LANGLEY — The darkness is still new to Sheldon Guy.
Like nothing else he could ever imagine, it came out of nowhere and over the course of about three weeks in late November and early December, it became the thief which stole his sight.
There have been some really bad days, and understandably, moments filled with dread and terror.
Yet despite being barely able to discern the light from the dark, there is something within him which pulls him towards his own kind of figurative light… the kind which does it best work when illuminating a gymnasium for the higher purpose of a high school basketball game.
Despite going blind just days before the start of the 2021-22 re-start season, Guy has made the courageous decision to remain the head coach of the senior girls basketball team at Langley Secondary, a journey which continues Wednesday when he leads his Thunderbirds into the opening-round of the 2021 Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the Langley Events Centre.
“I am just going to coach from my knowledge and from my heart, and I am just going to do the best I can in terms of my adjustments and direction,” Guy, 47, told Varsity Letters on Monday, maintaining high spirits as his team prepared to face Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies in its 4 p.m. Wednesday tournament opener.
“But the bigger part of all of this that I want everyone to understand is that we’re not coming in to win this tournament,” continued Guy, known as much in the B.C. basketball community as a top-level referee officiating U SPORTS, CCAA and high school games, as he is a coach. “I am showing my girls that nothing should ever hold them back from what they are passionate about.. and coaching is my passion. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and right now, it’s keeping me alive.”
IT’S CALLED ‘ANTERIOR ISCHEMIC OPTIC NEUROPATHY’
From his high school playing days in Surrey with the Frank Hurt Highlanders of the early 1990s, through his then-BCCAA playing career at New Westminster’s Douglas College, Sheldon Guy learned about all about the quick-strike ability of a fast-break offence.
Yet he never figured an entirely different brand of X’s and O’s would move with similar speed and claim the sight in his left eye, especially since he’d done everything he had to do to get on with his life following a similar loss six years earlier.
Back in 2015, Guy lost the sight in his right eye due to optic neuritis.
It took what he calls some key “pivoting” to learn to live life, play recreational basketball and officiate with just one eye, “but my left eye was super healthy, getting it checked every year, both the retina and the optic nerve.”
So it was life, as per usual. Or so he thought.
“It all came on so suddenly,” Guy begins of the deterioration of sight in his left eye. “This is not something that progressed over time. At the start of November, I was doing an officiating camp. This is something that happened over three weeks.”
During that window of time, some strange stuff had begun to happen with Guy’s peripheral vision.
He drove right through a couple of red lights (without any incident) because where he would normally see both the back end of the car in front of him and the upcoming traffic light, his field of vision had suddenly tunnelled to include just the car in front of him.
At basketball practices with his Langley team, passes directed his way would come as complete surprises.
He went from optometrist to ophthalmologist to retinal specialist to neurologist, then into hospital where he was even referred to an infectious disease specialist. The latter proved to be a complete false alarm as puzzled doctors did everything they could to pinpoint the cause of his vision issues.
When those consultations had started, he had been able to drive himself to the appointments. By the end, his condition had worsened to the point where he could no longer get behind the wheel.
By Nov. 20, he was back in hospital.
“My eyes were getting real bad,” Guy says. “Things looked like a tunnel. They did all sorts of tests… CT scan, MRI, you name it, and found nothing. No blockages in my body, no tumours, no high blood pressure, no black spots on my brain.”
Finally, however, the doctors were able to give him some answers: In concert with being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and high blood sugar, he was suffering from something called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy.
“The Coles Notes is it’s basically a stroke of your eye that has basically cut off blood flow to your optic nerve from your brain,” Guy explains of his most recent diagnosis. “Small, tiny, tiny blood vessels that have been damaged and so that was it.”
His doctors have also stressed to him that his loss of sight in his right eye is not related to the loss of sight in his left eye.
“I’m healthy. I eat right. I’m active.. Yeah, my blood sugar is a bit high .. and that combined with the stroke in my eye caused me to have this.”
“I AM JUST HEARING, AND FEELING THAT THEY ARE UNDERSTANDING”
It’s Monday night at Langley Secondary School, and there is a small but loyal legion of fans on hand to cheer the Thunderbirds’ girls basketball team.
It’s the team’s second game of the season, against the visiting Abbotsford Traditional Titans, and if you weren’t looking for the subtle signs you may not have even realized Langley’s coach was guiding his team on nothing more than guile, guts and an intuition gleaned from over 30 years around the game.
Relying on in-game reports from both his players, and from his Grade 12 son Jaidyn, seated next to him on the bench, Guy simply knows what needs to be said as he calls for a time-out and huddles with his players.
“OK, who’s on the wing?,” he shouts, awaiting the right answer. “OK, who’s in the middle?”
The players respond.
They are having a tough night, though, a night that a largely Grade 11 roster which hasn’t played in almost two years is bound to have early.
A whistle blows, and in an instant, one member of the two-man crew, Paul Nivins, finds Guy, lets him know by voice that he is approaching, and after putting a hand on his back, explains the call to him.
After all of Guy’s years officiating within the BCBOA, the voice is friendly and welcoming, and yet another sign that the basketball community is there to support him.
Yet as news of his condition began to trickle through the B.C. officiating community Tuesday, those closest to him were gutted to hear the news, praying for his recovery, and inspired by his courage.
“He is really caring man,” said friend and fellow veteran official Kerry Rokosh, the former North Surrey and Simon Fraser player. “The best thing I can say about Sheldon is that when you start officiating, it’s hard. You want to do well and you have ups and downs. But he is a person that would really pick me up and he made me feel good about my officiating. He really had a way to pump your tires at a time when your head was down. I will always remember that.”
It’s a level of positivity that has been impossible for his impressionable players to miss as both they and their coach tread into coaching areas as yet unexplored.
“It just goes shows how how genuine he is to still be here for us,” says Grade 11 Langley player Miah Arce-Perez. “The kind of role model he is to us… he is not going to quit, even without his eyesight. He is still pushing through for us, so we know that we have to push even harder ourselves.”
Watching and listening to Guy coach is a lesson in the intricacies of hoops ESP, and it’s a method he’s only just beginning to understand.
“I am going on how they are moving… the sound I am hearing,” he begins. “I am going on the questions they may be asking me. Then, I tell them how they need to move, how they need to close out. I am not seeing anything. I am just hearing, and feeling that they are understanding.”
Then, he calls another time-out.
“Ladies, calm down and run your game,” he says, sensing their misplaced energy the past few trips up and down the floor. “And commit to defence.”
The Thunderbirds’ effort is exceptional, yet they continue to fail to make up ground on the Titans.
Then the halftime buzzer sounds and the players head to the change room.
Back at the Langley bench, Guy and son Jaidyn chat about the first half and prepare for the second.
Then, with Jaidyn as his guide, coach Sheldon walks to the dressing room to address the team.
“It’s pretty cool that his teenage is son is there,” remarks Langley Secondary athletic director and head football coach Mark Wyse. “As a parent you give so much to your children, and here is Sheldon’s son giving back to his dad, and the two of them are there together, sharing such quality time.”
SAVED BY BASKETBALL, HE HONOURS HIS PASSION
Before he headed into the hospital on Nov. 20, Sheldon Guy made a couple of decisions he had been dreading.
“I resigned from the BCBOA as an official, as a high-level official doing PacWest games, Canada West games, as well as high school Quad-A games for boys and girls,” Guy began. “Then I also resigned as the head coach of the Langley Secondary Thunderbirds.”
Yet as isolated and fearful as he was entering the hospital, he continued to get reports on the progress of his LSS girls team from close friend and G2 Athletics club basketball coach and founder Gabe Gibbs, who has supported Guy the entire way and will continue to do so on the bench when able over the course of the season.
“Gabe had had a practice with the girls, but the whole practice just ended up being the girls sending me messages on a video,” Guy related. “I couldn’t see it, but I could hear my players.
Said one of them: “Coach, I don’t have a dad, but since last February, you have been like a father-figure to me.”
Said another: “You have really made an impact on me, and not just in basketball, but for an individual to be stronger and fight through things. I just want you to know that I don’t care if you can’t see or you can’t walk.. you on the bench would be what we want. We don’t care about our record, we don’t care how we do. We just want you on our bench because you are part of our team, and if you’re not coming back, I am not playing.”
During Monday’s game against Abbotsford Traditional, that love for coach was impossible to miss.
At one point, as Guy got up to get a better feel for the sounds his team was making on the floor, he wandered just a little too close to the sidelines.
Immediately, Grade 11 Daniella Kuzik sprung up to grab her coach’s arm and gently pull him back towards the bench.
“We’re always watching out to make sure he is OK, and that he can coach us to the best of his ability without getting hurt,” the protective 16-year-old explained. “We had a few coaches coach us but it wasn’t the same. With coach Sheldon being blind and coming to practice with us makes such a huge difference because he always pushes us to do our best. We all admire that about him.”
Adds Guy with pride of his entire team, and in this instance of Kuzik in particular: “She’ll tug on my belt buckle sometimes, and then just whisper to me ‘Coach, two steps to the left, OK?’”
For his part, Wyse has seen the therapeutic benefits of Guy being able to coach at such a difficult period of his life.
“I hope this is something that will help him overcome the shock of his initial disability and help him to find more of his ability,” Wyse said. “We talk about ‘together and strong’ around here, and all of us here, along with his girls will help him find that strength. This is going to be a good part of his journey.”
And if you can sense a hope in Wyse’s voice, it’s because he’s gotten it from the hope in Guy’s.
With the support of his girlfriend Chelsea, son Jaidyn, his Thunderbirds players, fellow referees, and by all of those he works with professionally as Canadian director of sales for Freemotion Fitness, Sheldon Guy is hopeful of someday regaining his sight.
“If you look up anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, it actually says there is no coming back from it,” Guy says. “The damage is done. But I am not believing that.”
“They said my optic nerve was dead, but if that was the case I would be able to see anything. It would be completely black. But it’s not. I can see my hand right now. I can’t see the colour of it. It’s just dark. The light’s just not getting in.”
Yet those who know Sheldon Guy the best will tell you that he has always had a light within him that can never be extinguished.
At his lowest ebb, in fact, it helped save him.
“I thought about ending it, I am not going to lie,” he said of his state while coming to grips with his blindness while in the hospital. “I really got to a dark place. But then my girlfriend Chelsea and my son helped me get out of that dark hole. After I settled down, I thought to myself ‘Listen, I have impacted so many peoples’s lives and that would be grief that they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.’ My life is gone and I am in heaven, but they would have to deal with it, and that’s not fair. So I snapped out of it.”
So after being discharged from the hospital, and for the first time since he’d resigned as their head coach, he called a meeting with his players.
Not one girl missed.
Sheldon Guy broke down and cried, and so did his players.
“I told them how much I loved them,” he said. “I told them how their messages gave me the courage to fight. Then I got on the court and I coached them.”
By all reports from those in the gym that day, despite coming through eyes filled with tears of joy, it was like he’d never left.
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