‘He still smiles’: MacLeod honored as son recounts former Suns coach’s battle with Alzheimer’s

SCOTTSDALE — The name John MacLeod means something in Arizona sports history.

He is the Phoenix Suns’ winningest coach, amassing 579 victories in 13 seasons, and in 1976 became the first coach to lead Phoenix to the NBA Finals, a feat only one other man has accomplished.

Although basketball is a significant part of MacLeod’s legacy, his ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s — which was diagnosed in 2008 — is part of his story, too.

“(Alzheimer’s) was always kind of put behind closed doors because it kind of had a stigma to it,” said MacLeod’s son, Matt. “But I think now, with events like this, it’s finally getting the recognition that it deserves.”

“This” was the ninth annual “A Love Not Forgotten” gala held Feb. 3 at the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, an event honoring MacLeod’s legacy put on by the Desert Southwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Matt, a member of the Desert Southwest Chapter’s local board and an attorney with Gallagher & Kennedy in Phoenix, served as the event’s keynote speaker. He called the foundation’s effort groundbreaking and detailed his father’s fight with the disease.

The first time John exhibited signs of Alzheimer’s was 2007. He would ask the same questions repeatedly, and was sometimes unsure of where he was. Initially, the family didn’t know whether it simply was old age or something more extreme.

The symptoms became significant enough for the family to seek a professional opinion, and the official diagnosis was made the following year.

At first, John’s condition was kept private. His wife, Carol, whom Matt described as a hero and an angel for her “Herculean effort” taking care of John during the years since the diagnosis, has been fierce in her willingness to be there for her husband.

Matt acknowledged he has struggled while watching his father’s memory decline over the years. John attended Matt’s wedding – and was even at the birth of Matt’s children. What hurts Matt most, however, is that his children will never know their grandfather – their “Pop Pop” – the way he did.

“I miss my dad,” Matt said somberly, as a photo montage featuring 10 images of John, including one of the two of them together, played on two projection screens at opposite ends of the stage.

In his remarks, Matt acknowledged that the emotions expressed in observing his father’s disease progress are a natural reaction. He’s also believes it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help.

“You cannot do it alone,” Matt said. “There is help out there. It’s OK to reach out for help.”
The Alzheimer’s Association, the largest private funder of Alzheimer’s research in the world, is a non-profit organization intent on providing care, support and research of the disease through donations.

The Desert Southwest Chapter event, which included a live and silent auction, a dance and was accompanied by free-flowing wine and a three-course meal, is an example of the financial support. By the time the night’s proceeds were counted, the chapter had raised over $50,000 through the auction sales alone. Ticket sales – valued at $250 each – pushed that figure even higher.

All proceeds will go toward the Alzheimer’s Association’s work to combat the disease, which affects an estimated 130,000 Arizonans. It’s the fifth-leading cause of death in the state. The Alzheimer’s Association has been among the leaders in raising public awareness of it and other forms of dementia, locally, nationally and globally.

Matt emphasized the importance of understanding that the disease differs from person to person. It’s not a “straight-ahead disease like cancer or heart disease where you go from Point A to Point B. It’s a roller coaster,” he said.

“It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to laugh,” he added. “It’s easy to get discouraged, but reach out and get help because there is help, and it’s now coming to the forefront as opposed to maybe 10 or 20 years ago. It was always kind of put behind closed doors because it kind of had a stigma to it. But I think now, with events like this, it’s finally getting the recognition that it deserves.”

Perhaps the most valuable contribution shared that evening wasn’t the money raised, but Matt’s poignant words, the passion with which he spoke in reverence of his father and the memories of the times they shared before the diagnosis.

“If you spent 20 minutes with my dad, you would’ve thought you knew him for 20 years,” Matt said. “He takes an interest in you as a person.”

Before the night’s festivities, Matt had stood outside the ballroom in the golden glow of a hallway lined with portraits of his father, whom he often described with the same three words: “Class, integrity, dignity.”

At the root of John’s reputation were his humble beginnings. He grew up in the projects of New Albany, Indiana, a small town near the Kentucky line. That experience shaped his character and, subsequently, that of his children, Matt and Kathleen.

“He treated everyone the same,” Matt said. “No matter who you were, you got that same level of respect from my father.”

That trait was something John never lost, even as he rose through the coaching ranks.

“People gravitated to him,” Matt said. “That’s a true testament to my father.”

That pull of John’s personality is what led former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo to hire him.

Colangelo was the Suns’ general manager and coach when he met MacLeod, who was then coaching at Oklahoma. After interviewing MacLeod at MacLeod’s home in Norman about the possibility of taking over as his team’s head coach, Colangelo invited MacLeod to attend a Suns game in Phoenix.

At halftime of the game, Colangelo put MacLeod to the test.

“He was at our game, and I had him, unannounced — he was unprepared for this — at halftime, he was in the locker room with the team and myself,” Colangelo said. “I was coaching then. I had him make some adjustments predicated on what he had seen in the first half, and the way he handled that situation and how the players responded said a great deal to me.”

Colangelo hired MacLeod to replace him in 1973. MacLeod’s tenure lasted until 1987, which at the time was the longest in NBA history.

Throughout his dad’s time with the Suns, Matt would often sneak down to the locker room in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. John often brought him a Sunkist or an Orange Crush, an experience he still cherishes to this day.

“I can still taste that Orange Crush, I can still taste that Sunkist,” Matt said. “I still have that powerful sense memory of my dad’s cologne as he walked by and of the taste of that orange drink. Every now and then, I’ll go to the store and get a Sunkist or an Orange Crush, and I think of him.”

Embedded within those memories are the numerous highlights of moments they shared together.

“Every seminal moment in my young childhood, he was there,” Matt said. “People would kill for those 30 years. People would kill for the relationship that we had.”

Despite the daily battle, Matt said his father remains positive.

“He still smiles,” Matt said. “He still laughs. So that’s the gift of grace that my family is able to receive from my dad on a daily basis. He still has his spirit.”

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