By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Five years ago, Cecilia Keyes sat in complete darkness in a hospital room at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, wondering whether her youngest son was going to live or die. Luciano Keyes, a rambunctious, sports-loving 12-year-old, had come down with a bout of meningitis, which caused a fever that spiked to 106 degrees and threatened to shut down his organs.
Luciano and older brother Joe were born athletes and most of their lives revolved around sports. Joe was the starting quarterback for the Ocean City High School football team for several years, and Luciano was one of the top soccer, basketball and baseball players at the Intermediate school when he was there. But sports were the furthest thing from Cecilia’s mind when she was sitting in that hospital room. She just wanted her son to live.
“It was a whole week of craziness because he kept saying he didn’t feel good. He didn’t have a fever and his vitals were fine. He just kept saying there was something wrong with him and he didn’t feel good for a whole week straight. He was in and out of the nurse’s office at the intermediate school, I brought him to the pediatrician and they said nothing was wrong. He missed a couple of days of school and his basketball coaches were wondering what was happening because he was one of the top players,” Cecilia explained. “He was in and out of Shore Memorial, but nobody could diagnose what was happening. They kept him overnight on a Friday and he deteriorated immensely. Then, by that Sunday, his condition went downhill big time. He was vomiting and having violent headaches, and had a 103 fever. They transported him up to CHOP and they said it was meningitis, so they quarantined him. His fever spiked up to 106 and wasn’t going down. The doctors told me there was nothing more they could do and it was up to him to fight for his life.”
Cecilia said she turned to her faith to get her through the most traumatic event in her life.
“Any type of light, he would start screaming because it would spike his headaches. I basically sat in the dark for two weeks (at his bedside),” she said. “One day, Joe and I were down at the chapel just praying. They basically told me he was going to die. Then, two nurses came down and they were like, ‘Mrs. Keyes, hurry up, you have to come upstairs.’ I thought he had died. They told me his fever broke, and I was shocked because it was consistently around 105 degrees. After another day or two, the fever kept coming down. The good news was Luciano was going to live; the bad news was that he had suffered some damage to his brain. They didn’t know the extent of it, but they knew it attacked the cognitive part of his brain and the memory part. They don’t know if it’s going to be permanent, so every year we go for neurological testing.”
“It was terrible. We were in the middle of the basketball season, and I just wasn’t feeling like myself. I was telling my coaches and my parents that I wasn’t feeling good at all. I didn’t even want to play, that’s how down I was,” Luciano said. “One night I woke up and I couldn’t even walk. I was walking into walls and throwing up. I ended up in the hospital for a couple of weeks and when I got out I had to start that recovery process. I ended up missing school for about six months.”
Luciano survived, but he had lost a ton of weight and missed a lot of school. It took him most of his eighth grade year to fully recover. Doctors warned Cecilia not to let her son play sports again. She knew that wasn’t going to fly.
“The doctors told him he could never play sports again, and my heart broke. He was like, ‘mom, what do you mean I can’t play basketball?’ He just wanted to play basketball every day. I had to let him play,” Cecilia said. “Other parents might think I’m crazy, but what’s the good of living if you can’t do what you love? My boys were both born athletes, it’s like food to them.”
“It was tough recovering from that, but he’s done a great job in coming back. He’s definitely a sports person. It was going to be tough recovering from that because it was such a traumatic thing,” said teammate Andrew Donoghue. “It was scary when he went into the hospital. But he pushed himself through that and had a successful career, and that’s awesome.”
“It was tough to get (doctors) to let me play. I wasn’t cleared for summer league basketball, but I was going to play anyway. It was tough on me. I was trying to get better to get ready for high school, and (missing so much time) was holding me back a little bit,” Luciano said. “I felt pretty good (freshman year) because I had that whole eighth-grade year as kind of a recovery period. Coming in to high school, I felt like I was getting back to normal.”
Luciano worked his way up through the Ocean City basketball program, playing junior varsity and then making it to the varsity as a junior, where he was a role player who would come off the bench to spell guys such as Garrett Jones, Connor Laverty and Noah Gillian.
Nobody really knew what to expect coming into this year, but the Red Raiders surprised a lot of people. They were in first place in the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference for much of the season before finishing third, and made it to both the CAL and state tournaments.
“There were seniors ahead of me last year, so I had to just do my part coming off the bench. I got into the gym as soon as the season ended, did summer league. I knew I had to step up. Obviously, Luciano (Lubrano) is our main scorer, but he can’t do it all, so everybody had to play their role. I’ve been playing with Luciano, Donoghue and a bunch of these guys for a long time now, so we had high expectations,” Luciano said. “It feels good, especially when we get a win. Not being the tallest guy or the quickest guy, I just try to do the little things I can control, like setting up my teammates with an assist.”
“Last year, you could see him kind of turning the corner a little bit, and this year he’s been our unsung hero. He does a lot of little things that a lot of people don’t notice. We knew what he was like as a junior high player and we thought he was going to be a good player, but you just never know how a kid is going to recover from something like that. For the most part, he’s grown into the role he has. He’s very unselfish and is probably our best passer,” said Ocean City coach John Bruno. “You have to be happy for kid like that who thought something was going to be taken away from him.”
It hasn’t been easy stepping out from the shadow of his successful older brother, but with the effort he’s put in this year, Luciano made his own mark at Ocean City.
“Joe has been very supportive. Going through high school as an athlete, he knows what it’s like, so he’s given me a lot of guidance. And coach Bruno is all about the team winning, just like me,” Luciano said.
“Joe was a good athlete and got a lot of exposure, and here was Luciano as the little brother. But I think he’s made his own mark in his own way, and you have to be proud of a kid who has the mental toughness to overcome adversity,” Bruno said. “The more success we had as a team, the more he felt like he was contributing. He’s helped this team be successful, and that helps him feel good about himself. We’ve been a team of over-achievers all year long and he’s the poster child for that.”
Luciano said he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as an inspiration, but if he is, he’s glad.
“I’m just grateful to be playing. Anyone who goes through something like this, I would say to just fight through it and keep working. I don’t want anybody to be in a spot like this, but if it happens, just keep your head up and keep going. You’ll get back to where you were, it just takes time,” he said. “These times go by quickly, so just cherish them. You’ll never forget them. When you’re out there on the court, it’s amazing.”
“He’s kept a low profile about it. Unless you knew him in junior high, you didn’t know what he was going through. And he could have used that as an excuse at any point, but he didn’t. The kids who grew up with him, they know what it has taken for him to get to this point, and they respect that,” Bruno said. “There are kids who don’t have to be a superstar or a 1,000-point scorer. This is a life experience. I’m one of those old-school guys who likes basketball to be about life. He’s earned the right to be proud of what he’s accomplished. What he has meant to this team is why we enjoy having kids like him. We’ll be talking about him for years to come. We’ll use him an example for other kids as long as I’m coaching.”
Added Donoghue, “Kids reading this story can put their struggles behind them and recover from them. It shows kids who get injured or sick that they can recover and have a successful career.”
When asked about the highlight of his senior season, Luciano responded the way most Ocean City athletes do — beating rival Mainland. The Red Raiders scored a 58-48 victory over the Mustangs on Jan. 25 at home, and Luciano nailed a late 3-pointer that gave Ocean City the separation it needed to get the victory. It was one of his best games of the season, as he finished with 14 points.
“That Mainland game, definitely. Just playing Mainland, it’s a special game as a senior and I had a decent game that night,” Luciano said. “We were pumped up (in the locker room) because that was a great win. I was definitely proud of myself and my teammates. There’s nothing like beating Mainland, so we were all happy.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN