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With his playing days behind him, former Loyola walk-on Nick DiNardi aims to help others with Inflammatory Bowel Disease

DiNardi has founded the Bigger Than Basketball Foundation to help those like him.

Photo courtesy of Nick DiNardi

Looking back on Loyola Chicago’s remarkable NCAA Tournament run a year ago, Nick DiNardi cannot brag about all the points he scored or rebounds he grabbed. As a senior walk-on, he barely saw any action, playing only 12 minutes all season. But he’ll always remember entering the game in the waning moments of Loyola’s decisive Elite Eight win against Kansas State.

“It didn’t really occur to me that I had the opportunity to go in because I was so excited,” DiNardi said. “I didn’t grab any rebounds or fill up the stat sheet, but I did have an absolutely fundamental boxout.”

With career totals of four points and eight rebounds, fundamentals are one of the things DiNardi can take pride in. Loyola head coach Porter Moser believes DiNardi embodies the slogan he has given to his entire program: Created by Culture.

“Nick didn’t have a ton of stats,” Moser said. “But he was as big of a part of everything we did because of his spirit and as a coach and a father, you hope you’re developing young people to go out in the world and impact others.”

Clayton Custer, last year’s Missouri Valley Player of the Year, echoed that sentiment saying, “Coach [Moser] loves Nick DiNardi. He represents everything that our program does and stands for.”

Inspired by the Ramblers’ remarkable trip to the Final Four a year ago, DiNardi founded his own non-profit in August 2018, the Bigger Than Basketball Foundation. At the age of 11, Dinardi was diagnosed with Crohn’s Colitis — a form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease — after suffering from abdominal pain, lack of appetite and weight loss.

The diagnosis left him feeling isolated and alone, so the BTB Foundation strives to establish a support system for those suffering from IBD and raise money to find a cure. Through the work of his foundation, DiNardi aspires to be there for a new set of teammates, and with the Ramblers’ run drawing national attention, the timing couldn’t have been any better.

“Not that he’s a celebrity, but when Loyola got on that stage, everybody watched, because everybody loves a Cinderella team, right?” said DiNardi’s mother Kathi. “I think it gave him the inspiration to think, ‘You know what, I really do have a story to tell. I really do have something that I could help others with.’”

Kathi recalls that her son first mentioned the idea to start his own non-profit after the men’s basketball banquet last spring. Each senior took the stage to speak. DiNardi talked about his post-graduate plans to work as a research technologist at the University of Chicago’s Jabri Lab as he prepared to apply to medical school. Moser followed with remarks on each senior, commending DiNardi’s perseverance and commitment to getting his teammates ready in practice while battling Crohn’s disease.

The story caught the eye of the Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan. Ryan had hoped to do a story on DiNardi during the season but didn’t get the opportunity and instead did so while the city was “still basking in the Final Four glow of Loyola’s run.” Shortly after, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation reached out to DiNardi and furthered the idea of starting his own foundation.

Recognizing her son’s passion and aspirations to work in medicine, Kathi endorsed the idea and with his family’s support, they made it a reality. Next, DiNardi turned to his basketball family at Loyola to bolster his new-found mission, specifically his former coach, Moser.

DiNardi and Moser remained close throughout his two years with the team, developing a strong bond from the moment DiNardi expressed interest in walking on.

Photo courtesy of Nick DiNardi

“He’s got this tremendous spirit about him,” Moser said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? I want that in my program.’ Plus, he had some size and it’s hard to get some walk-ons with size.”

Moser, who began his college playing days as a walk-on at Creighton, respected DiNardi’s work ethic. As he put it, “Nick loves to practice.” But one thing that DiNardi was grateful for was Moser’s sensitivity to the specific needs that came with his disease. DiNardi made the coaching staff aware of his medical situation immediately after joining the team, and Moser agreed that his health should always come before basketball. Any day that DiNardi didn’t feel 100 percent, Moser urged him to rest and feel better.

During his junior season, DiNardi entered a film session late after being visibly overcome with pain. Moser took notice of this immediately, stopping the session to take DiNardi to the locker room to help figure out what was wrong. DiNardi doesn’t recall who escorted him to the hospital that day, but he does remember how empathetic Moser was, encouraging him to call if he needed anything.

“I always took that to heart because [Moser] took my health over basketball,” DiNardi said. “He cares about everyone on his team, not just his star players. That’s truly how he is as a person and that’s just one of the things I cherish most about him.”

But Moser held to a policy of treating all players equally, walk-on or scholarship. When the Ramblers held a 10-day boot camp to prepare for the 2017-18 season, DiNardi was given the same accountability as the others: fail to finish a sprint and everyone ran it again.

When DiNardi approached his former coach about his idea for the foundation, Moser wanted to know one thing: What are the goals? After DiNardi explained his mission to help people with IBD live their best lives, creating a network of like-minded individuals to fight this disease through donations of time, money for research, and personal experience, all Moser said was “count me in.”

Keeping his word, Moser took a seat on the board of the BTB Foundation, saying his responsibilities consisted of “basically being there for whatever [DiNardi] needs.” This included attending and speaking at the foundation’s inaugural event, Crossover for a Cure.

On Jan. 27, 125 people packed into a room inside the Damen Student Center at Loyola University to support the fight against IBD. The event included a ticket to the Ramblers’ 75-50 victory over Southern Illinois. Shortly after, Moser and some of his players filed in, all in good spirits, and after a short introduction from DiNardi, Loyola’s head coach stepped in front of the crowd.

“Nick got everything he could possibly get out of his basketball career and he’s left a footprint here that’s going to last forever,” Moser said to the crowd. “But the footprint he’s going to leave in the fight against Crohn’s disease is going to be bigger. It’s going to be bigger.”

Moser wasn’t the only one working to make the night a success. DiNardi’s father, John, and brothers, Anthony and Matt, spent the night greeting guests and working the room. Kathi and Stephanie, DiNardi’s sister, handled the donations and check-in. John and Justin Davis, two of DiNardi’s closest friends from high school, put in hours brainstorming the event together. When DiNardi promised some of the event’s sponsors a tour of the locker room and weight room but couldn’t get away from entertaining guests, he turned to the reigning conference player of the year.

“I was like ‘Yeah. Don’t worry about it. I can take care of that part,’” Custer said. “We’re doing whatever we can to help him with the foundation and so far, he’s off to a really good start.”

Raising more than $30,000 since the announcement of the event, Crossover for a Cure proved to be a strong showing for the BTB Foundation. Reflecting on the evening, DiNardi called it “surreal.” In the future, he hopes to organize more events like Crossover for a Cure, while continuing to raise money and awareness. And even though his basketball days are behind him, DiNardi’s settled in nicely in his new role supporting his teammates in the fight against IBD.

“For the longest time, I really didn’t meet anyone who had Crohn’s Disease and I struggled through the ups and downs,” DiNardi said. “I want to be able to help other people overcome these diseases and show that there are great things to do even if you are diagnosed with a debilitating illness. That’s what it’s all about and that’s what we’re here to do.”