After battling COVID, Denver South girls basketball coach Wayne McDonald set to be back on the sidelines

(Photo courtesy of Denver South/Adam Kelsey)

In mid-March, the world was on the verge of changing. What was commonly referred to as just "the coronavirus" had started sweeping its way through the United States and impacting the daily lives of millions of people.

In Colorado, the first day of the final weekend of the state basketball tournaments had been played, but that night they were called off.

Two months later, Denver South girls basketball coach Wayne McDonald was in a hospital bed. He had two questions for his wife.

"I asked her who won the NBA championship," McDonald said. "That's when I found out that life hadn't just changed for me, but changed for others. There was no NBA champion. I asked her who won the state basketball playoffs. There were no state basketball playoffs."

That was heartbreaking for McDonald. He understands the hard work that goes into a season and wanted someone, even if it's not his team to experience that hard work paying off. But his hard work was only just beginning.

As the country was stunned hearing news that members of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for what is now known as COVID-19, McDonald was just about to begin his fight against the virus. The shutdown of the NBA on March 11 triggered a snowball effect that would culminate in stay at home orders in nearly every state in the country and the effects are still being felt today.

Within a week, McDonald was on a ventilator at Rose Medical Center and the prognosis was uncertain, at best.

"I think it was about March the 15th," McDonald recalls. "I remember coming home and I felt like I had the flu, and I just thought I've had the flu before, I'll get over it."

After falling twice while trying to get out of bed one night, a trip to the doctor was in order. That's where everything got scary.

"My wife and my son takes me to the doctor and they told my wife to leave the room," he said. "And the rest of the story, I can't tell you. I just can't tell you."

Not because he doesn't want to, but because he has no recollection.

Waking up was just the first step of a very long road to recovery for McDonald. He remained in the hospital, only able to talk to his family via Zoom or FaceTime. The fight for his life was the most important battle ahead. But it was tough seeing a man who had turned the South girls basketball program around and led it to its first league championship taken down so hard by something that was so unknown at the time.

"I certainly was hoping that it was going to be a happy ending, but it certainly was in my mind," athletic director Adam Kelsey said. "This is like one of the most beloved coaches in our school and is an incredibly meaningful person in the lives of all these girls."

Kelsey was one of the few who was able to actually go into the hospital to visit McDonald. That was a pretty significant moment considering the limitations that had been placed on hospital visits. But it was significant in the way it helped kickstart McDonald's road to recovery.

If there was any doubt in just how much, the Denver community loves the veteran coach, it was erased the day he was released from the hospital. First, McDonald got a standing ovation from hospital staff, a common ritual when COVID patients were released, then he received a welcome sight.

Players, past and present, were there to root him on for the next stage of the process.

"It was something very breathtaking and it was an emotional day," McDonald said. "I gotta tell you, I'm probably at the best school in Colorado. My basketball team was up there and coaches were out there. Parents were up there when I was getting ready to get released and I was so just taken back that I have been a part of these young ladies lives, and I'm telling you, there were players that came from Montbello from my Montbello coaching days, there was players that came from Overland and then my South girls came and it was just so emotional."

(Photo courtesy of Denver South/Adam Kelsey)

And they were there to remind him just how important the work was going to be from here on out. One thing that Kelsey pointed out about McDonald's effectiveness as a coach is his ability to motivate his team.

Part of that effectiveness is establishing a motto, a theme, for his team each year. In a year where McDonald survived COVID and worked his way back to health enough that just three weeks ago, he deemed himself healthy enough to coach, surely the experience would play into what he wants his team to focus on.

"He always does a great job of creating a theme for the year," Kelsey said. "He's had different ones over the few years he's been there and I wonder what his theme will be for this year."

McDonald is going back to an oldie but a goody: No days off, no plays off.

He had to take that to heart as he began rehabbing from his time in the hospital. He had to learn the simplest of tasks all over again, such as how to walk. He had dropped 70 pounds during his battle against COVID.

He had to work to get it all back.

It was tough task considering what he had been through, but as he tells his girls through the course of a season: No days off, no plays off.

"That was the fight in me: no days off," McDonald said. "I remember a young lady coming to the hospital, had the shirt on and they looked at me and they yelled out of the crowd, they said, 'Coach, no days off, no plays off.' And that told me a lot. I needed to kick in, I needed to do what I needed to do with therapy. I need to do what I need to do to be able to walk again, I need to gain some weight. I just needed to adhere to our message, to our thing. And that encouragement, it did encourage me."

It encouraged him enough to get done what he needed to get done. He was able to join Kelsey at Denver South's annual fundraiser golf tournament, although he couldn't fully play. He's worked his way back into his regular life.

And when girls basketball practice officially begins on Jan. 18, he'll be on the court with the girls he loves to coach.

He'll be right where he belongs.

(Photo courtesy of Denver South/Adam Kelsey)