Although he’s remembered for making the most incredible shot in Wright State basketball history — an “impossible to duplicate” buzzer-beater that propelled the Raiders to the NCAA Division II national championship — Mike Grote now was having trouble drawing any kind of bead on his future.
He felt he was about to lose everything.
He’d just returned home to Cincinnati from the University of Michigan Hospital where he’d been rushed after nearly bleeding out in front of Michigan Stadium before the Wolverines met Maryland in a football game in late September.
Diagnosed a few months earlier with a rare, autoimmune disorder known as Primary Sclerosis Cholangitis — a hereditary liver condition that in another form had affected his older brother Bob, a Wright State All-American basketball and baseball player, and had claimed the life of one of his aunts — his health had taken a severe turn for the worse.
His girlfriend, Chrissy Rippe, had gone to get food for their group and Grote, who already wasn’t feeling well, suddenly was very dizzy.
“Everything started spinning,” he said. “The stadium was swirling around me. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna throw up.’”
He stumbled off, found a vacant tent and that’s when the varicies – enlarged veins in his neck caused by his liver disease – ruptured and he began projectile vomiting blood.
Rippe’s son, Kyle, found him and by the time paramedics got there, he was near death from losing so much blood.
At the hospital, the varices were bound with elastic bands to stop the bleeding and several days later Bob drove to Ann Arbor to bring his brother home.
“He was sick as hell,” Bob said. “He needed a new liver. He was scared, not sure if he was going to live or die. He was 61. Life had been going really well and all of sudden the rug was pulled out from under him.”
Back in Cincinnati, Mike would have six more surgeries on his throat.
On one trip to a doctor’s appointment, he was being driven by Rippe – who assists his daughter, Bridgette, who’s his primary caregiver – when they passed St. Joseph Cemetery where his parents, Hal and Lenora, are buried.
“He asked Chrissy to stop,” Bob said. “He was weak, barely able to walk, but he got to our parents’ graves.”
“I said a prayer and asked for a blessing,” Mike remembered.
As Bob explained it: “He looks down and says something like, ‘Man, I need you guys to help me. I need a sign where you let me now that I’m gonna be OK.’”
After one incredible, buzzer-beater moment in his life, he was asking for another. But at the moment he just felt exhausted and soon Chrissy took him back home and went to bed.
A few hours later he said the phone rang and a voice asked: “Is this Mike Grote? You are the son of Harold Grote, the baseball player, right?”
“The guy introduced himself and said, ‘I loved watching your father play.’
“He told me how he ran the bar that’s with a little Catholic Church we have here in Price Hill.
“He told me how a gentleman who lives on Mount Hope was helping a neighbor clean out a shed in her backyard and how, ‘They found your dad’s Louisville Slugger professional baseball bat.’
“I asked him to repeat that and when he did, I started crying.
“I said, ‘That’s not possible!’
“And he said, ‘Mike, I got it right here in my hands!’”
Out of the blue, Mike Grote believed he had his sign.
And that coming Friday evening, he and Chrissy and Bridgette went to the bar to pick up the bat. Soon someone gave him one of his dad’s baseball cards, as well.
In a display of the signatures ballplayers had had emblazoned on their bats over the years, they found their father’s name and a museum researcher was able to come up with the original specs —length, weight and type of wood — their dad requested for his bats.
Although he’d gotten the messages he wanted, Mike still needed a new liver and by late January his health was failing.
Eventually a few of his friends, hoping to lift his spirits, took him to lunch, but he felt “terrible” that day — “I was shaking, quivering,” — and he finally begged off during the outing.
“I said ‘Look, I gotta go home. Today is going to be the day’.”
He told them he felt he was going to be called about a new liver.
One of the guys who’d been out to lunch with him was so worried by what he’d witnessed that he called Chrissy.
“Kenny was in tears,” she said. “He said, ‘We’ve got a problem. Mike’s not good. He’s really sick. We might have to take him to the emergency room.’”
Celebrated sports family
The Grote family is the most celebrated sports family in Price Hill, the blue-collar neighborhood west of downtown Cincinnati.
A speedy outfielder, Hal Grote signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers out of high school and played from 1948 to 1960 — a total of 1,183 games — for minor league clubs in the Dodgers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox organizations.
Bob, the eldest son, was a standout athlete at Elder High School and after his 1972 graduation went to Wright State because it was one of the only colleges willing to let him basketball and baseball.
A D-II basketball All American in 1976, he finished his career with 1,406 points, 551 rebounds and was a two-time co-MVP of the team.
With a career 2.28 ERA as a Raiders pitcher, he signed with the New York Mets and played four seasons in the minor leagues before arm troubles curtailed his career. He was one of Ralph Underhill’s assistant coaches on the national championship team, was a radio broadcaster of Raiders games and is in the school’s hall of fame.
Steve, just 10 months younger than Bob, played on four straight NCAA Tournament teams at Michigan and started for the Wolverines when they lost the 1976 NCAA Championship game to unbeaten Indiana. A third-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he suffered a foot injury that made him the team’s final preseason cut.
Mike was much younger — a 1980 Elder grad — but because his older brothers gave him no quarter when they competed, he became a tough, gritty player.
He needed that mettle his sophomore year when Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, nearly ended his basketball career.
“I was in St. George Hospital here in Cincinnati and they were planning on putting a bag on me,” he said. “I was just 19 and I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this.’
“Finally they said: ‘Let’s make a deal. No more alcohol. You’ll stop playing basketball. We’ll strengthen your meds and then we’ll see what happens.’
“I said, ‘You got a deal. Where are my shoes?’
“I headed straight back to campus and told our trainer and our head coach: ‘I don’t care what anybody says, I’m gonna play!’”
WSU officials said they needed to talk to his doctor and parents first. Eventually a compromise was worked out, though Grote admitted that year was difficult. The following 1982-83 season he felt better and was surrounded by superb team that was led by Gary Monroe, Fred Moore and Anthony Bias.
The Raiders won their first nine games, then collapsed, losing to Central State at home by 21 points, falling to Cheney State and suffering a one-point loss in overtime to fledging IUPU Fort Wayne
That led to a Jan. 29 game with heated rival Kentucky Wesleyan at the sold-out Sportscenter in Owensboro, Ky. Surrounded by a purple-clad crowd in a hostile environment, Wright State trailed by 13 with 4:02 left the game.
Then came a strong comeback, but Grote said with 12 or 13 seconds left, Wesleyan still led by one point and had its star player, Dwight Higgs, on the foul line, shooting a one-and-one.
Higgs missed, WSU rebounded and the outlet pass came to Grote on the wing. He passed to Tom Holzapfel, who was coming down the middle of the court.
The best shooter on the team, he launched from the top of the key. The ball hit the rim and caromed sideways, over the outstretched arm of one of Wesleyan’s big men.
Just as the rebound came in his direction, Grote was pushed toward the floor. As he went sailing through the air, he got one hand under the ball and while parallel to the court — with the clock about to hit zeroes — he desperately flung the ball toward the hoop some 15 feet away.
As Bob once explained it to me:
“The ball goes up, nicks the upper right corner of the backboard and that puts just enough spin on it that it comes down, catches the left corner of the basket, spins to the back of the rim, hits the backboard and….goes in!!!
“And then there was bedlam.”
“It’s one of the most amazing shots in college basketball history. It’s impossible to duplicate. It just happened on reflex and by the grace of God, it went in.”
Jim Brown, the team’s top assistant coach and now one of the broadcasters of Raiders basketball, once summed it up for me:
“That shot changed the whole season. It changed our players’ attitudes. It changed the work ethic and their approach to basketball. They got better and better.”
Wright State would not lose another D-II game the rest of the year. The only defeat over the next 18 games was to a Louisville, a team that played in the Final Four.
In the D-II title game, WSU overpowered the heavily-favored, defending champs — the University of the District of Columbia — 92-73 in Springfield, Mass.
Grote was named the MVP of the tournament and Wright State, to this day, is the only Miami Valley team to win an NCAA college basketball title.
‘I’m pretty lucky’
The other day when Grote said, “Only rare things happen to me,” he wasn’t exaggerating.
In 1988, he was water skiing on the Ohio River when the tow rope nearly severed his left leg. He had four surgeries, spent two years in physical therapy and was told he’d never walk again without assistance.
Instead, two years later, he was back playing one-on-one basketball at Elder.
Then in 1995 he was playing in a softball tournament when he was bit by a mosquito that, doctors now surmise, had just bitten an animal that had the encephalitis virus.
Grote went into a coma as the virus attacked his brain and spinal cord.
“They didn’t know if I was going to survive or I’d end up a vegetable,” he said.
His family and the parish priest gathered at his bedside. After 4 ½ days he did regain consciousness, but said: “I lost every skill I had. I had to learn to talk and walk. I didn’t even know who I was.”
He eventually recovered and went on with life. He and his ex-wife, Sue, have four grown children. He’s a branch manager at Huntington National Bank and spent many years coaching basketball at Our Lady of Visitation school.
“I don’t consider myself unlucky,” Mike said. “Just the opposite. I feel I’m pretty lucky”.
He said had he bled out at home when he was alone, he would have died. And he said that day he left the luncheon he did get called about a new liver.
His doctor told him to come immediately to the UC Medical Center. A liver was being flown in and they would do the surgery that night.
“But when I was walking in the hospital I started to panic,” he admitted as his voice filled with emotion the other day. “I called my best friend and said, ‘This might be it!’ I didn’t know if I’d make it.”
His surgery began on the evening of Jan. 25 and finished not long after midnight, making it almost 40 years to the day from when he hit the history-changing shot at Wesleyan.
Doctors said the surgery went perfectly and although he’s only allowed limited contact with the outside world, he’s been recovering faster than anyone imagined. Friday he even managed to go outside briefly.
“He’s got some serious nine lives going,” Bob said with a laugh. With a more serious tone though, he noted his brother’s medical bills will be overwhelming — “he must take anti-rejection medicine the rest of his life,” — so they’ve begun a GoFundMe page (www.gofundme.com/f/mike-grote-liver-transplant) in hopes of getting a little financial help.
Grote said his oldest daughter Nikole, who lives in North Carolina called him when he was in the hospital in Michigan and asked, “When are you going to stop all this?”
“I told her, ‘I think I still have three more lives left.’
“After a while, after all these things, you just have to believe you’ve been chosen. Otherwise you’d just go crazy thinking about it.”
For the past 21 years — since he first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17 and was dubbed “The Chosen One” — LeBron James has worn that tag.
But on some levels, he doesn’t live up to that name the way Grote does.
His resume doesn’t include tales of The Shot and The Bat.
Like Bob Grote said, some things are “impossible to duplicate.”
Credit: contributed by WSU
Credit: contributed by WSU
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