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By Zach Cavanagh
It started about a year ago.
San Juan Hills boys basketball coach Jason Efstathiou started to notice some things in his body last January. By March of last year, he found himself barely able to walk, and then by the summer, he was in bed for nearly 12 hours a day.
“I was like a burn victim on the inside,” Efstathiou said.
From May until late December and his full return as Stallions head coach on Jan. 3, Efstathiou was out battling an extremely rare form of neuropathy. Efstathiou, who is a type-one diabetic, said the disease attacks your nerves and affects 1% of diabetics.
Most neuropathies see the victim lose sensation in their nerves, but Efstathiou’s neuropathy was the opposite with a hypersensitivity and burning sensation.
“For three months, they didn’t know what I had,” Efstathiou said. “I was going to MRIs and CT scans and all that kind of stuff.”
Over those months, Efstathiou had been getting daily treatments with doctors and nerve therapists. Treatments consisted of machines that sent signals to his nerves.
Efstathiou said he had lost 35 pounds at one point, and with being out of work officially since May, the San Juan Hills parents and community held a fundraiser in September to support their sidelined coach.
“It sounds dramatic,” Efstathiou said, “but I was really bad, like almost died, that’s how bad I was. They all knew about it. People were being very supportive. I’m very grateful to the coaches. The coaches and parents in the program had my back big time.”
Over time, Efstathiou’s condition improved, and he returned to practices in September in a limited capacity. Efstathiou spends most of practice sitting on a stool near midcourt and relays instructions through his assistant coaches.
“I still limp around,” Efstathiou said. “I can’t demonstate stuff. When I coach or teach I have to sit down. I’ve given my bench guys assignments. I don’t have a loud voice again yet. I use a whistle now. I’d never used a whistle before.”
Efstathiou said he’s still healing, and his doctors and nerve therapist feel that Efstathiou will keep getting better. The amount of improvement he’s seen makes Efstathiou feel that it will go away, even if it takes another year or two.
On coaching, Efstathiou said the experience has changed him and has given him a new perspective.
“I’m more focused on the big picture than living and dying with each game,” Efstathiou said. “I don’t get as gnarly. (With the players,) I’m trying to be more like understand the situation, understand when something gets taken away. I feel fortunate to be here and coaching you guys. You guys should be grateful to be on a high school basketball team. There’s so many kids that never make it to their high school varsity team.”
Efstathiou also said the ordeal has bettered his sideline demeanor.
“It’s keeping me calmer,” Efstathiou said. “The more intense I get then I start to get more burning. In my mind, I just have to stay calmer.”
With Efstathiou returning just before the start of Sea View League play, keeping calm is a taller task some nights more than others, but so far, the Stallions have been good with those things for their coach.
San Juan Hills (9-14, 3-1) won its first three league games in strong fashion with victories over Laguna Hills by 29 points, Dana Hills by eight points and El Toro by five points.
“I told them the way we’ve been starting games playing with intensity,” Efstathiou said, “we’re going to be tough. A lot of teams we surprise them a little bit. I think if you come out and play intense, and I think our guys are a little inspired right now, as long as we execute, I think there’s a good opportunity.”
Efstathiou got more fired up in San Juan Hills’ Wednesday match-up as the Stallions battled league-favorite Tesoro for the league lead. The Stallions gave the Titans all they could handle and held a five-point lead in the fourth quarter. However, San Juan Hills couldn’t execute down the stretch, and Tesoro took advantage of a foul-filled physical game by making its final 14 points on free throws in a 65-57 win.
San Juan Hills still sits in second place in the Sea View League, and the Stallions will get another shot at Tesoro.
In the broad perspective, Efstathiou and San Juan Hills are right where they want to be.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org.