For the past month now, Travis Ford has had to muster every bit of will he possesses just to make himself go into the office.
Over the past nine years, the Saint Louis University men’s basketball coach figures he had seen his nephew, Ford Stuen, “every single day. It seemed like we spent every day together.”
Five years ago, when Ford became the Saint Louis head coach, he brought Stuen with him.
The son of Travis Ford’s sister Leslie and her husband Tore Stuen, Ford Stuen spent three seasons as the Billikens’ director of player development. Two years ago, Travis Ford promoted Stuen to assistant coach.
Stuen “was like a son to me,” Ford says. “He was somebody who, I valued his thoughts and opinions, because I knew he was going to tell me the truth. He was somebody I trusted every single day here.”
Last month, Stuen, 29, died after an out-of-nowhere health crisis.
For Ford, 51, the pain from the reality that he will have no more days working with his nephew has turned whether to go into the Saint Louis men’s basketball offices into a daily test of resolve.
A shared hoops journey
From almost the beginning, Ford Stuen’s life was intertwined with his uncle’s basketball journey.
In December 1993, when Stuen was not even 2 years old, his parents took him to Hawaii to see Travis Ford, then an undersized but fiery point guard for Rick Pitino at Kentucky, play in the Maui Invitational.
After Stuen enjoyed a standout high school hoops career at Henderson County followed by a prep school season at the IMG Academy in Florida, he matriculated to Oklahoma State to play for Ford.
In Stillwater, Stuen bonded with a pair of high school teammates from Texas, Phil Forte and Marcus Smart, the current Boston Celtics guard.
“They are the Three Amigos,” Ford says. “Those three talked every single day.”
After following Ford to St. Louis, Stuen met the love of his life. When he married the former Courtney Hurley last August, Stuen became stepfather to daughter Lucy.
This August, Courtney is due to give birth to Stuen’s son.
“He was so excited about being married to Courtney. He just loved her,” Ford says. “He was really excited about his son that is on the way.”
It was late in this past Saint Louis basketball season when Stuen began to experience sharp pains in his abdomen.
The 2020-21 Billikens’ season had already proven trying. Saint Louis had gotten off to a rousing 6-1 start, beating the SEC’s LSU and the ACC’s North Carolina State and entering the AP Top 25.
However, on the morning when Saint Louis was to open Atlantic 10 Conference play, Ford received a phone call that two of his players had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“From that point on, I think we go 34 days without playing a game,” Ford says. “We went like, 24, 26 days, without even touching a basketball.”
Unsurprisingly, once Saint Louis returned to play, the Billikens weren’t the same. Saint Louis went 8-6 after the extended layoff, finishing 14-7 after losing to Mississippi State in the NIT opening round.
By that time, the pains in his midsection had sent Stuen in search of medical relief.
“He actually didn’t make the last game that we played — he was in the hospital,” Ford says. “He went to the hospital originally with a severe liver issue that just came about, I mean, we don’t know (how). It was a little more serious than we first thought, and then that led to other (medical issues).”
One of the other problems that developed for Stuen, Ford says, was aplastic anemia, a condition that occurs when one’s body stops producing enough new blood cells.
Even though COVID-19 had wreaked havoc with the SLU season, Ford says doctors do not believe that Stuen’s health issues were related to the coronavirus.
“We never have figured out what was wrong or what caused the liver problem,” Ford said. “That led to a lot of other things that he ended up having to fight. And he put up an incredible fight. God just had other plans for him.”
On May 11 — not even a full month since his 29th birthday, some three months before Courtney is scheduled to give birth to their son — Ford Stuen died at the SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.
“It still doesn’t seem real,” Travis Ford says. “To be honest, I’m struggling with it quite a bit.”
‘Never stop missing him’
Since his nephew’s passing, Ford says people have begun mailing back to the Saint Louis basketball office handwritten notes Stuen had sent them.
“We had no idea he was writing all these letters and notes to people,” Ford said. “He valued relationships immensely. That’s why he was on the way to being a superstar in this business, a superstar coach. … He was all about relationships and that’s what our business is all about.”
For some, one manner of working through grief can come from throwing themselves into their job.
However, for Ford, the workplace is directly linked to his loss.
“It took me a long time to get back in the office,” Ford says. “(Stuen’s) office is right beside mine. I didn’t want to face it. Then, finally one day, I said, ‘I just need to go up there and deal with it.’”
Last Tuesday, Ford went to Stuen’s office and just sat at his nephew’s desk.
“His desk was, literally, the way he left it the last day (he worked),” Ford says. “(I) just spent some time, kind of looked at some things he had written.”
It is an unyielding fact that the college hoops calendar does not wait for anyone, including the grieving.
Buoyed by the decision of star player Javonte Perkins to use the NCAA-granted “free year” of eligibility and return for an additional season in 2021-22, Saint Louis “expects to be really good again next year,” Ford says.
Having forced himself to return to the office, Travis Ford is trying to begin the process of pushing past the crushing loss of Ford Stuen.
“I’ve got a lot of people here that I have responsibilities for — my players, my coaches, my family,” Travis Ford says. “That’s a lot of reasons that I’ve got to get through this.
“So I will move forward because I want to represent (Stuen). I want to honor him, do a great job. But I will never stop missing him.”