ESPN missed the boat.
During Friday night’s broadcast of Wright State’s gripping 69-67 victory over Northern Kentucky at the Nutter Center, ESPN twice sent a crew over to Ryan Custer, who was in a green sweatshirt, black shorts and a wheelchair at the end of the Raiders’ bench.
They fitted the WSU sophomore with a headset and a microphone, set a camera up in front of him and had him tell his story to the nation during the game. A few times his image on TV appeared split screen with the action on the court.
But before each interview, they had the guy sitting right next to him — former teammate Mike La Tulip — get up and move out of the way.
When they were going strong, would you have split up Jordan and Pippen?
Cousy and Russell?
Shaq and Kobe?
As memorable basketball duos go, Custer and La Tulip are as good as it gets, although the latter was more than gracious about his exit.
“No, I was fine with that,” La Tulip said. “I probably could have sat there, but I got up. I wanted it to be about Ryan.”
With La Tulip, it’s always about Ryan. Especially since that fateful day early last April when Custer was hurt in a freak accident while jumping into a makeshift pool at a party near the Miami University campus.
The 6-foot-7 forward from the West End of Cincinnati fractured his T-5 vertebrae and was left paralyzed from the chest down.
Already close friends, LaTulip and Custer only strengthened their bond after that.
“Mike would be at the hospital before I would in the mornings,” Kim Custer, Ryan’s mom, said Friday night. “He’d be sitting in that chair. He’d be there all day and all night.”
“He’d stay down in Cincinnati overnight,” WSU strength and conditioning coach Cole Pittsford said. “He’d sleep there just to be around Ryan.”
WSU coach Scott Nagy has known La Tulip since he was a high school player in Illinois seven years ago: “Mike is everybody’s buddy and he was deeply hurt with what happened to Ryan.”
Still, once last school year ended, the Custer family figured La Tulip — who already had graduated from the University of Illinois where he played for the Illini before transferring and playing a final season as a grad student at WSU — would move on.
There was the possibility of a shot at pro ball overseas or maybe he’d try to pursue a job in player development with an NBA team. And there were other chances to return home to the Chicago area for the kind of job an Academic All-Big Ten guy can get.
“We were talking with him in the hospital, asking what he was going to do after graduation, and he said, ‘Well I’m gonna get a job here so I can stay by Ryan,’ ” Kim recalled.
“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh! This kid is going to change everything. He’s going to put everything on hold for our son.’ I can’t tell you what that does for my husband and I.”
And those weren’t just idle words.
La Tulip has stayed in the apartment he shared last season with WSU players Parker Ernsthausen and Trey Stacey and now works a sales job at LexisNexis.
“They talk every day,” Kim said. “They’ll be on FaceTime or something and I’ll hear them. And Mike ends every phone call with ‘I love you.’ It’s unbelievable.”
Again, not idle words.
When Wright State plays on the road, La Tulip drives down to the Custers’ Delhi Township home and watches the game with Ryan.
“We’ll go in their family room and hook it up to their TV and watch ESPN3,” La Tulip said. “We have that bond of having played together last year. Obviously our circumstances are different, but for each of us our basketball careers are over. That’s why it’s nice to have a friend to watch the games with and talk and laugh and pull for the guys.”
At home games, La Tuilp meets the Custers when they first arrive at the Nutter Center. He helps get Ryan to the dressing room for the pregame talk and then out to courtside at the far end of the WSU bench.
All game long the two chatter back and forth, and at least once a half, La Tulip helps Custer with his “pressure breaks.”
To stimulate circulation and flexibility, he loosens the strap holding Ryan in the chair and then aids his friend in bending forward until his chest touches his knees. Custer holds that stretch for maybe 30 seconds and then La Tulip helps him get back upright.
That produced an especially touching moment during a time out with 7:57 left in the game.
As La Tulip placed his left hand on Ryan’s chest and put his right on his buddy’s back to firmly but gently raised him back up, “Sweet Caroline” suddenly came over the PA system and the crowd of 7,205 began to sing along:
“Reaching out, touching me, touching you … ”
And along those lines, the WSU players follow La Tulip’s lead.
Before the opening tip and especially when a player returns to the bench during the game, the Raiders go down the row of sitting teammates and either offer a high five or a fist bump. They always finish the routine with a “tap…tap” with La Tulip and especially Custer.
Guard Mark Hughes will give Custer a kiss on the cheek before the game. Senior leader Grant Benzinger often leans in and makes a quip, maybe two.
“Maybe things aren’t going well for you out there,” La Tulip said. “Maybe you’re having a bad game, you missed a couple of shots. But then you come down that line and you see Ryan — and I’d say there’s a 99 percent success rate — guys are taken away from the moment. They’re brought back to earth. They see how he’s handling a situation with no excuses. He’s there for them.
“And almost all of them end up with a smile on their face.”
That’s just what happened to 6-foot-9 center Loudon Love when he picked up two quick fouls within 58 seconds early in the second half.
He was pulled from the lineup and came trudging along the line of teammates until he got to the waiting Custer.
That’s when a smile suddenly appeared on his face.
The bond between La Tulip and Custer began to form as soon as they met.
“We’ve been friends since we got here, honestly,” said Custer. “Right from day one. We kind of have the same personality, the same sense of humor. I’m glad we hit it off because it’s been awesome.”
And it got Custer a place to sleep.
During the summer session before school began last year, Kim said her son was in “a cute little apartment. But when school started they put him in a dorm by himself. Ryan needs people.”
La Tulip laughed: “The other two freshmen — Loudon and Everett (Winchester) — were in an apartment together, so Ryan was the oddball out. He slept on our couch four days a week and all of us loved having him around.”
Nick Custer, Ryan’s older brother, appreciates what La Tulip has done: “Mike’s my age, 24. He’s four years older than Ryan. It’s nice to see a guy take your brother under his wing and show him the ropes.”
La Tulip said it came naturally:
“When I came here last year, they already had a team in place. Me and Ryan, Everett and Loudon were the new guys, so we formed our own little bond.”
He said Custer’s personality and sense of humor soon made him a favorite of the other players.
So did his dedication to his teammates, something he already had shown at Elder High, when, as a yet-to-sprout, 6-foot-1 freshman, he was cut from the team. Regardless, he still showed up at every game, sat right behind the bench and cheered the guys who had made it.
That kind of backbone — even when he now has fractured his — is what continues to galvanize this team, which is 20-8 and tied with Northern Kentucky for the Horizon League lead at 11-3.
“A lot of this team’s success this year stems from its closeness,” La Tulip said. “And last April brought us all a lot closer. We started to realize the true meaning of a teammate.
“Everybody always says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a brotherhood. We’re like family.’ But a situation like this really teaches you about caring for each other.”
And the Raiders have learned the lesson well.
‘He’s a rock star’
Custer knew the TV crew was going to come over to him during the first media time out Friday night.
“He was pumped up about it beforehand and then when he saw them coming, he was like, ‘Oh, here we go. It’s my debut!’ ’’ said La Tulip.
Kim said her phone “blew up” with messages from friends, many of whom sent screen shots of her son on TV.
“They said he was awesome,” she beamed. “I mean, how cool is that?
“The only sad thing is that I told Ryan when this happened, ‘You never know. You might be on ESPN.’ I thought it’d be when he was walking.”
With a quick pause, she added quietly, “But that’s OK. It will come.”
Although Ryan has undergone surgeries and had specialized treatment in Denver and Chicago — where he had 10 million stem cells injected in his neck — the results have not been what the family hoped for.
But there’s still a window for improvement, new medical advancements are being made and Ryan continues with his weekly rehab stints.
“Being on national TV was really cool,” Custer said. “It maybe wasn’t the way I wanted it, but hey, anyway you can get publicity!”
Friday night Kim learned that Ryan will be awarded Wright’s State’s courage award at The Rowdies, the annual gala in April that honors the top student-athletes at the school.
Before that, Custer plans to be at Monday’s home finale against Cleveland State, then head to the Horizon League tournament in Detroit and hopefully on to the NCAA Tournament, a place WSU has been to only twice since becoming an NCAA Division I school 31 years ago.
Yet, no matter where Custer and La Tulip are sitting courtside, people are drawn to them.
Friday night, Nagy stopped on his way out to the bench before the game. WSU Hall of Famer Bob Grote visited on his way to his seat. College girls and little kids and longtime Raider fans all sought out the pair.
“He’s a rock star around here, man,” La Tulip laughed.
So that would make the two of them, what?
Ike and Tina?
Simon and Garfunkel?
No, how about The Righteous Brothers?
“Truthfully, it’s tough now,” Kim said softly. “Kids Ryan’s age are going to college. They have girlfriends. They’re working. Life moves on and they don’t always remember, ‘Oh Ryan’s sitting home.’
“But Mike always does.
“Mike always remembers.”