A little long, but good article.
This is about the large Diener family.
Meet the Dieners of Fond du Lac, the first family of heartland hoops -- three generations that have shot and smiled through stardom and sorrow.
For more than half a century June has overseen the Marr Street driveway tussles that now feature grandkids (from left) Travis, Rachel, Brittney and Drake.
Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography
Promise Yourself -- To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
-- The Optimists Creed, 1922
The optimist died young, so it's his widow who comes to watch the grandchildren play. She watched them all grow up, the sons and daughters and now the grandchildren the Optimist never knew. "Be too large for worry," he used to say, but he missed all this, and so she misses him with every shot made, every point scored and every note the pep band plays.
Tonight she's tucked into the corner of the Allstate Arena out on the far O'Hare fringes of Chicagoland. One of her sons sits three seats over. One of his
sons is playing for the DePaul Blue Demons, and another is helping coach them. Somewhere in this arena is another of her sons, fussing and fuming, she is sure, and one of his
sons is playing for the Marquette Golden Eagles, who are having a bad time of it against DePaul. She's sort of rooting for the Blue Demons because she's sitting with the son whose son is playing for DePaul, but she's rooting too for the skinny kid in the blue-and-gold uniform with the swagger in his step and the beard that is largely wishful thinking, the little squirt who used to career around her driveway and her living room and her kitchen and much of the greater metropolitan area of Fond du Lac, Wis.
Travis Diener has been the central part of a four-year revival of the basketball program at Marquette. A 6'1", 175-pound point guard, he was averaging 20.0 points through Sunday -- 22nd in the nation -- and 6.8 assists, and was closing in on the school's alltime scoring record, which has stood for 35 years. He is one of 30 finalists for the Wooden Award, presented to the nation's best college player, and one of 18 finalists for the Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard. Two years ago Diener and Dwyane Wade, currently in Miami d/b/a the anti-Kobe, led Marquette to the Final Four for the first time since Al McGuire's team won it all in 1977. It was Diener's 29 points that saved that team from what would have been an embarrassing first-round loss to Holy Cross.
"It's gone by so fast," he muses. "It just seems like I just set foot on campus, just got done playing high school basketball
with my uncle coaching me, and now I'm two months away from it all being over."
Diener began at Marquette as a weapon off the bench, a deadly three-point shooter used by coach Tom Crean to shake up the game. (At week's end he was shooting a gaudy 43.9% this season from beyond the arc.) Now, though, he's become a versatile player of startling intelligence -- "His basketball IQ," says Marquette forward Steve Novak, "is off the charts" -- and surpassing toughness.
Travis Diener's talking all the time, chewing on his teammates and chatting up referees from baseline to baseline, and occasionally even having a word for the fans, who get on him in arenas around the country the way that the fans once did in all those icebox gyms in the Fox Valley Association, where they'd taunt him with speculation that the Dieners all married each other. In short, as it were, Travis Diener plays the game in such a way as to make Duke's cocky J.J. Redick look as 'umble as Uriah Heep.
"You have to be like that, if you're my size," Travis explains. "If you're not, the people at this level will just eat you alive. You'll be done."
"He always was a cocky little s---," his father, Bob, says, admiringly, and that's how to distinguish Travis from all the other Dieners. After that, it's best to line them up all at once. If you don't, you can get lost in the Dieners and never find your way out.
There's Travis, who'll be 23 on March 1, and his two younger sisters, Rachel and Brittney, both of whom play college basketball -- Rachel at Saint Louis University and Brittney at Lewis in Illinois. That's the easy part. Now this is where the whole thing starts to go all Plantagenet on us.
Bob Diener owns the Press Box, a cozy saloon along the Fond du Lac River to which people occasionally drive their snowmobiles. He does not coach. He is the excitable one.
"He could have been a coach," says Drew Diener, one of his nephews, "except he'd get thrown out of every game. When Travis plays, ESPN ought to just have a camera on him. You know: Bob-cam."
Bob's brother Dick actually is
the longtime coach at Fond du Lac High. Dick coached Travis. He also coached his own sons, Drake, 23, and Drew, 25. Drake Diener plays for DePaul, at which Drew, who played at Saint Louis, is now a graduate assistant. At one time Dick Diener had four Dieners on the floor at once, two of his sons and two of his nephews -- Travis and his cousin Dallas.
And this is not to mention Bob and Dick's brother (and Dallas's father) Jim, who is the painting-business millionaire and the family golfer, or their other brother, Tom, who coaches at Vincent High in Milwaukee and who last season put a serious whipping on Dick's team in the quarterfinals of the Wisconsin state tournament. Their mother went to that game, and she didn't like having to pick between them, but she sort of rooted for Fond du Lac because that's where she lives.
She's had much to cheer about. She has all the basketball players, of course, two generations of them, and Dallas won the 2000 state high school golf championship, and Rachel and Brittney were also all-state tennis players. And she has her daughter, Cathy, who was Miss Fond du Lac in 1973. Involvement was what the Optimist was all about, involvement and excellence, back when they were first married.
"They're determined," she says. "I think that comes from my husband. He always said, 'Give it all you've got, and then give it a little more.'"
Out on the court her grandson Drake drains a long jump shot and runs down the court with three fingers in the air on each hand, which is something Travis has been known to do. Drake is taller than his cousin, a 6'5" shooting guard and one of DePaul's captains. At week's end he was averaging 11.5 points, shooting a stellar 41.2% from beyond the arc and 89.6% from the line. "I think you see the same thing in all of us, in our play," Drake would say after his team's 85-72 win, in which he scored 12 points and handed out five assists. (Travis finished with 15 and nine, respectively.) "I think we play intelligently and unselfishly. Where does Travis fall in the pecking order? It's hard not to say he's on top."
"They're all basketball purists," says Dave Leitao, Drake's coach at DePaul, whose team will face Marquette again on Feb. 20, in Milwaukee. "They eat, sleep and breathe the game like coaches do." And, it must be said, like grandmothers do too.
The Optimist's wife looks at Travis, and she remembers him battling his bigger cousins for the basketball under the hoop that's hung on her garage for three generations now. She cuts his hair. She cuts all their hair, her children's and their children's, and even their
children's now. She cuts their hair, and she watches them play, and it hurts her to see how much the Optimist missed.
"I don't know how it happened," she says. "But I never go out of the house now, I never go to the grocery store, where somebody doesn't say, 'Hey, you're Gramma Diener.' I really kind of enjoy it, and I'm very proud."
Travis is driving down the big court now, on national television, playing against his cousin and playing that same way he always has, fighting almost recklessly on a bad ankle while his team is coming apart around him. Eighty-two-year-old June Diener sits back down, and she thinks about how much the Optimist would have loved all this. He missed it all, and so she misses him, the way she always will, because the Optimist died too soon. Pictures of the entire clan hang in her dining room back home. Shadows fill the spaces in between.
The pastures roll in great, spreading swells, and the county roads run through them like bent wire. There's ice on the fence posts, and hawks stand silent sentinel atop the barren trees. Up toward Lake Winnebago, where Fond du Lac is, winter can look vast and permanent, as though nothing ever changes, as though the hawks have stood there in the crooked branches, unblinking in the wind and as still as cold iron, since the 1840s, when the revolution collapsed in Germany and its unruly sons and daughters fled to places like this to build new lives on the farms and in the mills and Fond du Lac found itself suddenly a city.
The Germans prospered, and their revolutionary ardor faded through the years. They became more American than a lot of Americans seemed to be. "It's a very conservative place," says Wisconsin attorney general Peggy Lautenschlager, a Democrat and a Fond du Lac native. "It's very Republican, very German and very Catholic."
June Kramer grew up on a farm eight miles outside town. In 1940 she finished high school and, some time during the following summer, a man came out to the farm and offered her a chance to go to beauticians' school down in Milwaukee, 55 miles away.
"I'd never been out of the county," she recalls. "I'd never been on a bus before, and I'd certainly never been to a big city."
So she rode the bus, pop-eyed, as the county roads gave way to the boulevards and avenues of the city. She lodged with some people who worked her to the bone for her room and board. "That was a disaster," she says. But she stuck it out and got her license. Then she went home.
There she met Lyle Diener, a bluff, spirited man who ran a milk distributorship. He was a former B-17 pilot who'd flown 62 missions over Europe during the war, very few of which were, well, milk runs. He'd come back to Fond du Lac, started his business with two other fellows and cofounded the local branch of the Optimists Club, one of those national fraternal outfits dedicated to good works in the communities in which they'd established themselves. Optimists agreed, among other things, "to wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile," which, to Lyle, had been an instinct long before it was a creed. He would have been an Optimist even without a club.
(How optimistic the Optimists are can best be measured by the fact that the organization is still thriving after almost a century; Peg Lautenschlager specifically mentions her membership in the Fond du Lac Optimists on her political CV. That their optimism remains unflagging can best be measured by the fact that last year the national organization opened a chapter in Baghdad.)
There were almost 1,000 branches nationwide by the time Lyle Diener started his in Fond du Lac, all of them dedicated to promoting activities aimed at what was then called "the youth of the community." Lyle threw himself into these, and he threw the youth of his family into them as well.
"We did everything," recalls Bob Diener. "Boy Scouts, Indian Guides, you name it." The two oldest boys, Bob and Dick, also got dragooned into the local drum-and-bugle corps, which neither one of them remembers fondly. They were indifferent buglers. "Music," says Bob, "wasn't our bag."
But sports were. Lyle hung a basketball hoop on the garage of the house he and June had bought on Marr Street when they married, and Bob and Dick became good enough to play in high school for Fritz Lautenschlager, Peg's father. Bob broke both ankles playing football and never was quite right as an athlete again, but Dick became a star, the leading scorer in school history. He went away to college at Richmond but eventually transferred back home to nearby Lakeland College.
By 1970 the three youngest children, Cathy, Jim and Tom, were the only ones left in the house on Marr Street. Bob had married and was living upstairs in the duplex next door. Dick came home from college to visit. In the middle of the night he heard his father get up to go to the bathroom. Then he heard his mother scream.
"What I remember," says Tom Diener, "is my mother, downstairs, shouting, 'Lyle! Lyle!' and Dick, trying to revive my dad, saying, 'Breathe! Breathe!' Dick's hollering at him. I can remember how long it seemed to take the ambulance to come. I was 12, and I can remember it like it was yesterday."
Lyle Diener died of a heart attack in his son's arms, on the floor of his house. He was 49. All of the Optimists came to his funeral.
Of all the kids, Tom missed his father the most. He was the youngest and had had the least time with him. He also was the last child living with his mother in a house that now seemed unfathomably large. "Bob and Dick helped out," says Tom. "But it was all my mom. She's a tough lady." Eventually Tom went to Wisconsin-Stout, and his mother was alone.
June had kept up her license, and she went back to work as a hairdresser. She also worked in a department store downtown. The grandkids had begun to arrive. Bob had two children already -- Danny and Angie -- but his marriage foundered, and the kids went to live across town with their mother. Meanwhile Dick and his wife, Sara, had Derek (now 27, and a former Army basketball player), Drew and Drake. Bob remarried, to a former runner named Vicki Julka, and they had a son, a skinny ball of fire named Travis, and then Rachel and Brittney. Everyone lived close by: Bob right around the corner and Dick eight blocks away. The hoop that Lyle had hung for his sons now became the center of the extended family's life.
"It would snow at night, and we'd go to church, and then they'd shovel it out," June recalls. "Sometimes they'd put rugs down on the driveway so they could play." June even put up an eight-foot hoop for the smaller kids.
"Girls or boys, it didn't matter," says Rachel. "If you went out there, you had to play for real."
All the cousins played, even Danny, Bob's son from his first marriage, whom Travis and his sisters came to look on as a big brother. "He was the one who drove us to all of our games," recalls Brittney. "Danny was one of us."
Gradually Travis began to assert himself in the games. He was short and impossibly slender, but he was developing a formidable shooting range and he simply never stopped moving. "He's confident because he's worked so darn hard," says his uncle Tom, "and he's always been an underdog."
By the time Travis was ready for high school, Bob and Vicki decided to hold him out for a year, at least partly so he could physically mature. As is often the case in small towns, there were people in Fond du Lac who were upset by this, and in a neighborhood spitting match that somehow found its way into the local newspaper, Bob and Vicki (and Dick and Sara, who also held Drake out) found themselves cast as the worst kind of sports parents.
"I think, more so in a small town, you get jealousies like that," Travis muses. "You have to deal with it your whole life. I think if there was one thing in the world I could eliminate, it'd be jealousy, because there's no good that can come from it for anyone."
"If you'd have told us up front that it was going to be this kind of a hassle," says Bob, "we might have done something differently."
Playing for his Uncle Dick, Travis blossomed in high school, leading the Cardinals to a 22-2 record in his senior year. That same year Drake became the second-leading national high school free throw shooter of all time (making 96.3% ), while Travis shot 80% from the line. The Cardinals were impossible to beat with a lead in the last few minutes of a game. "We had a free throw competition at the end of every practice," Dick Diener recalls. "Travis and Drake would go back and forth, [one of them winning] every day."
There was talk that Travis would go to Wisconsin, but the Badgers' slowdown style under then coach Dick Bennett never interested him. "I have all the respect in the world for Dick Bennett," Travis says, "but I didn't think I'd fit. I wanted to go up and down [the court] more." So he signed with Marquette, and with Crean, a former assistant at Michigan State, whose up-tempo team had won the 2000 national title. In 2001, like his grandmother before him, Travis Diener left Fond du Lac on the road to Milwaukee.
He was there a week when he called home one night. His parents asked him to call back in two minutes. When he did, his mother was crying.
There had been problems for a while with Danny, Bob's son from his first marriage. He drank too much, and he got into cocaine, and everybody in town seemed to know it. He lived with June for a couple of years and then moved into a house on Sheboygan Street, next door to Peg Lautenschlager.
For a while Danny had seemed to be turning the corner. He'd gone into a rehabilitation clinic for 60 days, and he'd been clean since he got out. But an engagement had been broken off, and a couple of friends invited him to go to a Monday night football game in Green Bay, and there had been some beers and then, apparently, a lot of cocaine. Out her window Peg Lautenschlager saw the red lights of the police car in front of the house next door. They brought Danny out on a stretcher. He'd overdosed, fatally, sometime during the night.
"He was a great guy," says Tom Diener. "That's why there were so many people crying at his funeral."
Tom Crean brought nearly the entire Marquette basketball program, right down to the office staff, up to Danny's wake. When Travis returned to school afterward, the team enfolded him. He grew very close to Wade, whose talents were exploding. The two roomed together on the road. Travis also discovered that his teammates gravitated toward him for leadership, and that helped him too. After all, it is in the Optimist's Creed that you should "make all your friends feel that there is something in them."
"Travis truly has a love for people, and not just his teammates but anyone he runs into," Wade says. "People attach themselves to him, and he attaches himself to them."
From the other side of Milwaukee at inner-city Vincent High, where he had come to coach as a kind of strange amalgam of Gene Hackman's Norman Dale and Ken Howard's White Shadow, Tom Diener visited Marquette's practices a couple of times a week, just to check on Travis.
"I still can't talk about [Danny's death] without tearing up," Tom says. "It's still so fresh. I cried. I still cry. I was going over to practice every couple of days, and I usually try to stay away. I tried to talk to Travis about it a little, but he didn't talk about it much."
"It devastated me," Travis recalls. "It was definitely the worst few weeks or months of my life. He was like an older brother, you know? Like an older
older brother. Ask any college freshman: It's the hardest year of your life anyway, just getting adjusted. And this was right in the first few weeks of school."
You can feel it again, deep within both of them, as you feel it in June when she talks about her husband. The family talks about sudden death in the night as though it were part of a shared emotional cosmology, as cold and solid in them as whatever it is that makes hawks look like iron in the winter, unbending in the empty trees.
Travis Diener has made a play that was so smart and so quick it bordered on a kind of grand illusion, as though both benches, all three referees and the several-thousand-odd fans who had braved a fine Milwaukee blizzard to come drifting into the Bradley Center had suddenly seen him wave a cape and make an elephant appear atop the backboard.
With 5:23 left in a game that Marquette was losing to Charlotte 63-57, Diener had been fouled and gone to the line. On the way he noticed that Marquette was not yet in the bonus situation. Uncharacteristically -- Diener has shot 83.8% from the line in his college career -- he missed his free throw, which rebounded into the hands of Charlotte forward Curtis Withers. As everyone else on the floor stood around the lane in anticipation of a second free throw attempt, Diener was the only one who grasped the situation. He bolted for the basket, snatched the ball from the astounded Withers and dropped in a layup.
It took the crowd a couple of seconds to cheer. Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz was caught so flat-footed that he didn't even argue, much. Up in the stands Bob and Vicki thought Travis was so angry at having missed from the line that, having grabbed the ball, he was going to do something crazy, like throw it into the seats.
The referees caucused earnestly at midcourt, and even Tom Crean didn't seem to fully comprehend the situation until the ref signaled that the basket was good, and the arena erupted. At the bench Steve Novak gave Diener a high five.
"I told him, 'Thanks for making the rest of us look like schlubs,'" Novak says.
"None of us heard the [one-and-one] call except him," Crean says. "It goes to show you what his mind is like. You can't put a price tag on his intellect on the floor."
"He's not your stereotypical coach's kid," Charlotte's Lutz says of Travis. "Some of them are as smart as him, but they're not as talented. He's smart, and he can play. He's a great player and a great thinker. He looks a little hurt now, though."
Indeed, Travis's final college season turned unkind on him as Marquette rounded the corner into conference play. He sprained his left foot badly during the landfill that was Marquette's nonconference schedule, and the injury was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture. The Golden Eagles lost to DePaul and then to Charlotte, despite Diener's heads-up play, and to see him laboring is to see half of what he is. His game is now one of small loops and arcs, not straight lines and sharp angles, so he is much easier to guard. When Crean sat Diener on the road against Louisville, Marquette disintegrated entirely, losing by 47 points, the worst loss in the school's history. When an MRI later revealed a stress fracture, Travis sat out two more games. Last Saturday, however, with Marquette struggling, he came off the bench for the first time since he was a freshman, putting up 17 points and handing out eight assists in a win over Southern Mississippi.
Full strength or not, this is when people are sizing him up for the NBA. Wade, for one, thinks Diener can help an NBA team. "I look at Travis as a Luke Ridnour
kind of player, who can come in and help because he doesn't have to be the main guy," Wade says, invoking the Seattle SuperSonics' second-year point guard. For the nonce, though, on one leg or two, Diener is the main guy at Marquette.
"I'm really not thinking about [the NBA] at all," he says. "I'm just trying to get through this season, trying to win as many games as we can. I'm just trying to leave my mark here, for now."
In fact, this year there isn't a single Diener playing any sport at Fond du Lac High. June makes the trip to watch Dick's team play, and she tries to see her grandchildren in action as often as she can, although she hates to travel to Chicago. Even the basketball hoop on the garage is gone, knocked down by one of her grandsons over the Thanksgiving break. "He keeps telling me he's going to put it back up," she says. "He'd better." She also has a 10-year-old great-grandson -- Angie's son, Jacob -- whom she's keeping her eye on.
"He plays in all the little tournaments," she says. "He can play."
One son is one block over, and the other one is eight blocks away, and some of the grandchildren are playing on television now, and one of them might still play in the NBA, and she still misses the Optimist, who's missed so much of it. She dips her head just a little, and then she comes up, eyes smiling, pointing to another of the pictures on the dining room wall. The winter sun is high now, and there are no shadows in between.