Tanner Milson thought he was in trouble.
"Coach called me out of the gym and I was like, 'OK, what's going on?' the UNC Wilmington freshman guard recalled. "He was like, 'Come to my office for a little bit.'
Waiting in coach Buzz Peterson's office before the team's Jan. 30 practice were UNCW head of basketball operations Brooks Lee and team chaplain Dave Yearwood. Peterson then spoke quietly to his player.
He told Milson (with ball at right) to call Glenn Hartson, a former assistant of his father's Cedar Hill High School boys basketball team in Texas and a family friend. Hartson told Milson that his mom found his father, at the age of 53, dead in the family home.
David Milson had been battling adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer.
"It didn't look like anything had happened," Tanner Milson said. "[It] didn't look like he was in distress of any sort because he had the phone right next to him, had his bowl of oatmeal ready to go and had the TV on a fishing show. Just ready to have a day of rest."
"I just broke down and started crying. They were all crying. It was definitely the hardest moment of my life."
Peterson told him he needed to go home to be with his family. Milson missed the Feb. 2 game against Georgia State, but opted to return to Wilmington for the Feb. 5 game against William & Mary. The funeral was held that day at 9 a.m. The UNCW coaching staff booked Milson on a flight from Dallas to Charlotte, where team managers picked him up at the airport. Milson said he made it back to Trask Coliseum with 48 minutes left until tipoff.
"I was on the board writing," Peterson says, "and he came in there with his cowboy boots on and everything. You could see it in his eyes, he was ready to go; he got dressed very quick."
Milson was back because that's what his father would have wanted him to do. While playing for his father in high school, Milson never missed a game and in 31 years of coaching, David Milson only missed two.
"He loved watching me play more than anything," Milson says. "He loved watching me shoot the ball." His father had flown in from Texas to attend eight UNCW home games.
David Milson always sat behind the Seahawk bench, about 10 rows up in the bleachers. He'd wear two pairs of sweatpants and a black, pull-over jacket. Slouched over with a hand on his chin, he'd silently critique his son. He was Tanner's high school, AAU and youth league coach; he knew more about his son's game than anyone else.
When the 19-year-old would miss a shot or make a mistake, he'd look 10 rows up in the stands, where his father would make gestures to point out what needed to be corrected.
Milson says, "I loved it that way."
David Milson wanted to be friends with everyone. Tanner remembers how he'd walk through the hallways of Cedar Hill High School, daring someone not to smile. If you were having a bad day, he'd do his best to fix that.
"That's one of the things that I didn't really notice until I got into high school and that's why I think he touched so many people's lives," Milson says. "At school, he was always walking up and down the hall smiling, making jokes with kids, doing magic tricks ... he was always doing magic tricks, doing whatever he could to talk to people."
In the cafeteria, Tanner's dad would find someone eating alone and talk to him or her the entire lunch. He would make it a point to find that person again throughout the week -- in the hallways, lunch room, outside or anywhere -- and give him or her some company.
"He was always thinking of other people," Tanner says. "I feel like my dad touched enough people and is continuing to work in people's lives. He lived the way you'd want to live. He made a friend out of anybody. That was just who he was.”
David Milson was not a smoker. But he did have a history of health problems. "He had Hodgkin’s disease (lymphoma) when he was a junior in high school, so he had to have his left chest muscle removed and part of his lung," Tanner says, pointing to his own left side.
For years, his father received numerous chest X-rays. He was suffering from a nagging cough and shortness of breath shortly after he retired from his lengthy coaching tenure. The doctors saw small spots on both of his lungs. What was first thought to be scar tissue was later determined to be adenocarcinoma.
Tanner wasn't overly concerned, though. His father began chemotherapy and it seemed to be working. However, David Milson began to retain water in his ankles, arms and face. In the morning, he'd be "swollen," according to his son, but by the end of the day, it would go away.
Adenocarcinoma has been blamed for his death, but Tanner says it isn't clear. "To this day, we don't know what actually happened to him," he says. "A lot of the doctors suggested that it could possibly be a blood clot getting loose from one of his arteries and going into his heart or into his lungs or something like that.
"It may not necessarily have been the cancer," he says. "It could have been the result of what was trying to cure the cancer. God has His plan and everything happens the way it's supposed to happen.”
Tanner talked to his father on his cell phone every night. He'd fill him in on school, personal life and, of course, talk basketball strategy.
David Milson retired from coaching at the end of his son's senior year of high school. He vowed to watch more of his daughter Rylea's basketball games at Midlothian High School and have the free time to travel to Wilmington to cheer on his Seahawk.
He managed both. The weeklong, three-game home stand, Jan. 5-12, allowed him a chance to watch UNCW play Georgia State, VCU and Delaware.
It was the last time father and son would ever be together.
While his dad was in town, he rebounded for his son, just like he had so many times growing up.
"He was coaching me up," Tanner says. "He was like, 'You used to do this in high school, why don't you get back to catching it and jabbing, stepping back and shooting it?'"
About a month later, in his first game back after the funeral, Milson remembered his father's words. Four minutes and 34 seconds into the second half, Milson caught the ball on the left wing, jabbed with his right foot, stepped back and hit a three-pointer. That gave UNCW its largest lead of the game so far.
When William & Mary rallied later in the second half, Milson put the Seahawks back up by double digits with another triple. Then, with the game well in hand and less than a minute to go, Milson heard opposing coach Tony Shaver order his players not to foul. UNCW senior Darryl Felder tracked down a missed shot and passed to Milson. Then Shaver changed his mind, yelling for his players to foul immediately. It was a gesture of sportsmanship that Milson could hardly believe.
"I heard him say no foul," Tanner says. "So I saw two guys coming at me, (and) I was dribbling around trying not to get fouled. Being as slow as I am, I'm sure it looked really goofy. I'm sure (Shaver) was pulling for me."
Milson made both free throws, calmly looking toward the rafters and pointing to the sky after the second one found the bottom of the net.
"If I ever missed a free throw, I would look (in the stands) and (my dad) would tell me something that I needed to fix," Milson says. "At the end of that game, I made two free throws and that's when I thought about him."
After the game, both coaches praised the efforts of the player who didn't finish with the most points, but showed the most courage.
"It breaks my heart for Tanner," Shaver said. "I can't imagine what the young guy is going through, I really can't. As a parent of three sons, I think one of two things: They’re just going to be devastated emotionally or they’re going to be on an emotional high. He was terrific tonight. I don’t know how he’s dealing with what he is."
Peterson was just as incredulous" "For a young man to go through what he's been through today, boy I tell you what, I never want to have to go through anything like that."
How does Milson think he played that night? "I'd say I had an average game," he says. "But I hit two big threes."
His father wouldn’t cut him much slack either, Tanner says now. "He would say that I made big plays at the end of the game," he says. "He would say that I didn't play any defense, though."
There were 3,940 people in attendance that night. Milson would argue that there was actually 3,941, an extra special someone lending him a physical and emotional helping hand.
"The whole time I thought my dad was there with me in the stands. I kept looking over to where he usually sits," Milson says. “Right behind the bench, about 10 rows up on the left side."