By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
He’s not supposed to be here.
Or is he?
Tony Dominguez, a 40-year-old graduate of Cascade High School, knows now that all paths were supposed to lead him here, to the first seat on the bench of the Western Washington University men’s basketball team, at this precise moment in time. He knows that without hesitation.
But a look back at this man’s life, a look at where he’s been and how far he’s come, could lead one to conclude Dominguez is not supposed to be here.
That’s what the doctor who diagnosed him with a children’s disease called Kawasaki Syndrome — and then told him he had 24 hours to live might well have thought 26 years ago.
It’s what the doctors and interns might have been thinking a few days later when they rushed into Dominguez’s room at Seattle Children’s Hospital just to get a look at the 14-year-old with that hospitals first case of rheumatic fever in more than a decade.
It’s what his high school basketball coaches probably thought while leaving him on the bench for most of his senior season because they feared Dominguez might end up like Hank Gathers.
Dominguez, having spent 17 years as a WWU assistant before being handed the title of interim head coach when longtime Vikings head man Brad Jackson abruptly left 2½ months ago, even questioned it himself as recently as this summer.
He had grown impatient with the lack of head-coaching offers and decided that his basketball career probably never would take him beyond the second chair on the WWU bench. So Dominguez decided this summer that this would be his last year coaching basketball. He told his wife that after the 2012-13 season, he would fall back on a Masters degree in business and start his own company.
During a family vacation to New York City, he made one last-ditch effort to reignite his basketball career and stopped by the front offices of the NBA to inquire about a job any job, as long as it meant working on a basketball court. The next day, while Dominguez was standing in Times Square, his telephone rang.
Brad Jackson, by all indications a lifer at Western Washington, was calling to let him know that he would be leaving to take an assistant coaching job at the University of Washington. Both Dominguez and Jackson knew what that meant.
Finally after 17 seasons on the bench, the Vikings would be Dominguez’s team.
”I didn’t think it was real,” Dominguez said. “I thought it was one of my buddies pulling a prank.”
And so here he is. Finally running his own program.
Dominguez’s basketball resume certainly set him up for this point, but his journey could be seen as miraculous by medical standards.
Dominguez lived a healthy, happy, athletic life from the time he fell in love with basketball at 5 years old until the age of 14, when a series of illnesses put him in Children’s Hospital with life-threatening symptoms. He grew up idolizing Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and a University of North Carolina point guard named Jeff Lebo, and he often emulated his NBA heroes by spending four hours a day practicing the game outdoors in hindsight, a mistake in the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest.
What started as a cold deteriorated into pneumonia and more severe symptoms that landed him in the hospital with what a doctor diagnosed as Kawasaki’s, a rare illness that can be fatal. When the doctor told Dominguez he had just 24 hours to live, he naively shrugged it off.
”I didn’t really pay attention to it,” he said. “I was 14, 15 years old, the Sonics were on television in my (hospital) room, and I was like, whatever.”
Dominguez, of course, made it through the night. A later diagnosis of rheumatic fever, which led to rheumatic heart disease, was only slightly more encouraging. He ended up spending two weeks at Childrens, in a room with patients who seemed to be constantly wheeled out, never to return.
”I started looking around like, why is that kid gone?” he said. “Then it hit me, and I was like: ‘Why am I in this room?’ It makes you start thinking about how precious life is.”
Dominguez was eventually released from the hospital, but only after doctors discovered a hole in his heart that would require surgery. His basketball career, he was told, was over. He looked the doctor in the eye and told him to come up with a different plan; Dominguez was not giving up basketball.
“I was hard-headed,” Dominguez said. “I didn’t even give my parents a chance (to talk him out of it).”
And so he was back on the court as a sophomore, despite the heart condition. He continued to thrive on the Cascade varsity team, and after his junior year Dominguez made such an impression at a camp at Washington State University that he says Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson told him he was good enough to walk-on at WSU.
Dominguez’s high school coaches, he said, were aware of his condition but probably did not quite understand the severity. Not until December of his senior season when Hank Gathers, a college star at Loyola-Marymount, collapsed at the free-throw line and was later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Three months later, Gathers would again collapse on the court, and this time it was fatal.
Dominguez contends that the Cascade coaches, understandably fearful of his heart condition, started limiting his minutes after the initial Gathers scare. Dominguez grew bitter as he saw the college interest dry up. After graduation, he headed north to attend Western Washington with an eye toward walking on with the Vikings.
During his sophomore year at WWU, a Vikings player named Duke Wallenborn died in his sleep from a pre-existing condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. That convinced Dominguez that his days playing basketball were over.
“For me, as a Christian guy, I thought there were enough signs that told me I’m not playing, he said.
Dominguez started down a different basketball path, first spending a year as junior-varsity coach at Nooksack Valley High School and coaching an AAU team before sending out hundreds of letters in search of a college job. He contacted his coaching hero, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, requesting a position as a counselor at the Tar Heels basketball camp, was accepted, then paid his own way to Chapel Hill and has since worked 12 summers there.
In 1996, he joined the Vikings as a graduate assistant, working without pay for a year because he wanted to get into coaching. Seventeen years later, he finally got his chance as a head coach, when Jackson took a position on Lorenzo Romar’s staff at UW.
Jackson said Dominguez has been ready for this moment for a long time.
“Over the last number of years, I felt like he’s been ready to be a head coach,” said Jackson, who gave Dominguez the tag of associate head coach two years ago. “… Even though he worked for me, I never saw it that way. We worked together.”
If there’s one question about Dominguez’s readiness, it stems from his medical history. In addition to his high school health problems, he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart seven years ago. At that time, doctors again suggested Dominguez cut back on his physical activity.
But the 40-year-old coach, who is on beta blockers and other medications, still plays pickup basketball on an almost daily basis.
“I try to go through life responsibly,” he said, “but (basketball is) just an obsession for me: I’m still going to play. I have to be smart about it, and when you’re playing pickup basketball, it’s not that intense, so you can regulate (your exertion level).”
Jackson was aware of Dominguez’s condition while at WWU but said it was a “non-issue” then and that it wont affect Dominguez in his new, more stressful role, as a head coach.
”When he was younger, he probably pushed the envelope more than he should,” Jackson said, “but recently he’s been more smart.”
Dominguez understands the curiosity in his health history but doesn’t necessarily like making a big deal about it. A husband and the father of three, he said he is careful about not putting himself in risky situations but added that hes not going to live his life in fear.
”I don’t really worry about any of it,” he said. “Quite honestly — and maybe this is the wrong way to look at it — but God’s got a plan. I just try to live as responsibly as I can, and if there would be an event that were to say, ‘Hey, it’s time to slow down,’ then I would take that.
”But things that have been presenting themselves lately have been a whole lot more obvious (in the other direction).”
The only thing that really concerns Dominguez these days is how to improve a program that last season won the NCAA Division II national championship. That’s his obsession. He was so distraught after the Vikings lost to Duke — yes, Duke — in an exhibition game on Saturday that he sat in the Cameron Indoor Arena locker room wondering what hed done wrong.
Dominguez is constantly moving forward, trying to move upward. Maybe there was a time when he thought he wasn’t meant to be here, but now that couldnt be further from the truth.
”Honestly, I was starting to feel like, as a 17-year assistant: ‘Man, am I cursed?” he said. “Now I look back at how the series of events happened, how I’m so much more prepared now that I’m getting this opportunity, and I’m so thankful for those 17 years. It’s like: ‘Holy cow, how appreciative am I?’ Wow, my plan was so much more pathetic.”
Dominguez looks back on his two-week stay at Children’s Hospital as the turning point in his life. And now that he’s reached one of his main career goals, he cant help but think this was the path he was supposed to be on all along.
”To go from being in a hospital bed, thinking you’re going to die, to having a beautiful wife and three wonderful children, to being on the same floor as Coach K (Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski) — I mean, are you kidding me?” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, all I could think about was: Am I going to die?”
Yes, Tony Dominguez was meant to be in this position, at this moment in time. He is supposed to be here, of course, because this is precisely where he is. Just a few months after beginning to write the final chapter in his career as a basketball coach, Tony Dominguez is beginning an entirely new story in Bellingham.
“I’m just on Cloud 9,” he said. “I just think it’s an awesome opportunity.”