MARSHALL — Reece Leistikow shared a final hug with his father.
Larry and Reece Leistikow both knew time was growing short.
They understood there would be no more talks on the drives to basketball tournaments. The sounds of Larry’s booming voice and hearty laugh no longer would fill the Marshall gymnasium. The aroma of Larry cooking burgers for the Cardinals boys basketball team and his lessons to Reece about how to make the perfect dimpled patty soon would become memories.
Larry, last August at UW Hospital in Madison, wanted his family to know how he felt about each one of them before he died from brain cancer shortly thereafter — on Aug. 29, at age 48.
“He said, ‘I love you. Play your heart out,’ ” Reece Leistikow said. “Those were his last words to me. I will never forget it. It’s more than basketball. I will carry that with me the rest of my life.”
The Marshall boys basketball team also remembers. “Play your heart out” is inscribed on the backs of the game-day chairs the Cardinals sit on during home games, a donation to the program that originated with Larry’s wife, Mindy, said Marshall coach Jason McConnell.
“Larry touched many lives in our basketball program as well as the entire Marshall community,” McConnell said.
Larry Leistikow, a Madison La Follette alumnus, loved watching his sons compete in athletics and loved sports in general, particularly basketball.
“That’s an understatement,” Reece said. “He lived for it.”
His passion for the game included watching 17-year-old Reece, a senior at Marshall and one of the top players in the Capitol South Conference. Despite drawing considerable defensive attention, the 6-foot, 165-pound guard is shooting 36 percent from 3-point range and is averaging 26.5 points per game, which is 16th-best in the state, according to WisSports.net.
“He’s a great player,” New Glarus senior post player Cullen Brooks said. “He’s really underestimated, I think.”
That follows a junior year when Leistikow averaged 24.5 points per game, led the Capitol South in scoring and was named second-team all-conference.
“He has a really good basketball IQ,” McConnell said. “He can see things before they happen. We try to do a lot of the ‘Why.’ This is why (we do things). We try to help kids understand and they pick it up. Sometimes, you have a kid where it is innate.”
But Leistikow’s senior year is not one he could have envisioned. After his dad’s passing, this season has been a supreme struggle for Leistikow and the Cardinals (0-12), still seeking their first victory after losing to Deerfield on Tuesday night.
“It’s been different,” he said before practice Monday. “My sophomore year, that team swept conference and won a lot of games. … This year, we just have to keep plugging along. It’s been growing pains, I guess. I’m confident we’ll put it together. We are getting closer and closer every game.”
Like his father, Reece also has always loved basketball. Growing up, he’d bounce down the steps of his family’s residence above Mindy and Larry’s business, The Silver Fox Bar and Grill on Main Street in Marshall, and practice shooting hoops on the court his father put in behind the sports bar (now under new ownership and called The Fox Bar and Grille).
Reece was the manager for the Cardinals’ team that included his brother Justin and advanced to the WIAA Division 3 state tournament in 2012, fondly recalling Justin hoisting Reece onto his shoulders after Marshall’s regional championship win at home.
As a sophomore, Reece spent most of his time on the scout team on varsity — for a team that won its fifth consecutive conference title.
“I was told to shoot the ball, so I learned to score,” he said. “I think I always had it in me.”
“He could have played on the JV and had a lot of playing time, but he was willing to do that and really helped the team and it helped him for his junior year,” McConnell said. “That was something to see — for a kid who scored 26 points in one season to score more than 500 points as a junior and was just a couple points off the school record.”
Leistikow was three points shy of the school single-game record when he scored 45 in a 94-86 loss Jan. 26, 2017, at New Glarus. That was an emotional night for Reece; it was the first time his father came to a game walking with a cane.
Larry Leistikow’s advanced brain cancer diagnosis in October 2016 came as a shock. But he didn’t give up, only expressing concern for his family, Reece said.
“He was such an unselfish guy,” Reece said.
Reece said Larry made sure he never missed a game during the 2016-17 season. Even after receiving treatment and being advised against traveling that day, he was seated right behind the bench at the Marshall-Belleville game.
“It really meant a lot to me,” said Reece Leistikow, who could surpass 1,000 points this season. “I really wanted to make him proud. I know he’s still watching. So, I have the same mindset this year. That is what drives me.”
But Reece misses his father and acknowledged he needs to express his feelings more.
“You have to keep going and remember the good times,” Reece said.
He meets regularly to share stories with a good friend of his father’s. Sometimes, he talks with McConnell.
“It’s difficult when you have a player lose a parent, especially someone who is so close to the program,” McConnell said. “One of the themes we have had is: ‘We have a basketball family.’ We like to get the players together to have team dinners or go out to eat and also get the parents involved and let them talk to each other.
“When Larry was running The Fox, whether he was cooking for the team or helping coaching, The Fox was where people went after games. He was part of everyone’s family. It’s definitely a change. It’s not something you want any kid to go through. You try to help as much as you can in whatever way you can.”
One way to help will occur Tuesday night when Waterloo plays Marshall. Columbus Community Hospital and Marshall will raise money for brain cancer awareness.
“We are trying to stop it from happening to someone else,” Reece Leistikow said.
Larry Leistikow and his love for basketball certainly will be remembered that night. But at any game on any night, no matter the outcome, you can count on one thing: Reece Leistikow will play his heart out.