Syracuse, NY – Mike Dow and Tom Disinger have a friendship that started because of a shared love of basketball in Syracuse.
It has continued as they are now both battling cancer.
“Who would have ever known how this would change our lives?” said Tom. “It has created a special bond between two guys who love SU basketball.”
Mike and Tom were both lifelong fans of the Syracuse University basketball team. They lived 10 minutes apart in the Saratoga Springs area, but they didn’t know each other. That is, until Mike learned he had cancer and Tom saw the video.
Last June, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, all three of his assistant coaches and security guard Joe Girard surprised Mike in a Zoom call.
Mike, a 41-year-old father of five, was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He thought the call was for a syracuse.com story about diehard Syracuse fans: Mike named his daughter Cuse and he has several Syracuse tattoos, including one of Otto on his forearm.
Instead, the “story” was a ruse to stage the surprising appearances of Boeheim, assistants Adrian Autry, Gerry McNamara and Allen Griffin and Girard, Mike’s favorite player.
Tom watched the video and felt compelled to contact Mike. In an email, Tom said the video “brought me to tears. I had to do something for him.”
Growing up in Baldwinsville, Tom was also a huge fan of Syracuse. Now 73 years old and retired, he lived in Saratoga Springs.
He contacted Mike through Facebook.
“A lot of people came to me when I got sick,” Mike said. “I haven’t responded to everyone because it’s a difficult conversation.
“He wrote me a really great message. I responded to him and we became friends.”
Tom offered to help Mike with shopping and trips to doctor’s appointments. He even said he would drive to Syracuse to take Boeheim’s offer to let Mike go to one of the basketball team practices.
“The fact that Tom contacted Mike didn’t surprise me at all,” said Tom’s wife, Barbara. “He is the first person to lend a hand or befriend someone or an organization. Saratoga and Toys for Tots supported, to name the most recent.
“I think of course he contacted Mike because he was someone in our area who loved the SU teams like Tom.”
The two met for lunch and Tom brought Mike a Syracuse blanket.
Although Tom was more than 30 years older than Mike, the two Syracuse fans bonded right away. They discovered that Mike’s brother was teaching Tom’s grandchildren at a school in Schuylerville.
Of course they were talking about Orange. In his teens, Mike Lawrence’s favorite player had been Moten. He had kicked driveways to earn enough money to drive a Moten No. 21 jersey to buy.
Mike loved Tom’s stories about his career in television. After high school, Tom had joined the Air Force. While stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Tom had worked for the Air Force’s internal television network.
That led to him working as a cameraman for ABC during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Tom was assigned to the gold medal basketball game between the United States and Russia that had ended in controversy.
In November, Mike told Tom that he had received some bad news during a recent visit to Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. As a result, he would return to Sloan Kettering for a month-long stay just before Christmas.
The coronavirus pandemic had interrupted Tom’s plans to get Mike to one of the Syracuse practices. His brother, Dave, had done some landscaping for Jim and Juli Boeheim. With that connection, Tom hoped to get Mike an autographed basketball “or some other Syracuse swag.”
In December, a Syracuse basketball jersey signed by the entire coaching staff arrived at Mike’s parents’ home in Greenwich, NY.
Tom wanted to visit Mike in New York City, but fate intervened.
On December 11, Tom was driving home from his volunteer work when he had a seizure. He was taken to Albany Medical Center, where he remained in the intensive care unit for 10 days.
On December 18, he underwent neurosurgery to remove part of a tumor in his brain. He went home where he waited for the results of the biopsy.
“I meet a guy hoping to give him a supportive shoulder to lean on and eventually I make a friend,” Tom said. “And now this. The fact that I came into contact with him now has much more meaning for me.”
On January 1, Tom got the results of the biopsy. The tumor in his brain was a malignant glioblastoma. Tom’s doctors thought they had removed the entire tumor. Treatments include chemotherapy and radiation.
Tom wouldn’t tell Mike about the diagnosis.
“He has plenty to deal with,” he explained.
But when Tom realized that his own treatment schedule would keep him from seeing Mike as often, he changed his mind and told his friend the bad news.
“Tom didn’t want Mike to think he was forgotten,” Tom’s brother Dave said. “So he thought he’d better tell him the truth.”
It had been less than a year since Tom had reached out to support Mike. Now they supported each other.
“It’s funny how these things work sometimes,” said Tom. “I’m so damn glad I got to know him and that he’s come to trust this stranger from Saratoga.”
In late February, Mike went back to Sloan Kettering for more treatments. Tom was excited when Mike returned to Saratoga.
“We hope to have lunch soon,” Tom said on March 21, the day of Syracuse’s second-round victory over West Virginia in the NCAA tournament.
After months of tests and treatments, Mike got some good news in April: a few tumors in his lungs appeared to be shrinking.
“One was two inches long and it’s only an inch now,” he said. “Those are great results. I’ve had nothing but bad news from the start. Everything grew and grew and grew, so I accept it.”
Meanwhile, Tom was getting worse.
In April, Juli Boeheim heard about Tom’s condition. She invited him to visit and view the family’s trophy room.
However, a few days before the visit, Tom had another seizure.
“Tom was really upset that he couldn’t make the trip,” said Dave Disinger.
On April 30, Tom underwent another brain surgery.
In lieu of the visit, Juli and Jim Boeheim filmed a video featuring the trophies, photos, and other basketball memorabilia Tom is said to have seen during his visit.
“He loved it,” Dave said.
The operation went relatively well. It had been risky: the doctors hoped it would improve Tom’s quality of life in his final months, and they believed the surgery had worked.
Barbara is now driving Tom to his lunches with Mike.
“They both became big supporters of each other,” Barbara said. “That, in turn, made them each stronger in their cancer battles. (Mike’s) kindness and support for Tom is real and amazing.”
Recently, the brain tumor began to affect Tom’s language skills, making telephone calls impossible.
But in a recent email, Tom was still focused on his friend.
“Thanks again for contacting Mike,” he wrote. “I know it means a lot to Mike to know that he has such great support throughout the SU community.”
The two friends met again for lunch last week.
“It’s almost ironic that I started this journey with Mike, hoping to be a support system for him,” said Tom. “What a crazy twist of fate. It’s been a really great connection.”
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