It was a father-daughter ritual. Every Sunday when the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team had a home game, Les Luehring and his young daughter Alex would go out for lunch and then head to the Kohl Center.
They’d always sit in the same section — 128 — behind the basket on the north side so that Alex could go down to the railing and high-five the Badgers when they came out on the court.
She would watch the games and try to envision being able to play someday on the Kohl Center floor, just like her all-time favorite, Alyssa Karel. “I was obsessed with her,” she said. “I have a picture of her and me from a camp when I was little that I hung up in my room. I just thought she was so cool.”
These days Alex Luehring is living out that dream as a redshirt freshman with the Badgers. And from time to time her gaze drifts up to Section 128, where she would give anything to see her dad sitting there watching her play in that UW uniform.
Les Luehring never got to see his daughter play for the Badgers, as he succumbed to kidney cancer on Aug. 30 following a year-long battle. In the cruelest twist of fate, Alex is getting to live out her dream only because of the terminal cancer that struck her dad, leading to her transfer from UW-Green Bay to UW and the NCAA granting her a waiver to become eligible immediately.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Luehring said. “It means the world to me to be here. The circumstances to get here were terrible. I would rather have my dad back than anything.
“Sometimes I think about it. I think about that where he’d be sitting. Now that I’m here it’s just unbelievable because I always wanted to be here so bad when I was that little girl up there. And now I’m down here on the court and I wish he was here.”
Ties that bind
Theirs was, by any measure, a special father-daughter relationship. And at the center of it almost from the start was basketball.
Les was a basketball coach at Madison West High School, working with the boys and girls teams at various times. Among Alex’s earliest memories was her tagging along to practices.
“I always wanted to be by him so after school my mom would drive me to West to their practices so I could watch,” Alex said. “I would play with the girls on the sideline. I just wanted to be around him.”
During the summer she would go along with him to basketball camps, packing lunch and a stack of coloring books to help occupy her.
As much as she liked being around her dad, she wasn’t so sure about being a basketball player at first. Alex and her mom, Heidi, were reminded of that recently when they watched a home video of a young Alex dressed up in a Madison West cheerleader outfit, complete with pom-poms.
“In the video he says, ‘So are you going to be a basketball player for me, buddy?’” Alex said. “I was like, ‘No dad, I’m going to be a cheerleader.’ That’s how I was. I wanted to be a dancer, a cheerleader. I loved everything pink. I wanted my nails painted all the time. He was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get her to be a basketball player.’
“They always told me they got me into sports by buying me pink shoes. So I had pink Jordans and that’s what I played in. After second grade I think they realized I could be OK. He just worked with me all the time.”
As she got into elementary school in Oregon, Les began coaching her on all of her teams, all the way through middle school.
“My dad and I just had such a special bond around the game of basketball,” she said. “He was just such a good person that it was easy for me to be around him and have as my coach. I really liked that. I was so proud to have him as my coach and all my friends really enjoyed having him as a coach too. I was like, that’s my dad. I thought I was really cool. It was really good for us because we got to spend a lot of time together.”
Change of venue
Les — known as Chickie to family and his friends back in his hometown of Mayville — had taken over as the Oregon High School varsity girls coach while Alex was in middle school and the plan was to coach her when she got to high school.
But as that day drew closer they became aware of rumbles around town that she would receive preferable treatment playing for her dad, creating a potentially awkward situation if she made the varsity team as a freshman.
Rather than deal with that, Les stepped down from his coaching job and the family moved to Verona the day after she finished eighth grade. There she would play for Angie Murphy, a coach he had known and respected for a long time.
“When they moved here I was ecstatic because I knew how good she was,” Murphy said. “I’m sure it was hard for Les to give up the reins, but I appreciated that they trusted me with her.
“I’d known them forever through basketball. Alex is just like one of my kids. We love each other and we wanted to strangle each other at times. She was just one of the best competitors. That kid had ice in her veins, she still does. She and her dad were so close and that love of basketball was something they both shared. It was a special bond.”
By all accounts, Les transitioned easily from the role of coach to that of cheerleader for Alex in high school.
“I think the best thing we ever did was move to Verona,” Luehring said. “I think it was a lot more fun for him to spend time with my mom and come to the games and watch and talk with the other parents. He was so supportive of me after every game.
“My mom was the one who would say, ‘You need to do this better, you need to that better.’ He was always just, ‘You played hard and that’s all that mattered.’ If there were things I needed help with or wanted his opinion on he’d give it to me when I asked, but he didn’t really push it on me.”
Luehring flourished at Verona, scoring more than 1,000 points in her career. She earned an array of honors, including Big Eight Conference Player of the Year and first-team all-state.
But the high point of her prep career came in her junior season when the Wildcats advanced to the WIAA state tournament at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon. That was an accomplishment that had eluded Les both during his playing days at Mayville and through his years of coaching both boys and girls teams. Ever since Alex was in kindergarten, her parents would take her out of school and go to the state tournament.
“When they made it to state finally,” Heidi Luehring recalled, “Alex said I remember always dreaming and wanting to be one of the kids that made it to state. I’m so glad he got to see that.”
Playing alongside her current UW teammate Grace Mueller, Luehring had an outstanding tournament as she scored a team-high 19 points in a Division 1 semifinal victory over Appleton North. She led the team again with 18 points in the championship game as Verona defeated Mukwonago 52-46 for the school’s first state title.
“That state championship weekend my mom and him just had so much fun together,” Luehring said. “She always talks about how that was one of her favorite memories of their whole marriage, being able to experience that state championship game together and how excited he was. Being able to hug him after the game, he was just so proud and it was so fun for him to watch.”
It almost seemed too good to be true, Heidi Luehring said.
“I remember riding home that Saturday night he was in shock, just how happy he was,” she said. “It was the weirdest thing because I thought to myself, for our family it was such a neat moment to watch her and her teammates experience that.
“I thought to myself, is there going to be a low to this high? The minute he was diagnosed I went back to that. Is this the low to that high?”
Luehring’s exploits on the court earned her a fair amount of attention from college coaches. She was ranked No. 78 nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz and received numerous scholarship offers, mostly from mid-majors such as UW-Green Bay. A number of larger schools expressed interest, including UW, but none offered a scholarship.
So she took UW-Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth up on his offer and headed off to become part of the Phoenix’s traditional powerhouse.
But shortly before she was to begin her freshman year, Les was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. It was terminal, with a prognosis of maybe three years.
While Alex was redshirting that freshman year, Les began treatments and felt well enough to return to teaching at West during the second semester, even coaching the school’s golf team.
But by June his health had taken a turn for the worse and when it became clear three years was going to prove too optimistic, Luehring realized she couldn’t bear to be 2½ hours away from her ailing dad and that he would have a hard time getting to her games.
That’s when she broached the subject of transferring with Borseth, over the original objections of her dad, who didn’t want to be the reason for her not living up to her commitment to UW-Green Bay.
“It hurt me so bad to have to have that conversation with (Borseth),” Luehring said. “He understood and I knew that he would. My dad was just getting so much sicker that I had no choice. I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to be the best me at Green Bay if I knew what was going on with my dad.”
The Luehrings contacted UW coach Jonathan Tsipis to gauge his interest and he ultimately offered her a scholarship to cover three of the four years, with none being available for the 2019-20 season.
“Kevin Borseth is one of the most decent human beings I’ve met in my life and the way they do things up there is special,” Heidi Luehring said. “And we were so grateful that Coach Tsipis was willing to take her on. I don’t know how we would’ve done it any other way. Even now it makes me feel good to know she’s here because I know how much it would mean to Chickie.”
Alex moved home for the summer and spent every day with her dad, fixing him breakfast after her mom, a lawyer in Madison, went to work, and seeing to his other needs before going to campus for workouts.
“It was so special, especially in hindsight, because what we didn’t know was that was all she was going to have,” Heidi said. “I never thought he’d step off the cliff like he did. I just wasn’t ready. I told Alex I thought he’d be here all the while you’re in college.”
Instead, he didn’t make it to her first game, passing away days before the start of the school year and two months ahead of the start of the season.
“Alex was right in there, literally, until his last breath,” Heidi said. “We were lying on the bed next to him and she was holding him and telling him she loved him. She’s seen the full arc of it. She was not spared any of it but I think she’s glad she saw it.”
The coaches and players from both UW-Green Bay and UW attended the funeral, with Tsipis bringing along a Badgers jersey bearing No. 44 — the number Les wore at UW-Oshkosh and the number Alex took at UW in his memory. The jersey was draped over the casket during the service and placed inside afterward to be buried with him.
Mother and daughter are doing their best to move on, leaning on each other, friends and family for support and focus on life rather than death.
“The one thing he did not want, more than anything, is that he did not want his legacy to be that his death ruined her or defined her in any way,” Heidi said. “He told her that he expected her to go to school and be happy and live life and play basketball hard. This did happen too soon and it’s horrible and nothing is going to make that OK. But he and Alex had a lot of fun together. That’s what I try to remind her when she gets down.
“Every time I go to a game and I walk in the Kohl Center, I can’t believe it actually happened. The first time I saw her in that uniform I could’ve burst out crying.”
Even though he’s no longer around physically, Alex still feels her dad’s presence.
“I try to think that he’s with me on everything,” said Luehring, who is the third-leading scorer for the 9-3 Badgers with an 8.0 average. “I’ll pretend he’s watching practice or I’ll pretend he’s at a game. When I’m struggling with something I just take a step back and think about what he would tell me to do. I can feel him with me at some of those times. I have a lot of pictures of him in my room from when I was little. I think about him a lot.”