The University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball team plays for a title this week in downtown Evansville. The Screaming Eagles have been on a national stage before, but not since 2004.
That’s when Cris Brunson hit a game-winning shot to send USI to the Elite Eight. Now 15 years later, the former star player faces his toughest test yet.
“It’s been a long road, but at least now we have a game plan,” said Brunson.
About seven months ago he was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. It’s a rare form of cancer in which malignant cancer cells form in bile ducts.
Doctors say the cancer doesn’t spread fast, but Brunson does need surgery.
“We Brunson’s are hard-headed and hard working,” Cris said. “We kind of try to stay as positive as you can. That’s all you can do.”
Brunson’s cousin, Cheryl Brunson-Betz set up a GoFundMe to help cover what his insurance doesn’t.
“Sports prepares you for things in life,” she said. “It definitely helps you know you need to buckle down, you need to be committed.”
Cris was a sports standout at Reitz High School from 1997 to 2001. He went on to play as a standout for USI in from 2001 to 2005 under Coach Rick Herdes.
In his junior year, Brunson scored the winning basket with 10 seconds left to play that put them into the Elite Eight in 2004.
“It’s a long journey,” Brunson said. “Lots of ups and down. It’s not a sprint but it’s definitely memorable.”
Cris has lost 40 pounds without trying. A stint in his stomach allows him to function. The outlook is positive, but it’s still scary now.
Brunson’s surgery will take about 4.5-hours. It’s called the Whipple Procedure and it will remove the cancer in his bile duct. Doctors will have to reattach his small intestine and pancreas.
He’s scheduled to have surgery on April 1.
“We know that if we support and love each other, and God is in the center of it, he will make all things work out,” Brunson-Betz said.
In the 2004 USI program, Brunson listed “God and family” as the most important people in his life. It’s safe to say, nothing has changed.
“One game at a time,” Brunson said. “Leave it all on the court.”