As a sea of blue rushed the court in celebration, Peyton Dibble longed to find his father.
“All I could think was that I wanted to get to my dad,” he says. “My dad and I talked about this moment growing up for years. … We talked it into real life.”
Dibble, then a Cameron (Wis.) High School senior and Bemidji State men’s basketball commit, scored 31 points to carry his undefeated Comets to the 2016 sectional championship. His search for his father mirrored Cameron’s wait to reach its first-ever state tournament: an odyssey agonizingly long and yet oh so worth the wait.
“That, hands down, is the best hug I’ve ever received,” Dibble says. “Best moment of my life, by far.”
Three years later, that mountaintop is a memory. So is his basketball career. So is his dad.
Dibble’s life is one of unimaginable loss and remarkable gain, a balance of triumph and tragedy. The riches have been satisfying, and the heartache is sobering. Dibble has lived both extremes.
“Losing your dad and losing basketball, you learn to really appreciate things in life,” he says. “I think that’s where I’ve changed the most. I’ve really wanted to make the most of life, so I’m chasing things I’m passionate about. I’d like to say I would do that before, but I honestly don’t know.”
That passion in his eyes is genuine. Infectious. His losses have shaped him, yes, but they don’t define him.
“Everything that’s happened, I have to appreciate it,” Dibble says. “I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy with what’s happened, how far I’ve come and grown.”
Wrecked and renewed
Dibble scored a program-record 1,384 points in high school. He led his team to the state championship game. Even the hoop in his driveway spent hours a day with him. On lifestyle alone, the Mr. Basketball finalist personified the name.
“Basketball was my identity,” Dibble says. “That’s all I knew.”
Bemidji State was the first college to contact him. Their immediate faith in his abilities quickly tied his loyalties to the Beavers, and he accepted a scholarship before another school could even offer one.
“He was, in a lot of ways, a no-brainer,” says former assistant coach Matt Majkrzak, who recruited Dibble to BSU. “He was big and skilled, checked every box you could want from a Division II basketball player. On top of that, as I got to know him, I could tell he was one of those special people.”
The 6-foot-6 guard showed promise his freshman year and started the first dozen games in 2016-17. An ankle injury sidelined him for three weeks, but Dibble adapted to a steady bench role and averaged 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds on the season.
“He was talented,” Bemidji State head coach Mike Boschee says. “He was one of those guys we were counting on to help kickstart us again with a young group.”
But by the end of his freshman year, Dibble began experiencing abnormal symptoms. High heart rate, overheating, chest pain. As he soon learned, he had developed Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, a heart condition that affects blood circulation. The stronger his heart grows, the more severely his cardiac muscle pinches one of his arteries.
Dibble had to retire from basketball. Surrender his identity.
For a time he distanced himself from the BSU program, which had become a painful reminder of what he lost. He eventually got over himself, as he puts it, and nearly took on a coaching role with the Beavers last fall. But then the phone call came.
Dibble’s father, Chad, had been injured in an ATV accident. He was hurt, although nothing too serious. Dibble packed lightly to meet him for a visit in the hospital, but on the road, he received a second phone call from his stepmother, Jackie. The injury was worse than originally thought.
The third call changed his life.
“I can hear the tone in my stepmom’s voice,” Dibble says. His eyes drift to the floor. “I answered the phone, and she just apologized to me.”
Chad died in an ambulance before reaching the hospital. He was 45.
“That was…” Dibble trails off, searching for a word that could possibly do it justice. “Horrible.”
Both Boschee and Bemidji State assistant coach Mike Iseman attended Chad’s funeral.
“I don’t know how, but (Boschee) found out within like an hour of my dad passing. He was calling me, checking up on me,” Dibble says. “I knew we had a good relationship, basketball player to coach, and that’s kind of what we were. But after (the funeral), I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s really got my back.’ I really appreciate that, the support he’s shown me in my personal life.”
Sept. 9, 2018, marked Dibble’s second life-shattering episode within a year. But his days aren’t all consumed by devastation.
On April 19, Dibble proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Arianna Huber, on the shores of Lake Bemidji. And on Aug. 29, he became a student assistant to coach the same program that first brought him to town.
“I’m extremely blessed,” he says. “I was blessed to play here for a year, blessed with a good education out of here, great people out of here. Obviously getting engaged is a blessing.
“I’m more motivated now than I ever have been, pursuing coaching, an education and every aspect of life.”
‘In his blood’
Dibble should be a key senior on this year’s team. Instead he holds a clipboard. Instead he wears a necktie. Instead he sits on the bench.
“It’s a different dynamic,” Dibble says after a season-opening win on Nov. 9. “I’m just happy to be back in the program. I love being a part of this team. We have a lot of potential in this locker room.”
By game one, he already talks like a coach. Analyzing defensive execution, dissecting turnover numbers, highlighting 3-point efficiency.
“Basketball’s been in his blood for a long time,” Boschee says. “He has good comments to me. He can speak his mind, you know he’s open to say anything he wants. And I listen to him. I’m not always going to do what he wants, but I definitely take his information to heart.”
“I’ve found a way to pursue basketball without playing,” Dibble adds. “I’m so grateful to coach Iseman, coach (Tim) Wagner and especially coach Boschee for just giving me a chance to sit and learn from them. They’re great basketball minds, and they were so welcoming to me.”
The current Beavers laud Dibble’s abilities in all roles. Junior forward Derek Thompson labels Dibble “a smart player” and “a great coach.” Senior forward Logan Bader says he “can do everything on the court” and is “always teaching us more.” And junior forward Zach Baumgartner says “he’s unstoppable” as a player and “knows the game inside and out” as a coach.
But, more than that, they appreciate Dibble’s character.
“He’s always got your back no matter what you do,” Baumgartner says. Thompson echoes as much, adding, “He knows how to be a great friend. He’s always there for you if you need anything from him at all.”
Even Bader has come around on his former high school rival: “Peyton, he’s an outstanding person. Obviously had some difficult times, but a lot of people can say they’re proud of him. I’m proud of him.”
And it doesn’t take an insider to know Dibble is back where he should be.
“It was very hard to see him struggling after he wasn���t able to play,” Huber says. “Seeing him on the floor again as a coach, he lights up. It’s where his heart belongs.”
Up from the ashes
So how has Dibble changed? Understandably, he can’t help but laugh.
“You come out of high school, an 18-year-old guy, and you think you know it all. Life really changed,” he says. “As a person, I’ve had to do a lot of growing up, honestly.”
He didn’t ask for this. And he certainly didn’t envision it. But, one day at a time, he overcame it.
“He never gives up,” Huber says. “Words will never be able to tell how proud I am of him for everything he’s been through and everything he will continue to do.”
Dibble’s name won’t be called in the starting lineup this season. He won’t hit any buzzer-beaters, and he can’t etch his name into the record book. Regardless, more people root for him now than ever before.
“It’s been one of the more tragic stories of any player I’ve been involved with,” Majkrzak says. “But the way he’s persevered… it’s one of the coolest and most resilient basketball careers I’ve ever seen.”
“He’s a tough young guy. He’s a competitor,” Boschee adds. “He’s been through a lot, but he’s where he should be.”
No doubt, Dibble’s life is synonymous with turbulence. But he has reached today because of all he’s endured: an odyssey agonizingly long and yet oh so worth the wait.
“It’s definitely been a challenging two years,” Dibble says. “Losing basketball one year, and the next year losing my dad, it’s been tough.
“When stuff like this starts happening, you have to have faith. This world can be a cold and brutal place. You’ve got to have something to keep fighting for: people you’ve lost and people you have now.”