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Culp carries on through his grief

Ron Culp of the Miami Heat is trying hard to keep going. He missed Game 1 of the NBA Finals but has been back on the bench since, doing his job the best he can.

But the distinguished, trim, gray-haired man who has been an athletic trainer for more games than anyone in NBA history admits he's having a very tough time.

From personal experience, I can say you'd be hard-pressed to find a more generous, kind and decent man than Culp, who was once the trainer for the Portland Trail Blazers, including for the team that won the 1976-77 championship.

A couple of days before the NBA Finals, Ron's wife, Marilyn, lost her long and fiercely contested battle with stomach cancer. Cancer won, but make no mistake - this woman didn't go down without putting up a spirited fight.

Marilyn was a very special person. People in Portland know all about that. During Ron's time with the Blazers, Marilyn began a career in public service that was as impressive in its scope as it was in its depth.

The Culps' is one of those old-fashioned love stories Hollywood used to make movies about. They met 47 years ago in middle school and never dated anyone else. They'd been married 38 years when she died June 3 at 61.

In Portland, she directed the victim's assistance program for the Multnomah County district attorney's office from 1975 to 1988. She had such an impact in that office that longtime DA Mike Schrunk always stayed in touch with the woman he considered a friend and adviser until her death.

'She shared so much,' Schrunk said this week. 'And she was instrumental in bringing the program to national prominence. She held it together and then expanded it. She became a big advocate for victims' rights.

'Her common sense was a gift. I put her on the management team here right away. She was so good at observing and listening to people we used her to help select juries. And she was so nonjudgmental. She just connected with people and was forever positive.'

When Ron took the job as trainer for the Heat, Marilyn's public service became even more high-profile. She helped organize the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community in 1988 and served as its executive director and president. She pushed for the establishment of specialized drug courts, which gave first-time offenders a second chance.

And it began to work. Miami was no longer the punch line for drug jokes. It became, instead, part of the solution.

Marilyn became a frequent guest at the White House and had speaking engagements all over the country. She was given lifetime achievement awards and all sorts of honors. A learning center in Miami was named for her this week. The governor issued a proclamation honoring her on the day of her memorial service.

'My favorite picture is one of her sitting on top of a bulldozer with a hard hat on, getting ready to knock over a crack house,' Ron said. 'Not that she would ever drive that thing. But they got her to pose because she was the person who helped enact the legislation that made it possible.'

Not that she cared much for the personal recognition. She wanted only to help people. To solve problems. 'It was always just 'What can we do? How can we solve it?' ' her husband said.

'Through the efforts of her leadership, we went from the old Miami Vice days to what we refer to now as Miami advice,' Jim Gilliland, project director of the coalition, told The Miami Herald. 'We get requests to go all over the country and all over the world to train people on this model that Marilyn made into such a success.'

Marilyn was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and was told she didn't have long to live. But, as you might expect, she just kept fighting - and kept working, using a wheelchair to move around her office after spinal problems developed last year.

'All through her life, particularly through her illness, no matter how much she hurt, she would wake up every morning and say, 'I can do this.' And then she went to work. And went to our games,' Ron said.

Now it's Ron, a man who has spent most of his working life helping others heal, who is hurting. Hurting a lot. But it's his duty to keep going to work, just as Marilyn did.

The entire Heat franchise is a support system, and daughters Amanda and Elizabeth are there for him, as Marilyn was through 47 years of love.

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