BROOKSVILLE — Kim Ruoff often wondered if her children felt an absence in their lives.
One day, she simply sat with the three of them and asked if they ever missed having a father growing up. After each strongly said no, Kim realized she always knew the answer: Strong male role models always had been around.
Her youngest son, Alex, 21, was certainly one to benefit. The former Central High School basketball star is now a junior at West Virginia, a key member of the Mountaineers' run to tonight's Sweet 16 matchup with Xavier in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
There have been two constants in his life since he was a high school freshman — John Sedlack and Jeff Spivey, the former coaching tandem for the Bears.
"I think our relationship has grown since I've been away," Alex said by phone Tuesday on his way to Phoenix. "Both of them are like father figures to me."
Alex has not had contact with his father since age 5 when parental rights were taken away from his father. The family moved from Ohio to Brooksville when Alex was in sixth grade after his mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Kim taught herself to walk again and left the wheelchair behind after the disease went into full remission in 2002.
The Ruoffs never had much money, but instead of dwelling on misfortune they forged on. "We never grew up feeling like we lacked," Kim said. "We never realized because we had each other."
School, sports focus
Alex spent much of his childhood sharply focused on succeeding in academics and basketball. Mom instilled the importance of an education. Guys like Sedlack and Spivey balanced it out with lessons in life and basketball.
They met when Alex was a skinny freshman at Central with enough talent to play varsity basketball. Several games into the season, Alex was a starting guard. By his sophomore season, Sedlack knew Alex was a rare talent.
"When you've coached over 30 years you have a lot of great kids," Sedlack said, "not a lot go on to play at the next level. This is a once in a lifetime thing for a lot of us."
Kim knew the bond with the two men went much deeper than free throws and rebounds. Sure, they helped Alex understand offensive sets, but they also guided him through the pitfalls of being a teenager. Before long, Alex was spending time on Sedlack's boat or visiting Spivey at home.
"John and Jeff were wonderful in that they knew a lot of basketball," Kim said. "They were also men of character. They provided that positive role model, the male side of influence a single mother worries about. Not only was it their philosophy to make great ball players but also to make them into good men."
Sedlack is now at River Ridge High where pictures of Alex hang in his office. Alex has a new fan base at the Pasco County high school and has even visited the Royal Knights to speak with players and play in some pickup games.
The same is true of his alma mater. Many of Central's teachers and students have followed Alex and West Virginia, and he often visits when he comes home.
"I can't thank them enough for the support I've gotten," Alex said. "I'm really proud to represent where I come from."
Sedlack and Spivey have seen Alex play many times, visiting Morgantown, W.Va., where fans routinely spot Alex on the street or in a restaurant and ask for autographs and pictures.
"He's approaching star status with that team," Sedlack said. "How many basketball players in the area have been talked about by Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps? Yeah, he's special, but when you talk to him he's just a kid."
Spivey was one of Alex's four guests to watch West Virginia play in the first and second rounds in Washington D.C. Spivey wouldn't put a price tag on the trip other than to say it cost more than when he watched West Virginia win the NIT in Madison Square Garden last year.
"It's a weekend I'll never forget," Spivey said of Washington. "You watch this kid grow from a skinny ninth-grader to somebody on one of the biggest stages anyone is going to play on. I've never found him to be at a loss for words (after beating Duke). I'm sure he was all talked out by the time we got to talk to him. He was still walking on air."
Freshman at NCAA
Alex was on a Sweet 16 team as a college freshman but only played spot minutes. This time around, he's the Mountaineers' second-leading scorer, averaging 13.8 points and 2.8 steals. He scored 21 points in a 75-65 win against Arizona in the first round, then 17 in a 73-67 upset of Duke on Saturday.
Perhaps his most significant personal achievement this year, however, is being the lone Big East basketball player named an Academic All-American; he majors in history with a 3.78 grade point average.
Sedlack watched last weekend's games from home as he often does, shouting at the TV then talking in some form to Alex in the aftermath. Sedlack still jabs Ruoff, joking how he still can't make a layup and that's why he doesn't go to the free-throw line.
"All you have to do is see the games and you see what influence he has on the other guys," Sedlack said. "He's not the best player, but he's always motioning people on what to do. &He's always communicating with (West Virginia coach Bob) Huggins just like he did (with me) at Central High School.
"He does a great job as a floor leader and someday he's going to be one hell of a Division I coach. I just know it."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-5315.