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Chattanooga State basketball coach Jay Price. / Staff file photo

It sounds impossible.

How could a broken arm be the luckiest break that could happen to someone?

Yet ask Chattanooga State basketball coach and former University of Tennessee point guard Jay Price about the arm he broke last February when he punched a locker in anger during halftime of a game at Motlow State, and he'll tell you exactly that.

"It was a Godsend," Price said Tuesday on New Year's Eve, two days before the start of the Chattanooga Times Free Press Best of Preps Tournament, which he has directed the past six years.

"If I hadn't broken my arm that night, by the time anybody realized I had cancer, it might have been too little too late."

Read that again. Cancer. In this case, multiple myeloma, which causes cancer cells to form in bone marrow, which is why Price broke his arm when he somewhat softly punched the locker.

Fortunately, 10 months later, after spending weeks at Vanderbilt, after radiation, after chemo pills he'll be taking for the next two years, after losing more than 55 pounds — "At one point, I was too weak to feed myself," Price said — the cancer is in remission, he's back coaching the Tigers and his future looks bright.

Yet as one might expect, it has changed him forever.

"The biggest thing it's done," he said, "is that it makes you appreciate life and how quickly things can change."

In truth, Price had noticed some disturbing changes months before his arm broke. A routine checkup had revealed tiny traces of blood in his urine, which was dismissed as kidney stones. His hips began to hurt around Christmas of last year, which caused a doctor to prescribe an antiinflammatory medicine.

"And the pain went away," Price said.

But shortly before the arm broke, he was shooting a girls' basketball one afternoon in the Chattanooga State gym when his right arm began to hurt "really bad."

Within two weeks the arm would break, the cancer diagnosis would arrive and Price suddenly began to realize how much he meant to others.

For instance, Malcolm Mackey, one of his teammates on Brainerd's 1988 state championship team, was waiting on him in his driveway the first time he came home from the hospital.

Dickey Simpkins, the longtime Chicago Bulls player, has visited him often the past few months.

Leroy Higgins, who's pretty much basketball royalty in Chattanooga and whose son, Dexter, was also on that 1988 Brainerd squad and remains one of Price's closest friends, was also at Price's side whenever possible.

"When I first woke up in the hospital, Leroy was the first person I saw," the 49-year-old Price recalled. "He was telling jokes and making me feel better, just like always."

Then there was John Shulman, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and McCallie School coach who now runs the show at Alabama-Huntsville. This past summer, while taking his middle son Tanner to Lipscomb University to begin college, Shulman dropped in on Price at Vanderbilt, even though Jay's wife Angela had warned him that her husband couldn't have any guests for fear of catching a cold or worse because his immune system was shot due to the cancer treatments.

"But John showed up anyway with all these bottles of Powerade because Jay had told him he'd love to have some," Angela recalled. "John's so hard-headed. I wasn't happy. But he definitely cares. He's meant a lot to Jay through all this."

Said Shulman on Wednesday when asked about Angela: "I'm not scared of many people. But I'm scared of Angela Price. In fact, I think she scared that cancer right out of Jay. Cancer had no chance against Jay with Angela around."

It's often said you learn the most about your friends and family in the tough times.

Price said that undoubtedly has been true where Angela, the mother of their three daughters — Jala (19), Kennedy (15) and Alexis (11) — is concerned.

"Nobody ever thinks they're marrying the wrong person," Jay Price said of his wife, who works for the YMCA. "But when adversity hits is when you find out if you married the right person. Angela has been unbelievable. She's been by my side every day, every single day, except the day she had to take Jala to Tennessee to start classes.

"That one hurt me the most, because you want to be a part of that. She's moving into a dorm as a freshman, leaving home, you want to be there for that. But I'm so lucky that Angela was. And every other day, she's been there for me."

In some respects, the fight to remain cancer-free may never end for Price. There will be checkups every three months. A new emphasis on diet and rest. The fear, however small, that it could always return.

As Angela said on Tuesday, "It's something we'll have to work through for the rest of Jay's life."

But she also said this: "We've gotten closer as a family. It's made us realize what's important."

And regardless of the circumstances, especially at the dawn of a new year, realizing what's truly important in life is a lucky break for any family.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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