'The only game that he could do': Why OU's game against Texas meant much more to C.J. Noland

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AUSTIN, Texas — Time is precious for Harold Warren.

That has been the case for the 72-year-old Austin resident since he developed colon cancer in 2018. Warren is now at stage 4 of the disease, meaning it has spread to other organs or parts of the body.

But he refused to let that stop him on Tuesday.

The Oklahoma men's basketball team traveled to Austin for a rivalry game against Texas, and Warren insisted on seeing his grandson, C.J. Noland, suit up for the Sooners in person for the first — and possibly last — time.

"We looked up the schedule, and this was the only game that he could do," said Nicole Noland, the daughter of Warren and the mother of C.J. "He just said, 'I want to be able to see my grandson play before I leave.'"

Warren was full of life before he developed cancer.

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Harold Warren (left) and C.J. Noland (right) pose for a photo after the Oklahoma men's basketball team's game against Texas on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Austin, Texas.
Harold Warren (left) and C.J. Noland (right) pose for a photo after the Oklahoma men's basketball team's game against Texas on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Austin, Texas.

After retiring at the age of 50 from the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division, Warren spent his days golfing and traveling. That included visits to see the Noland family in Waxahachie, Texas.

Warren stood by C.J.'s side when the future Sooner experienced health problems of his own.

C.J. developed Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome in elementary school, which is when an extra electrical pathway in the heart leads to periods of rapid heart rate. This required him to have heart surgery, but that never stopped the aspiring basketball player.

C.J. committed to OU on Sept. 22, 2020, as a four-star recruit. The 6-foot-2 freshman is averaging 4.9 points and 1.9 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game this season.

"He's always had a watchful eye over C.J., so it's that special bond," Nicole said of Warren. "C.J. knows that his grandfather was a very strong, giving and loving man. To see him very frail now, it's sad for C.J.

"But C.J. prays a lot. He knows that it's a cycle. It's a part of life. You're born and the end of that cycle is death, so he's managing."

That cycle has ended for two of Warren's brothers since he developed colon cancer in 2018. Both died from the same disease.

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Harold Warren (left) and C.J. Noland (right) pose for a photo after a basketball game at St. Michaels Catholic Academy in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 7, 2020.
Harold Warren (left) and C.J. Noland (right) pose for a photo after a basketball game at St. Michaels Catholic Academy in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 7, 2020.

Effects include discomfort in the abdomen area, fatigue and shortness of breath. All of this would make it difficult to attend a sporting event, but Warren still insisted on going to the OU-Texas game.

"There was absolutely nothing that was going to stop me from seeing my grandson on that court," Warren said. "If I've put my life in danger working for Central Intelligence, protecting presidents of this country, I can certainly take a risk for my grandson. He is my hero."

Warren began Tuesday with his weekly chemotherapy session, which lasted from 10 a.m. until about 3 p.m. He then returned home to rest for a few hours before traveling to the Frank Erwin Center prior to the game's 7:30 p.m. tipoff time.

Tickets provided by the team for family members of the players are usually located a few rows behind OU's bench, but the program managed to pull some strings.

Nicole reached out to associate head coach K.T. Turner to see if her family could be relocated to another area of the stadium that would require less human contact and less walking for Warren. Turner referred her to OU director of compliance Toby Baldwin, who found the family a spot in Section 32.

The balcony seats presented a perfect view for Warren, who can't see from too far away, and they were also isolated from the other 13,000 spectators in attendance. Baldwin made sure it was the ideal setup for Warren and company by scouting the arena during the pregame shootaround.

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He counted the steps it would take to get to the seats. He counted the number of stairs they'd have to climb. He planned for it all.

"That's what we do," Baldwin said. "That's the importance of what we do in intercollegiate athletics. We make sure we add value to the student-athlete experience as well as their family's experience... Regardless of the sport or the situation, we always want what's best for our families."

Warren watched the game with his family by his side. He also carried his chemotherapy bag, which contains a port that allows his medication to be delivered directly to him.

Everything was perfect except for the outcome of the game.

OU suffered a 66-52 loss at the hands of its rivals, and C.J. went scoreless in 12 minutes of action.

Despite not getting the outcome he wanted, the game wasn't the first thing C.J. discussed with his grandfather when they met up afterward.

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"I was just asking him how he's been and what he's been doing every day," C.J. said. "I talk to him over the phone, but I don't get to it as much during the season because we get so busy. I was just seeing if he was fine."

The Noland family got an answer after the game.

It wasn't until the group got to its car that it looked back at the Frank Erwin Center and realized how much Warren had walked that night.

"I don't know if I could've done that," Nicole said. "When (Warren) got there, he said 'I'm so tired. I'm so tired. But this is everything I wanted it to be.'"

Life is a cycle, as Nicole described.

And while time is precious for Warren, so too is the memory of Tuesday's game.

"That's a moment that we can't duplicate," Nicole said. "It's something that has been pressed upon us in our memory that we'll have to come back to, unfortunately, without Dad. It was a great memory."

Justin Martinez can be reached at jmartinez@oklahoman.com or @JTheSportsDude on Twitter. Make sure to subscribe to The Oklahoman to stay up to date with all local sports.

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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU men's basketball: Why Red River game meant much more to C.J. Noland

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