after hearing the diagnosis in October, Nate informed his team. He knew life would change and wanted his players to be fully aware of why he would be late to practices or miss some altogether and might not be completely locked in at times.

"My mind wandered," Nate said shortly after recording his first win. "There's no way it can't."

Buffalo recently wrapped up an eight-day road trip. It began with Monday's loss at Old Dominion, which was followed by a loss at Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Then the Bulls won two games in Connecticut at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

Nate will flew back to Buffalo on Wednesday night and missed Thursday's practice before rejoining the team on Friday.

Meanwhile, even for a coach earning a six-figure salary, the financial issues are starting to pile up. Insurance doesn't cover Crystal's alternative therapy or the full-time nanny the couple's daughters need with Crystal debilitated and Nate on the road. Or the cleaning service required to ensure Crystal isn't exposed to anything that could make her sicker. Many families that have dealt with cancer know all about this financial stress.

The Oatses have received plenty of help and support from family and friends, and Crystal's brother even started up a gofundme page, which already has raised in excess of $10,000.

"I don't care whatever it all costs," Nate said. "You just figure it out later."

Nate and Crystal will celebrate their 18th anniversary in December. Neither could have imagined the recent turn of events, from the high of Nate becoming a Division I head coach to the low of a cancer diagnosis.

"We got here," Nate said. "This was our dream."

"And we're going to live it," Crystal added.