Mark Story: Battling cancer, ex-UK folk hero Svoboda asks Wildcats fans for their prayers

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 16, 2014 

Todd Svoboda's encounter with two of the more trying words in the English language — cancer and chemotherapy — began last winter when he noticed a small bump behind his right knee.

"I looked at my other knee," the ex-Kentucky forward said Saturday, "and there was nothing like (the bump) there. I thought, 'I should probably go get this checked out.'"

The folk hero from Rick Pitino's 1993 UK Final Four team went to an orthopedist, who ordered an X-ray. "He quickly referred me to an orthopedic oncologist," Svoboda said. "You just kind of figure that isn't going to lead to good news."

It didn't.

Doctors told Svoboda that he had osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer that normally strikes teenagers or, less frequently, those over 60.

Svoboda, a 42-year-old married father of three, fits neither category.

"There's nothing hereditary or anything that caused this," the Winchester resident said. "They told me it's just a case of rotten, bad luck. The doctor also told me, 'This is treatable and it's beatable, but this is not going to be an easy road.'"

It hasn't been.

After the cancer diagnosis, Svoboda had to have a surgery to replace his right knee. Last week, he received his fourth chemotherapy treatment at UK's Markey Cancer Center.

"It's a very, very tough regimen of chemotherapy. And it's a very rare and aggressive bone cancer," Svoboda said. "It's very, very rough."

The worst side effect of the chemotherapy, Svoboda reports, has been extreme nausea. Some foods and drinks he's loved his entire life, bacon and coffee to name two, no longer smell or taste good to him.

Svoboda's battle with cancer is a testing challenge in what has been a life filled with success.

In 1992-93, Svoboda transferred from Northern Kentucky to Kentucky as part of a dual degree program between the schools in chemical engineering. He walked onto the Wildcats hoops squad.

On a team whose stars were Jamal Mashburn and Travis Ford, Svoboda played in only 13 games for 38 minutes. The 6-foot-9 product of Princeton High School in Cincinnati nevertheless became a UK fan favorite.

Svoboda's most memorable Wildcats moment came when he put an exclamation point on Kentucky's first trip to the Final Four in nine years: He swished a three-pointer with four seconds left in UK's 106-81 victory over Florida State in the 1993 NCAA Tournament round of eight.

"Some people still bring that up to me, which, to me, is pretty amazing," Svoboda said.

What many do not remember is that, before walking on at UK, Svoboda was a star player at NKU, which then competed in NCAA Division II.

As a junior in 1991-92, Svoboda averaged 18.1 points and 10.9 rebounds for the Norse. He left Northern with three-year totals of 1,114 points and 770 rebounds. For good measure, he also won the Great Lakes Valley Conference tennis championship in 1992 at No. 5 singles.

"I'm glad I took the choice I did," Svoboda said of transferring to UK. "If I'd stayed at NKU, I could have probably been the only player in school history to have 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. My coach there (Ken Shields) definitely made that point to me.

"But I got to play at Kentucky, got to play on a great team that went to the Final Four. How could you ever regret that?"

Last week, after word went public that Svoboda was at the Markey Cancer Center for chemotherapy, his phone rang. On the other end was his head coach from his days at Kentucky.

"Coach Pitino just said he was thinking about me and that if there were anything he could do, he would," Svoboda said.

Svoboda's time at UK yielded far more than a Final Four trip. In Lexington, he met a member of the Wildcats gymnastics team, Franci Niles.

The two are now coming up on their 20th wedding anniversary. They have two daughters, Dahlia, 15, and Eliana, 4, and one son, T.J., 13.

His family gives Svoboda plenty of motivation to win his battle with cancer. Of far lesser import, so does a job he loves at Lexmark.

From the fan base which once cheered so ardently in Rupp Arena for Pitino to put him into games, Svoboda is asking for one thing.

"To Big Blue Nation, I appreciate the prayers," Todd Svoboda said, "because I know that prayer works."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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