When my new girlfriend Anie said, “Why are sports important to you?” I thought, that’s like asking why I value wearing socks. Dressing each morning, like watching (and following, discussing, and planning my life around) sports, is just something humans have done since the advent of knitting. When Anie asked me this in March, days before the University of Virginia men’s basketball team began its run to the national championship, I had no answer.
“I like the Capitals,” Anie continued, though she needn’t have even said more. I understood: Anie, too, watched sports. But only when not doing anything else. She wouldn’t choose watching the Caps over other activities. She wouldn’t schedule her time around sports.
We were walking to her condo from Astro Lab, an airy brewery in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we’d sipped India pale ales as the hockey game blared on the lone TV plastering the back wall. We left before the overtime period because I wanted her all to myself. Was that the first time I quit on a sporting event I’d committed myself to? I felt okay about the breach, which left me wondering why sports were so important to me.
Occasional pedestrians dotted the shadowy sidewalks. Yells from the brewery filled the air. We swung our clasped hands back and forth. Her brown hair bounced on her shoulders like the spring in my step.
“Not even for a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final?” I said.
I laughed, thinking I loved how she spoke in exclamation points and I loved how she questioned my passions out of genuine curiosity. As we walked, I fell more in love with every swing of our hands, and I began my contemplative quest to answer her question.
You likely don’t remember what you were doing on Friday, March 28, 2003. I do, for two reasons. The first is that it was a college sports holiday, also known as the Sweet 16. The second is that I was a first-year college dropout recently diagnosed with cancer and waiting to find an umbilical cord blood match in the bone marrow registry.
I’d just finished receiving a blood transfusion at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) hematology clinic—I needed them because my bone marrow had nearly stopped producing blood cells. I was dying, hollowing out like a rotting tree. But during the exact moment I’m remembering, I felt exuberant with a healthy stranger’s A+ blood pulsing through my veins. Also right then, my mom called.
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“You matched,” she said, relaying the call she’d just received from my bone marrow transplant coordinator at the University of Minnesota hospital. “Do you want to leave in around one or two weeks for your transplant?”
“They already found a match? …Like, already?” You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but it actually caused me to momentarily stall out. If I waited, maybe the disease would spread. If I rushed, I’d have to face my transplant sooner.
Life had changed fast, because cancer changed life fast. Three months earlier, I’d scheduled my classes at the University of Virginia (nothing before 11 a.m. or on Fridays). Now, I was scheduling the procedure, at one of the country’s best transplant centers, that would hopefully rid me of my second cancer, myelodysplasia.
I looked down the hallway towards the window. Snowflakes descended from the sky, staining the NIH campus white.
Logic told me to choose the earlier transplant. Nothing seemed to hold me back. I’d already relinquished my student ID and dorm key to the dean. I wasn’t working beyond studying to win my March Madness bracket pool. Then, it hit me: March Madness. I needed the Final Four, my Final Four, just the way I liked it. Which meant I needed my mom to confirm precise dates.
“So choosing to leave in one week means we’d depart the day before the Final Four?” I asked, as if the Torah-sized daily planner in which she inputted my medical appointments—and scheduled her life around—included sports events like national holidays.
Mom clarified: “You choose whether we leave on April 7 or April 14.”
Meaning the day of the NCAA men’s national championship game, or one week after.
Some holidays, like Thanksgiving and the Final Four, you cannot disrupt. They’re too fun; they represent too much excitement for the future. But others, like New Year’s Eve and the national championship game, tend to leave me feeling depleted. They remind me that the previous period of togetherness is about to be replaced by solitude—a sort of anticipatory nostalgia. The latter are thus fine days on which to alter my life—so long as I can still see the ball drop, or watch the final game.
I chose the earlier date for my transplant, and then sped home through the snow.
My Final Four holiday eight days later felt glorious. Two friends from my hall in Humphreys dorm joined me in my rec room. We watched the pre-game show while gorging on my parents-supplied Pepsi, Papa Johns, and Ho Hos, not waiting for the tomato’s tang to dissipate before adding the chocolaty sweetness. My friends fed me all the anecdotes, about Ryan Zimmerman and our other hall-mates, I’d missed since leaving campus. We compared who completed the worst bracket and played “around the world” on my free-standing plastic hoop. Then, the games: Dwyane Wade’s run at Marquette came to an end, while Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony’s tournament continued.
After the games ended, my friends hesitated to leave. They seemed not to know how to say goodbye to someone who had a coin-flip chance of surviving long enough to take ECON 4060, Economics of Sports.
Some 30 hours later my parents and I departed for Reagan Airport. I waved goodbye to our house, barely visible by the moonlight in the early morning of National Championship Monday. Medical testing and form-signing packed my first day at the University of Minnesota hospital in Minneapolis. One form gave the hospital consent to transplant donor stem cells through my bloodstream. It included the word “fatal” six times. As I initialed and signed, Carmelo was on my mind as it tried preserving excitement and forestalling my forthcoming isolation. If I could just convince my brain this was like the Final Four.
We went home that evening after my final needle prick. Home, now, was the furnished apartment where my parents would stay until I would graduate from the transplant center some four months later. We settled in the living room, them on the sofa and me on the La-Z-Boy. With just one yellow-shaded lamp turned on, I recreated the cozy mood from two nights before. The Orangemen took the court. Dad cheered with me. The Jayhawks entered next. We fired boos at the television. Mom tolerated the noise. With under three seconds left, Hakim Warrick defied gravity to block a Kansas three-point attempt, leading Syracuse to win, 81-78. Dad and I went wild.
“Did you see that?!” I said.
“If I jump that high, I’ll twist my ankle and have to go on the DL (disabled list)!” Dad’s goofballery, forever my comfort.
“You’d never play because you’d be on the DL prophylactically!”
“You guys!” Mom’s comfort seemingly forever stemming from my own.
I went to bed happy, accepting my upcoming devastation.
The 2003 NCAA Tournament was a steadfast presence during my long wait to extend my life. Like my parents, it was always there to comfort me when I was confused and scared. It pointed my awareness away from suffering. And towards the wait’s end, March Madness readied me to endure.
These flashbacks come to me 16 years later, when I am leaving Minneapolis, cancer-free. It is impossible not to return to that place, as the dashed white lines disappear one after another beneath me and my friend’s rental Volkswagen Jetta en route to the regional airport in Waterloo, Iowa, for our pre-dawn flight home, one of our lives’ most thrilling experiences coming to an end. It still feels like a dream.
Only two days earlier, we had been in U.S. Bank Stadium watching Virginia play in the Final Four, when the team’s best shooter, Kyle Guy, missed his would-be game-winning three-point shot with six-tenths of a second remaining. We were certain UVa had lost. Amidst the noise of the Auburn cheers, hardly anyone in the building knew the refs were considering calling a foul. Then they did, and the Auburn cheers turned to boos. Guy made all three free throws for the win, and my emotional state journeyed through further extremes than if I were to have received a false-positive cancer test. And then, two days later, De’Andre Hunter had hit a game-tying three-point shot with 12.9 seconds left, leading to overtime, and then confetti.
Mere hours of the rumbling pavement have passed since the confetti. I laugh, thinking about that memory from 16 years earlier, when I never would have thought our beloved UVa Cavaliers would win the national championship like the 2003 Syracuse Orangemen had. But then, my mind needs a break. I stop thinking about basketball. Instead, I think about that beautiful city, Minneapolis, and how for me it will forever represent the intersection between sports and illness.
If I am honest with myself, I’m not sure I would have believed that 16 years later, the only pill I’d take would be a calcium supplement, or that Mom’s planner would include only her appointments, or that any woman would consider dating me.
The white dashes bring me back to the road. They are running together. I pull over and wake my friend. He says he is fine to drive the final stretch. We switch seats, and then he accelerates. The dashes pick up their pace, now blurring for a different reason. My friend is flying, and so am I. I just feel so happy, and tired.
There must be just an hour left before our thrill concludes. I could use the sleep. My eyes close. As I drift off, I feel Anie’s hand in mine. Anie. I will see her soon and tell her all about this weekend and why sports used to be important to me. And I’ll tell her why they still are. I’ll express the gratitude I now feel as I’m able to watch suffering-free, about the nostalgia I now feel for my then-younger parents. I’ll share how I must honor what sports meant to me when I most needed them, and how I must keep them in my life just in case there comes a time when I need them again.
Because sports are more than just sports.
Benjamin is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.