COLUMBIA — Columbia College point guard Devin Griffin had more on his mind Saturday night than basketball.
Never mind his responsibility as the top scorer and playmaker on the NAIA No. 1-ranked Cougars, or the fact that he and his teammates were about to put their flawless 22-0 record to the test against American Midwest Conference rival William Woods University.
Saturday was a special night at The Arena at Southwell Complex. Columbia College hosted their annual Coaches vs. Cancer night, an American Cancer Society fundraiser started to help fight the disease. Donation stands stood outside the gym and inside "Cancer Sucks!" shirts littered the crowd. Before tipoff, cancer survivors and people with relatives who have been affected by the disease were asked to come onto the court. Soon there were more people on the floor than in the stands.
Devin Griffin's father, James Griffin Jr., walked onto the court and stood next to his son. Just last week, he wouldn't have.
"It's hard to talk about," Devin Griffin said after the game, which Columbia won 73-53.
Devin Griffin's grandfather, James Griffin Sr., was in a car accident Wednesday night outside of St. Louis. Upon admittance to Saint Louis University Hospital, tests revealed a form of brain cancer, Devin Griffin said.
After the game, Devin Griffin said his grandfather never missed a game when his grandson played high school basketball in Belleville, Ill. He also said his grandfather often makes the trip to Columbia to watch him drive past defenders and dish out assists for the Cougars. He said when he was young the two of them used to fish.
So the fact that James Griffin Sr. wasn't present at the arena Saturday night, of all nights, weighed heavy on the mind of Columbia College's star point guard.
"I was definitely thinking about him before the game," Devin Griffin said. "He taught me that you never know what's going to happen tomorrow, so I try to play like it's my last game."
"He's got a lot of emotion to him," Cougars head coach Bob Burchard said. "And people were asking me if I thought he was going to be off tonight. I said no, I think it'll be just the other way."
Columbia has risen to the top of the NAIA rankings thanks in a large part to Griffin, who had 18 points Saturday, and 2012 AMC Player of the Year Jordan Dressler, who serves as his quick point guard's complement on the inside.
"When he plays under control, he's a candidate for Player of the Year in the AMC," Dressler said. "He's that good a player."
At 6'8", Dressler is a power forward who plays with an emphasis on that first word, using his body to wrestle away rebounds and an array of post moves to score down low. But don't let his burly form fool you. Saturday was an emotional night for him as well. Both of his grandfathers have suffered from cancer also, one from leukemia and another lymphoma.
Dressler and Devin Griffin were able to compartmentalize Saturday night, focusing on basketball with their families on their minds. But the win turned their moods from reflective to optimistic.
"It was tough when I first found out (about my grandfather)," Devin Griffin said afterwards. "But he's one of the strongest people I know."