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Not a Little Backyard Game by John U. Bacon
Not a Little Backyard Game

by John U. Bacon

To the uninitiated, badminton may seem like little more than a company picnic diversion, not for the serious minded. But the two finalists in the 30-39 men's bracket know better. "This isn't just a little backyard game," said Bill D'Antoni, a kidney recipient from Louisville, KY. "If you've got a good opponent, you're going to be running around and sweating pretty good."

"In China, I might not be able to get through this. America give me second life."
--Jianguo Wang, kidney recipient

D'Antoni had a good opponent, Jianguo Wang, who made him run around and sweat pretty good. On paper, the two finalists had little in common. D'Antoni, 34, was born and raised in Louisville, and runs his own embroidery and screen printing store. Wang was raised in southern China, near Hong Kong. He lived in Japan and Germany before settling in upstate New York, and now works as a polymer scientist for Corning.

But scratch the surface, and you'll discover these two were brought together in Orlando by more than a passion for sports. They were both saved by a stranger's generosity, and share a profound appreciation for their renewed lives.

Fifteen years ago, D'Antoni was a 20-year-old University of Louisville student, doing rigorous landscaping work in the summertime and giving blood on a regular basis. It was during one of those donations that nurses discovered D'Antoni's hemoglobin was dangerously low. D'Antoni, who was born with only one kidney, realized why he seemed to feeling uncharacteristically sluggish, and soon thereafter had to be put on dialysis.

D'Antoni's life changed on January 15, 1987, at 6:30 in the morning. That's when he received a second kidney from the family of a deceased young man in Augusta, Georgia. D'Antoni's energy returned, he went back to school and started pursuing his dream of running his own business. On December 26, 1992, he married Traci, who has come to cheer him on the badminton courts and golf courses of Orlando.

"I'm just thankful for every day," he says. "I'm more appreciative of even small things. When a McDonald's commercial can make you cry, that's probably the threshold for appreciation."

On the other side of the globe, Jianguo Wang was on the fast track, graduating first in his college class and earning a Ph.D. at age 24 back in China. He was equally ambitious in athletics, where he prided himself on being among the best badminton players and swimmers in his crowd, which included the post-doctoral gang at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

A year-and-a-half ago, however, Wang noticed his badminton skills decline precipitously. "I just thought I was getting old, tired," says Wang, a married father of a 10-year-old son, Guannan. But when he started his new job at Corning, the required physical exam revealed Wang's kidneys were functioning at only about 25-percent of their potential. "I figured, forget it, I can get by on 25-percent," Wang says. But six months later, Wang's kidneys were working at only ten-percent, forcing Wang to start dialysis in July of 1998.

But on February 13, 1999, Wang received a kidney from a 22-year-old college student named Beth. Wang has since written to her parents, Pat and Ken and her sister Kate, to thank them and tell them about his career, his family, and his passion for sports, which has been born anew.

"The transplant changed my life, and my ideas about life," Wang says. "In China, I would not be able to get through this. America give me second life. When I saw the donor families come out at the opening ceremonies, I was crying. Really unforgettable."

Wang has been in perfect health since receiving his transplant, and, according to his wife and son, now focuses more on his family than before. Likewise, D'Antoni says, "I've never had any problems since then."

Except, perhaps, for his opponent in the badminton finals.

"I got beat 15-2, 15-3, I think," D'Antoni confessed, but his wife corrected him. "Sorry, honey, it was 15-2, 15-2."

D'Antoni shrugged, and grinned. "I guess he ate a better breakfast."

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