Bonding over Basketball: Kaufman brothers grow closer following family tragedy


Dylan, a sophomore at Hiland (left), and Dustin, his AAU coach/brother.

As I walked into Berlin Hiland’s Perry Reese Jr. Community Center
last week, I walked in as I do any other interview, ready to sit down
and uncover a story. This time, however, was a little different.  This time I walked into a
1-on-1 basketball game between two brothers that refused to lose; two
brothers, five-years apart, who have lost so much in life only to emerge
seemingly stronger than ever.

As I walked into Berlin Hiland’s Perry Reese Jr. Community Center last week, I walked in as I do any other interview, ready to sit down and uncover a story.

This time, however, was a little different.  This time I walked into a 1-on-1 basketball game between two brothers that refused to lose; two brothers, five-years apart, who have lost so much in life only to emerge seemingly stronger than ever.

The game is between Dustin Kaufman, a 21-year-old former star at Hiland, and his 16-year-old brother Dylan, a sophomore stud who’s been drawing looks from Division I colleges since middle school.

For the first time this spring, Dustin is coaching Dylan’s Cleveland-based CBIZ AAU team. The move serves two purposes: one, jump start a potential coaching career, and two, strengthen his bond with Dylan. The funny thing is, this pair is closer than most brothers can ever dream to be. And understandably so: three-years-ago their lives were shaken when their father, Larry, and grandmother, Alice, were killed in a two-vehicle accident on a dark, slippery country road in Northeast Holmes County.

Down 3-1, Dustin scored on a drive and countered Dylan’s missed 3-pointer with a step-back 3 to win the abbreviated pick-up game.

“You’re sure we’re not playing to seven,” Dylan asked with a wry grin. “I let you win.”

“You know who would win if we were having a dunk contest,” Dustin, a funny, easy-going red-head who stands about a foot shorter and a few pounds heavier than Dylan, fired back.

Dylan, who at 6-4 is still pretty skinny, sees this as a challenge. He grabs the ball from Dustin and proceeds to throw down a thunderous two-handed reverse jam. He slowly walks back towards his brother with a cocky smile.

That smile, however, has been a work in progress; on that took time, and healing, to get to where it is.

Feb. 17, 2007

Like any other Saturday night, the Kaufman’s, Larry and Kim, and brother’s Dustin, Derek and Dylan had dinner together; this time it was an Amish-style feast at Der Dutchman at Walnut Creek. They were joined at dinner by grandparents, Donald and Alice Schneider, who had car troubles following the meal and had to call the Kaufman’s for a ride.

On the way, Larry stopped to get gas. In what proved to be his final conversation, Larry told the attendant “I think [the Hawks] are going to get over the hump this year and go to state,” recalled Dustin, an 18-year-old senior at the time.

Minutes later, the Kaufman’s 2005 Volkswagen Toureg SUV, driven by Dustin, lost traction due to slippery road conditions on State Route 515 and veered left of center, striking an unloaded Peterbilt semi tractor-trailer.

Larry and Alice – both riding in the back seat – died at the scene.

Kim and Dylan – who rode in the back cargo area – were treated for minor injuries. Donald, Derek and Dustin were left in comas at Aultman Hospital at Canton.

“I got a scratch on my nose,” said Dylan, who was 13. “I don’t see how that can happen. I get a scratch on my nose and two people died.”

“There is no way we can relate to what Dylan or Dustin went through,” said Hiland coach Mark Schlabach, who coached both brothers. “When we were teenagers, we all thought we were invincible. You look at a kid like Dylan and say, ‘There is nothing he can’t do.’ But he has gone through so much and is still going through a lot… There aren’t many kids that can handle failure, but there’s even less that can handle success.”

While Dylan had a scratch, Dustin was bad shape.

He was placed in a medically induced coma because of swelling in his head. Originally, doctors believed the two-time All-Ohioan could be in a coma for up to a month.

However, Dustin – who was also a dynamic goal keeper for the Hawks’ soccer team and signed to play at Mount Vernon Nazarene University following graduation – beat those odds, and was taken out of the coma six-days after the accident.

A week after that, Dustin was back on the Hawks’ bench, cheering on his teammates as they steamrolled to a 77-36 win over Caldwell in the sectional title game. Dustin was the first one up the ladder to cut down the nets. Flash bulbs illuminated Quakers Gymnasium at New Philadelphia High.

In hopes of giving Dustin one final shot to play during his senior year, the Hawks rallied, and rallied, all the way to the Division IV state semifinal, where Hiland – the ninth-ranked team at the time – fell by one-point (42-41) to eventual state champion Georgetown, 2007’s Cinderella team.

Nonetheless, Dustin stepped foot on the court one last time. And he did it at Ohio State’s Jerome Shottenstein Center.

“The whole arena knew the situation so there was a big applause,” Dustin said.

The Rise of “Dut”

Five-days after the accident, Hiland played its first game without its senior leader. It was senior night against Conotton Valley, and in his brother’s absence, Dylan stepped-in for the senior night festivities, which received more media coverage than the actual game.

“I was Dustin for the night,” said Dylan, quietly while glancing over at his brother. “I escorted mom for him.”

The Hawks rallied without their teammate and second-leading scorer, beating the Rockets by 40-points.

The Hiland community rallied, too, mass producing white T-shirts that read “Dut 53” in bold red lettering, a reference to Dustin’s nickname and jersey number. On senior night, the 1,800-capacity Reese Center was a sea of white shirts. Any sign of the Hawks’ red and black school colors was seemingly washed out.

The Road to Normality

The road from the bottom has been a successful one for both Dustin and Dylan. Dustin, now at Malone University at Canton, is working to fulfill his dream of becoming a coach, and Dylan is a highly touted prep basketball star and Division I prospect.

Aside from athletics, though, both are happy, well-adjusted mentally and speak openly about Feb. 17. Without question, a byproduct of family and community support.

 “I learned that life is too short to worry about what you can’t control,” said Dustin, who was also a star catcher on the Hawks’ Elite Eight team his final season. “You have to go out there and do you, be yourself, and what will happen, will happen.

“There are so many times I look back and say, ‘Why did I take that road,’” he added. “My grandpa said it was getting snowy, but I didn’t want to take longer, so I took the shortcut. If you ask me 100 times without knowing the result, I would take that way a 100 times. I would never second guess myself… It happens, get over it, and move on, that’s what I have learned.”

In the wake of Larry’s death, Kim said Dustin has filled his father’s void.

“After the accident, Dustin wanted to take-on a father figure role for Dylan,” Kim said. “He wanted to fill the void of the man in Dylan’s life.”

Dylan, Schlabach said, has a “tremendous amount of respect” for Dustin, and even though Kim since remarried, the 16-year-old guard always goes to his oldest brother for fatherly advice.

“Whenever I came across something I didn’t know, Dustin was the first person I went to,” Dylan said. “He was always understanding and full of knowledge.”

It took a while for Dustin to learn the ropes of being a father figure. He’s finally getting the hang of it.

“I try to tell Dylan the best I can what dad would have said,” Dustin said.

Part of the reason Dylan feels so at ease with Dustin is because of their likeness: both are ultra-competitive; both are Type-A personalities. In fact, the pair turns everything into a competition. This is in stark contrast to middle brother, Derek, who like their father, was laid-back and passive.

“Dylan and I are so alike; we turn breakfast into a competition,” Dustin said. “We are too competitive to be around each other at times. So we take a break from each other and hang out with Derek. Derek is competitive, but a lot more passive.”

“Yeah, Derek got more of dad’s personality… he was real laid-back,” Dylan added. “Dustin and I got mom, I guess.”

That said, Kim was leery of the AAU experiment at first.

“Being similar personalities, they do like to get on each other’s nerves,” Kim said. “At first, I said, ‘Great, we’re going to travel in hotel rooms and I’m going to have a coach and player scream and each other all night long.’ But they don’t.”

They may fight at times. And they often need time apart to break the competitive edge. But at the end of the day, Schlabach said, Dustin is perhaps one of Dylan’s biggest fans.

“Like a lot of brothers, they’re competitive when they’re playing against each other, but they still support each other 100 percent,” Schlabach said. “Dustin really wants to see Dylan succeed. He is probably Dylan’s second biggest fan behind his mom.”

Schooling the Student

“I’d give him a seven or an eight,” Dustin said straight-faced, analyzing his brother’s game.

“Watching him, he is able to do what he wants; he can take over games, but those two or three points he’s missing come from him making small mistakes… If he can give 100 percent up top and get the defense involved, I would give him a lot higher rating.”

In just a short time as coach, Dustin has become comfortable and knowledgeable, and seems to have no problems telling his players what to do and when to do it; especially Dylan.

“Dustin’s trying to find out if coaching is something he wants to do,” Schlabach said “and he has a guy in Dylan that he can say anything to and will listen.

“And for Dylan, there is nobody I would want coaching him but Dustin, because I know Dustin will be hard on him,” Schlabach added. “He’s on him for all the things that most AAU coaches don’t care about: defense, team play, and things that are important.

“This is great for Dylan. I don’t think he could be in a better situation than having his brother coaching him.”

Dylan – who led the Hawks with 17.7 ppg this past season, up slightly from 17.5 as a freshman – recognizes this, although, never directly states it.

“He doesn’t need to yell so much. A little bit maybe,” Dylan said.“… I just don’t like hearing the yelling from my brother.  But if I had a different coach that didn’t care, I’d slack off more and take bad shots.”

CBIZ opened the season strong, placing second at a qualifier in Cincinnati. But at the King James Classic, CBIZ was brought back to reality, going 1-2.

CBIZ – a collection of players from Northeast Ohio and Michigan – is 9-5 overall this spring. Dylan is scoring 15 ppg with four apg.

“We got a false sense of greatness early on. We went to the King James Classic and just got waxed,” Dustin said. “That was a wake-up call that we aren’t going to blow by everyone. We’re good, but we have to try the whole game.”

Dylan plays AAU for all the right reasons. Sure the exposure is great, but he’s not there to showboat his skills, rather develop and fine tune them.

“I try to be a leader there, too,” Dylan said. “Dustin helps me do that. He tells me if they don’t talk, he’s going to yell at me because I have to get them talking. Or if they’re not playing defense, he’ll yell at me because I have to get the defense going.”

The Next Level

“He’s a tough match-up for anybody. He gives me nightmares the week before we play him,” said Strasburg-Franklin coach Shawn Miller, whose Tigers played Dylan’s Hawks three times this year, including a 60-56 home win in the final game at the historic Tigers Gymnasium.

Dylan, who averaged 21.6 ppg against Strasburg this season, had the last laugh as his 11th-ranked Hawks beat the Tigers 61-52 in the sectional final. Strasburg star, Seger Bonifant, who plays with Dylan on CBIZ, had a game-high 22 points in the loss.

“He’s just so tough with how athletic he is, his size and his ability to get to the basket,” Miller added. “On-and-off the court, we think he’s a great kid and he has a bright future.”

Dylan has heard this for years. He tries to stay grounded the best he can. It seems, though, Dustin is the best at doing that.

“When he has a good game, people in the community tell him, ‘Great game, great game,’ but not what he did wrong,” Dustin said. “So it’s my job to say, ‘How many did you turn over or how many rebounds did you miss?’ I have to bring him back down to Earth.”

Nonetheless, Dustin is the first to weigh in on his brother’s shot at a Division I scholarship

“He definitely has a good chance,” Dustin said. “… I think he’s willing to put the work in and that he’ll fit right in. If he finds the right program, I’ll think he’ll be fine in D-I.”

While he has no idea where he would like to play – only revealing that it must be a big college that can match Hiland’s rabid fan-base and – Dylan admits he has a lot to improve on before signing a collegiate contract.

“I need to work harder than anyone,” he said. “Lift more, spend more time in the gym and work on the things I’m not good at… like [driving] left. During 1-on-1’s, I go right every time. I need to work on going left.”

Asked if he thinks he’s on par to get to the next level, Dylan responded.

“If I work hard, than I am… If I stay how I am than not at all.”

But regardless if Dylan ever leads the Hawks to a Division IV state title or lands a collegiate deal, or if Dustin ever coaches a high school team, the pair have accomplished more than many can possibly fathom. The Kaufman brother’s have experienced the worst to emerge on top… and are still climbing.

“Dustin is a man now,” Schlabach said. “In high school, he was always that goofy kid who loosened everybody up in the locker room, but he has really learned to take things seriously. He’s matured tremendously.

“And Dylan, he’s learned from Dustin along those lines,” added the Hiland coach, who earned his 200th coaching win this season against West Lafayette Ridgewood.  “Although, Dylan is in a little different situation; he has a lot more pressure on him as a basketball player. But he’s learning how to handle that pressure, and even use it to make him a better player and person.”

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