DIETRICH • It could have been an alien visitation, their two worlds so different.
ESPN producer John Mitton III jets from the mothership — the television channel’s home in Bristol, Conn. — to discover the things that make humans human. His light and sounds beam in from space, reaching an audience of millions.
Through an email by a local basketball referee, this maker of myth and legend found a needle in a haystack. He pinned a place on the map where haystacks are temporary landmarks, a town with a population roughly the size of the staff in the building from which he works.
The find: Dietrich basketball coach Acey Shaw, stricken by a rare bovine disease in 2011 while leading the Blue Devils to five straight championship games.
Mitton could hardly believe the story was real. Superstar courage in little Dietrich, Idaho? For the Shaws, the interest of a top ESPN producer was equally improbable.
“I just thought this was insane, no way,” said Jalyn Shaw, Acey’s wife. “When we met, I asked him several questions. I asked for his business card. I wasn’t real sure if it was legit or not.”
That began the retelling of Acey’s story, broadcast on a scale which to many in Dietrich remains astonishing. A school bus driver, a basketball mother, a restaurant owner described ESPN’s visit with disbelief.
Acey’s story inspires indiscriminately — on Idaho’s prep athletic scene and, since ESPN’s May broadcast, around the country. Hundreds commented on Facebook. Dozens sent emails or letters to the Shaws.
It’s a story of courage, dedication, hope and faith in a true basketball town.
And it has a potent symbol: The same perseverance and teamwork that brought Acey through the hardest years of his sickness brought his girls basketball team to four straight state championships and a 50-game winning streak.
“We didn’t want to be some sad sob story, look at us, we have had such misfortune,” Jalyn said. “We didn’t want it to become sensationalized at all. I told John Mitton III, if this is going to affect our chances of our girls getting to reach our highest potential, then there is no way, we are not going to do it.”
But ESPN’s production crew shadowed the Shaws for eight months, becoming a familiar sight around town. The crew stayed low-key, and the team kept focused on the game.
Acey’s story was narrated by the most famous and successful women’s basketball coach of all time, University of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, winner of 10 national championships.
Auriemma “was really taken by it,” said Pat McKenna, UConn assistant director of athletic communications, by email.
Auriemma wrote the Shaws an e-mail after the show aired and invited their daughter, Jacey Shaw, 18, one of the most decorated girls basketball players in recent Magic Valley history, out to UConn’s campus. And he told the Times-News he “would love nothing more than to find my way out (to Dietrich) and to experience a little about how they go about their lives.”
“We both live in the same country but, in some ways, I don’t think we live in the same world,” Auriemma said by e-mail.
But the language of basketball is the same in the barns of Dietrich — where Acey began his playing career — as in the multimillion-dollar practice facilities where the sport’s finest play and coach. It’s a language that teaches some of the finest human traits: trust, teamwork, sacrifice.
Acey was robbed of most of his verbal skills by Chlamydia pneumonia, the virus he breathed in from a cow’s placenta after warming a shivering calf just a week after winning his first state championship as head coach of the Blue Devils.
The virus didn’t stop him from returning to the bench the next season.
“The big thing was the courage that it took to go on and go back to doing something that is so dependent on communication,” Auiremma said. “You have to be a great communicator to be a good coach. For him to go back took great courage. It also showed that he loves what he is doing and he’s willing to overcome anything.”
In Acey’s first year back on the sideline, his wife and his assistant coach and father-in-law, John Howard, relayed Acey’s muffled messages to players.
Muffled and abbreviated, but still full of everything the sport teaches about life.
‘What Truly Inspired Us’
Acey’s persistence inspired Hagerman resident Spencer Olsen to chase what he always wanted: his own plumbing business.
“Since watching his story on ESPN I’m going through all the steps to do that,” Olsen said. “I know it’s not the same, but he’s taught me that you can do anything you put your mind to. He’s such a strong person, and I want to be like that.”
Acey’s story also hit home for Eugene Lafitte, a high school baseball coach in Texas, and his wife, a seventh-grade teacher. Lafitte, like Acey, recently won a coach of the year award; in Idaho, Acey has four.
The couple wrote to the Shaws after ESPN’s special aired.
“We watched it with tears in our eyes,” Nikki Lafitte told the Times-News.
“The fact that he never gave up regardless of the obstacles set before him were what truly inspired us,” she said. “He continued to work through it and relied on his faith in God to carry him through. It is very obvious that he is a devout Christian and puts God first in his life. He could have easily thrown in the towel and let his career and his love for the game and children dissolve.”
Acey chose the hard way, even when it would have been acceptable to give in and give up.
“I am the wife of a coach who won a state championship in baseball last year. I know what it takes to get there, without physical restraints,” Nikki Lafitte said. “However, coach Shaw did it when most men couldn’t have been able.”
Acey is the model for coaching’s fundamental idea, Eugene Lafitte said. “He puts others first in all that he does, and that is what it is about.”
‘When I Wasn’t Sick’
The Shaws’ two-story home is the first house at Dietrich’s west entrance. It’s as much a welcome sign to Dietrich as it is a gateway.
“There always seems to be somebody there,” said Dietrich school bus driver and long-time high school basketball scorekeeper Janet Towne. It’s a social hub and, these days, a place people drop by to help the Shaws.
The couple, their daughter, Jacey, and their sons Kade, now 15, and Jett, 11, moved there in 2009.
“I can still remember how I was when I wasn’t sick,” Acey said.
Everyone knows the Shaws. They remember, too.
Now, Acey’s brother works the farm for him. Their uncle’s and parents’ farms can be seen from the back window, a widespread yet interwoven family in a town of just more than 300.
“That’s the country,” Jalyn said, pointing in the direction of her in-laws. “We’re in town now. We didn’t want to be.”
She counts her blessings now. The Mormon church, the school and the town market are just across the road, so Acey can get there easily.
They moved here because they outgrew their previous home, just 900 square feet. The timing was fortuitous. Jalyn considers it a miracle, a gift from God.
The Shaws wanted their house to accommodate caring for their parents, should they ever need to.
“So we made a walk-in shower,” she said. “We had a friend who was in a wheelchair, and we made sure that the hallways and kitchen was wide enough that we could get a wheelchair in without banging through everything.”
Acey can’t use his legs and has limited use of his arms. When he left the hospital in 2011, he couldn’t feed himself. He’s still in a wheelchair.
“There was no way we could have brought Acey back in that tiny house,” Jalyn said. “It was so small and not handicap accessible at all.”
Running his own farm, Acey used to be on his feet a lot. He was always doing something, relatives and friends say.
“He was happy, friendly, he was good with everyone,” Howard said. “He loved to be out.”
Acey became an assistant coach for his uncle, Gene Shaw, who led the program to great success, including a state championship. Gene bequeathed his nephew the program 11 years ago.
Nephew was not like uncle, however.
“When I coached I was a yeller, a screamer, a pacer,” Gene said.
Acey “was pretty quiet on the sidelines,” said Towne, who has seen the span of both coaches’ careers. “I would tell him, ‘You are not like your uncle Gene; I need to teach you how to yell.’”
While Acey lacked the histrionics of an older generation, he still had a motivating presence.
“He was quiet but had the respect of the girls,” said Shirley Bingham, mother of a former Dietrich basketball star and co-owner of the town’s lone restaurant, the Eagle’s Nest. “He didn’t have to be obnoxious.”
“There are some coaches who are just coaches,” said Moriah Dill, a former Dietrich player and current College of Southern Idaho women’s basketball guard who just returned from her mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He was like a best friend coach. He wanted you to do good and loved you no matter what.”
Acey had a playful side.
“He would be the first person to pull a prank on you,” Towne said.
‘It Was a Shock’
Dietrich won its first state championship under Acey on a Saturday in February 2011.
The next day, Acey was calving. By Thursday, he was in the hospital. The following Monday, Howard and his wife — in Utah preparing for a church mission — were advised by the church to go back to their family.
Something was gravely wrong with Acey.
The virus traveled straight to his brain, damaging nerves and incapacitating him.
“When he was in the hospital in Utah, me and my brothers were here in Dietrich. We didn’t know what was going on and if we would get a call saying, ‘Dad is not going to live much longer,’” Jacey said. “We did get that call and had to go up there and say our last goodbyes.”
But Acey chose to fight on.
He was hospitalized for nearly three months before returning to Dietrich.
“It was a shock to us,” Howard said. “It was a shock, his motor skills were almost completely gone.”
The Shaws dug in.
“There was not a whole lot of time to sit around and sulk,” Jalyn said. “There was work to be done, and we have to move on with this new life.”
‘Is He Going to Pull This One Off?’
Former All-State Dietrich basketball player Charlie Bingham, studying to become a coach, remembers seeing Acey months after he became ill.
“It was really scary,” she said. “I didn’t know if we would have our coach back. Everyone in the room started crying. He did not look how he used to look. We were all so happy he was alive, but he was a completely new Acey.”
It took four or five people to help Acey sit up. “He had no body control or anything,” Howard said.
Acey’s wife and three offspring still split his daily tasks like shaving, dressing and tooth brushing.
“It is hard being a caregiver of your spouse,” Jalyn said. “It has not been a chore that I would want to give to someone else. But he is my spouse and I love him and we are in it together for forever.”
In the fall of 2011 — before regaining some of his speech and coordination in hundreds of hours in rehabilitation — Acey decided he wasn’t just going to live. He was going to get back to his team.
It wasn’t easy. Players couldn’t hear him.
“Through the community it was like, ‘How the heck is he going to pull this one off?’” Jalyn said. “He can’t walk, he can’t talk, he is in a wheelchair, he can barely hold his head up. He was in bad, bad shape. As a community, they were like, ‘He is not going to be able to pull this off, but he always finds a way to make it work.’”
That first season, Jalyn sat next to her husband, interpreting what he said to Howard, who relayed Acey’s messages to the team. Howard made decisions and calls when the action became too fast.
The returners and upperclassmen took more responsibility on the court.
“We had to pay attention and think even more,” Dill said.
It was a special team.
“That first group of girls when he came back, they were smart and had played together for a long time. They already had the system, and John should get tons of credit, he was right there and relayed the messages,” Gene said. “Acey sits there calm, and it might have helped his coaching. He watches the game, analyzes it and the girls respond; they know how he coaches.”
Towne, the long-time scorekeeper, had perhaps the best vantage point for watching the Dietrich girls put Acey’s teaching into play.
“The first couple of years they were trying to get used to him. They were very timid,” Towne said. “And then Acey got sick and the girls just seemed to take over and they knew what they wanted. But they had to tune in. I don’t know how the girls did it. It had to be a weight on their shoulders. It was just amazing how they adapted.”
‘We Played for Acey’
The Blue Devils didn’t lose a game in Acey’s return season, a streak which lasted into the 2013 district tournament.
“Our success came from him,” Howard said. “How can we quit if he won’t?How can we not give 100 percent all of the time? Here he is in a wheelchair and he is at practice every day.”
Charlie Bingham knew Acey needed basketball.
“That left a mark with us, we needed to play harder for him,” she said. “Every game we played for Acey.”
The team became closer that year, Acey said. “They tried to listen and I think they played harder. They adapted.”
And Acey was still Coach.
“He still had the same fire, you could tell. I could see it in his eyes. He has such a big heart, you can just feel it,” Dill said. “He loves his basketball team, he loves everybody.”
The girls rattled off most of 24 victories in dominant fashion but showed guts at the end of the 2011-12 season, repeating as state champs by beating Summit Academy by one point in overtime.
When Acey’s raspy voice addressed the crowd at the trophy ceremony, the entire arena fell silent.
‘How Close We Really Are’
Shortly after helping the Blue Devils to a second state championship, Dill left Dietrich for most of two years — for a season at CSI and an 18-month LDS mission — before returning.
That absence sharpened her perspective on the impact of Acey’s story.
“It has given Dietrich hope,” said Dill, who calls Jalyn her inspiration. “If this had happened to me and my husband I don’t know if I could have taken it as well as she did. To see how far he’s come, everyone in Dietrich is like ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
CSI and high schools across the Magic Valley put on frundraisers for the Shaws. Private donations and family support helped them through the gaps in disability and insurance payments.
“Step by step, everybody has tried to help as much as they could,” Towne said.
It didn’t take long, however, for community members to realize how much Acey was helping them, too.
“The girls learned how fast something can happen,” Shirley Bingham said. “Little towns always have their drama, but when something like that happens, we all found out just how close we really are.”
Acey is getting better. He’s much easier to understand than last year and the year before. Doctors told the Shaws that most people recovering from the kind of brain damage he suffered tend to stop regaining ability at about two years after the trauma. Yet Acey is at year four, still plugging away, still steadily improving.
“It did damage to my brain,” Acey said. “Recovery is slow. I might get it all back later or not, who knows.”
The Shaws lean on their LDS faith.
“Life here on Earth is for a short time, and our eternal family, we will be together forever,” Jalyn said. “We are just here to have our experiences and see how we do. Me, Acey and the kids, we are together forever. That has kept things in perspective.”
Things needed perspective after the latest basketball season.
The Blue Devils finally had to learn how to lose, too. Rival Richfield ended their quest for five straight state championships.
“You don’t win everything in life, not everything is easy. And defeat, when you have something bad happen, how are you going to react to it?” Jalyn said. “That is what the girls took from it. When you win at everything, that’s when you think you should win everything.”
And it’s not how loss changes you that’s important. It’s what it reveals.