WWU head coach Tony Dominguez overcame life-threatening heart ailments to build successful coaching career
Feb. 28, 2013
SYRACUSE, NY -
By Josh Hyber, Staff Writer, The Daily Orange, Syracuse University
Tony Dominguez lay bedridden for two months at Seattle Children's Hospital. At 14 years old, he was diagnosed with a rheumatic heart condition. At one point, doctors gave him 24 hours to live.
Twenty-six years later, Dominguez walks into the Cameron Indoor Stadium as the head coach of Western Washington University for a preseason exhibtion against Duke.
Dominguez's heart condition prevented him from playing basketball, but it didn't stop him from finding success in coaching it. Dominguez spent 17 years as an assistant coach at WWU before being named head coach this season. He considered stepping down after last season, but just like he persevered with his health, his determination and persistence was rewarded.
"When you look at people who are successful and they tell you the reasons why they're successful, they're working as hard as they can and won't be denied," Dominguez said. "I kind of feel like I'm that way, as well. When I'm told I'm going to die, I just wasn't going to be denied life. ... You can do anything in life as long as you're committed to it."
For two months, Dominguez watched children come and go from the hospital. When they left, they weren't leaving healthy. They were dying. Dominguez survived tests and surgeries, and remained bedridden for three additional months after being released.
He watched Seattle SuperSonics games from his hospital bed and cheered for North Carolina, especially point guard Jeff Lebo.
"Basketball was my sanity," he said.
Despite doctors' pleas, Dominguez returned to the court at Cascade High School. But in 1990, Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers died on the court during a game from an abnormal heartbeat. Dominguez's coach cut his minutes and forced him to the bench.
Dominguez went on to attend Western Washington, where he planned to walk on after a yearlong hiatus. He thought by then, everyone would forget about his health concerns. But that year, WWU's leading scorer, Duke Wallenborn, died from a congenital heart problem.
Dominguez knew it was time to step away.
With his competitiveness and love for basketball, it only made sense to coach. He already helped coach at a local high school. Vikings head coach at the time, Brad Jackson, said he and Dominguez "ran in the same circles," and knew him as a student. So, Jackson gave him an opportunity to volunteer.
"Coach Jackson was one of the few who looked past all that and gave me an opportunity," Dominguez said. "I owe him everything."
As an assistant, the two formed a father-son-like relationship. Jackson said the two worked as equals, he didn't view Dominguez as a typical assistant coach.
"In my many years of coaching, I don't know of anyone that I look at with more respect or feel like they have a better grasp on the game," Jackson said. "He has an exceptional understanding, not just of the technical part, but the interaction with people and players."
Last year, the Vikings won the Division-II national championship. Dominguez received three Division-I assistant offers, but none seemed like the right fit. He considered moving on from coaching altogether. He needed to clear his mind and think about the future.
He took a vacation with his wife and three children to New York City. Standing in the middle of Times Square, Jackson called and said he had accepted an assistant coaching position at the University of Washington.
It was now Dominguez's team. The Vikings (25-1, 16-1 Great Northwest Athletic Conference) began the year 24-0, and look to be in a good position to once again go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
But Dominguez's life journey has made him see the bigger picture, especially at the Division-II level. He wants the players to build character and a sense of togetherness.
"Instead of just being egotistical, my way or the highway, win-me-games-or-you're-out-of-here type of attitude," Dominguez said. "It's more of a `Let's take care of each other, let's make this bigger than just a basketball team.'"
Guard Richard Woodworth recalls being on the team bus during the Elite Eight last year when Dominguez began to rap the song "Lean like a Cholo." He encouraged the team to dance and sing along.
Dominguez has been at WWU for more than 20 years, but doesn't talk about his heart condition much. He embraces the past but doesn't reflect on it.
"He could talk about that all the time and share his story and make people, not necessarily feel bad, but try to get some extra recognition because he went through this whole situation," Woodworth said. "But he doesn't do that.
"That's what I respect a lot about coach is it's not about the awards and the recognition, it's just about basketball."
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