Tyler Bilinsky’s high school basketball career didn’t have him tracking as a future NCAA Tournament star, but college was on his mind.
As a junior at Norwin High School in Pennsylvania he averaged 17 points per game, earning All-Section honors three times as the kind of gritty, productive player who makes high school basketball so much fun even if there’s not any “next level” players involved.
The game is meant to be fun, regardless of level.
Bilinsky is now a next-level player — having walked-on at Division II Pitt-Johnstown — but his college journey likely won’t be typical.
But it almost never happened at all.
On Dec. 27, 2020 Bilinsky had a stroke and was airlifted to a hospital in Pittsburgh.
Bilinsky woke up from a nap a few days after Christmas with his left hand feeling weird. Worried, he asked his mom if he could test his grip strength on her finger. He tried his right hand first. He squeezed it as hard as any high school senior with college basketball aspirations could. When he tried his left hand, he could not even bring his arm up to grab her finger.
“I was in shock,” Bilinsky said. “I did not know what was happening because I had never felt that before.”
Next thing he knew, his little brother, Adam, was carrying him to the car and speeding to the local hospital. A day later, Bilinsky lay in a hospital bed thinking what any person in his position might.
“I might never get to play again,” he thought. “Basketball had been my whole life. I was worried about my future.”
After being released from the hospital, Bilinsky became something of a local celebrity. His community raised money for his medical bills and wore t-shirts with his name on them around town. Even rival high schools were donning “#TyStrong” shirts.
That’s not the kind of thing that happens to everybody. Bilinsky clearly had a presence and touched lives in his community.
“I don’t like that much attention; I’d rather sit in the shadows.” Bilinsky said. “It was definitely weird seeing my name across peoples’ chests for a couple months...but I was grateful for it.”
On top of receiving attention after his stroke, Bilinsky also garnered attention for his basketball talent.
Patrick Grubbs, the assistant men’s basketball coach at Pitt-Johnstown, received a tip from a buddy about an under-the-radar kid who was worth a look. The only problem was that he could not find any film on Bilinsky, so he showed up at Norwin to see him in person. Once he got to the gym and found out what he had gone through, Grubbs was convinced.
“This is a kid we need to give a look to,” Grubbs told Pitt-Johnstown head coach Bob Rukavina. “Whatever it may be, this is the kid you want to see have some success and reach his goal to play college basketball.”
Rukavina and Grubbs offered Bilinsky the opportunity to walk on, which gave him a lot to think about. Was he healthy enough? He had not played much because of his stroke. He knew it would be a big transition from high school to Division II, especially without almost a year’s worth of down time.
The upcoming season will be a big transition for Bilinsky and the Mountain Cats. Pitt-Johnstown did not play a season last winter. The team was allocated one month of practice in March, but with no anticipation of a season and the end of the semester nearing, Grubbs said practices just were not the same.
Bilinsky and the Mountain Cats are getting back into form and the freshman is keeping pace with his teammates.
“I can’t reiterate enough how tough this kid is. Every day he brings it. Every day he amazes me,” Grubbs said. “It’s a scary thing he went through and now he’s playing Division-II basketball and he’s doing well.”
Besides Bilinsky’s toughness, his upperclassmen teammates have aided his adjustment. John Paul Kromka, Pitt-Johnstown’s leading scorer from 2019-20, is like a third coach on the staff. Fred Mulbah led the team with 209 assists as a sophomore and has assisted with Bilinsky’s development both on and off the court.
Grubbs preaches team as family. Mulbah proves Grubbs’ statement on and off the court, making sure guys hang out after workouts, getting everyone together for pick-up and forming a great relationship with the freshman.
“Ty and [Mulbah] were just busting each other’s chops before the workout the other day. They’re already so close that they’re joking around and it’s neat because you have a freshman and his starting point guard becoming great friends,” Grubbs said.
Mulbah has not treated Bilinsky any differently because of his stroke. Bilinsky would have it no other way, just like he wanted to stay lowkey at high school and does not want any of his teammates giving him special treatment.
Bilinsky does not tell his peers about his issues. Unless someone knew him from high school, his classmates and teammates would not be able to tell he was on a hospital bed a few months ago. Bilinsky does hope his story can send a message to his teammates.
“When times are tough, it can get worse but you have to push through,” Bilinsky said. “No matter how bad things are... keep your head down and keep playing.”
Grubbs also sees how Bilinsky ’s story can send a powerful message to the team. Pitt-Johnstown went 22-9 in 2019-20 and earned a bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament. After losing in the second round, the Mountain Cats were poised for another run in 2020-21, but COVID-19 robbed them of the opportunity.
“We’ve been preaching, before Tyler’s incident, to take care of yourself and your family. Follow the mandates even if you don’t like them -- wear a mask, social distance,” Grubbs said. “When Tyler got here and became part of our family, we've really been preaching living in the moment.”
But he also has an eye on the future and it’s one that included Bilinsky, even if it’s not immediately in the traditional way.
“He’s going to help our program,” Grubbs said. “He’ll help by being at practice and running through a wall if you need him too. He’s going to be a great team guy. He’ll be one of our leaders in a few years.”
Whatever the role, Bilinsky shows a deep sense of gratitude: “I’m just happy I got the opportunity to play.
“I want to thank my mom and dad for taking me to all the appointments. They’ve been a huge help mentally and emotionally.”
Bilinsky also appreciates his brother Adam — who calls himself Ty’s lifesaver — not only for carrying him to the car in late-December, but also for training with him on the court all summer and helping him return to form.
Bilinsky is from western Pennsylvania, only an hour from campus. Coach Grubbs is from western Pennsylvania and Coach Rukavina still lives there. But the team is held together by more than just geography.
They all lost out on basketball last season. Whether their season was stolen by a stroke or COVID-19 protocols, Bilinsky and the Mountain Cats appreciate the opportunity to chase a conference championship and play the game they love.
“Live in the moment because last year you guys had great expectations to win the conference and make the NCAA Tournament,” Grubbs said of his team. “You don’t think the same thing is going to happen. Come into the gym ready to work and be the best player and person you can be. I think that’s the message we sent to the guys.
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