Wed Sep 28 05:00am EDT
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — One month after a knee to the groin left him writhing on the ground pounding the gym floor in agony last October, Taylor Statham did something perhaps no other man has ever done in a similar situation.
He approached the guy who delivered the blow, shook his hand and thanked him.
Attempting to draw a charge on prep school teammate Dushon Carter may have seemed like a regrettable choice by Statham the day it happened, but the shot below the belt he endured in the collision eventually turned out to be an unlikely blessing. Had the soreness and swelling in his groin not lingered the next few weeks, Statham probably wouldn't have visited a doctor in time to save his life.
Doctors diagnosed Statham with a particularly aggressive form of malignant testicular cancer last November, shocking news for an otherwise healthy 18-year-old with no history of the disease in his family. Instead of focusing on playing well enough to earn a Division I scholarship offer in his lone year of prep school in Phoenix, Ariz., the 6-foot-6 wing suddenly had to put basketball aside for the first time in his life and channel his energy into beating cancer.
"They said if I would have waited a few months to come in or if I wouldn't have known, it would have spread throughout my body," Statham said. "It's funny because in high school my coaches always told me to try to take charges instead of blocking shots, and I'd never do it. I finally started taking charges last year to get ready for college, and it saved my life."
Thanks to his supportive family, relentless optimism and resolute desire to play basketball again, Statham endured surgery and two six-week chemotherapy sessions that drained the color from his skin, caused his hair to fall out and sent his weight plummeting 35 pounds. Doctors pronounced the Southern California native cancer-free at the beginning of April, news that was joyous yet bittersweet since it came so late in the recruiting cycle that most colleges didn't have any available scholarships left.
The handful of Division I schools which previously showed interest in Statham moved on to other targets while he was sick, so he rededicated himself in the weight room and the gym in hopes of landing a late offer from a lower-level program in California.
Among the programs eager to grant Statham a tryout was California Baptist University, a 5,000-student school in Riverside in the second year of a three-year transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II status. It was only six weeks after his final chemotherapy session when Statham made the 90-mile trek from his hometown of Valencia, yet he impressed the Cal Baptist staff with his size, skill and toughness during a series of drills designed to test his ability to shoot while fatigued.
"You're never sure what you've got until a kid's been in your program six months, but you can tell a lot in a workout by how far he pushes himself and whether he makes excuses," Cal Baptist coach Tim Collins said. "One of the reasons I felt we needed to take this kid was because he had a really big heart. We worked him hard, and he kept going. For him to have underwent chemotherapy a month and a half before that, what he did was amazing."
It's no surprise to anyone in Statham's life that he overcame cancer and earned the chance to play at Cal Baptist because hard work and basketball success is the norm in his family.
Statham's mother and father both earned scholarship offers to play basketball in college. One of his aunts is Marisa Carmody, a 1979 Parade All-American at Boca Ciega High School in Florida who also starred at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina. And his dad's cousin is Steve Hale, a North Carolina starter during the mid-1980s whom Michael Jordan once described as one of the toughest defenders he ever faced.
Marty and Derek Statham encouraged their son to dabble in other sports besides basketball, but it quickly became clear Taylor shared his family's passion.
He spent hours with his dad each week doing drills to perfect his 3-point shooting, ball handling or mid-range game. He persuaded his coach to give him a copy of the key to the high school gym so he could shoot before school or after dark. And when a middle school teammate suggested neither of them might be good enough to make varsity in high school, Statham stared at him incredulously before insisting he planned to earn a college scholarship and maybe even play in the NBA someday.
"Ever since he was little, I'd come home from work and he'd be sitting there with a basketball in his hands and he wouldn't put it away until it was time for bed," Derek Statham said. "Both he and his younger brother Hunter are the same way. They understand they may not be as athletic as some of the other kids, but they will never be out-worked on the court."
Despite earning first-team all-Foothill League honors as a senior and leading Golden Valley High School to a second straight league title, Statham did not receive a single full scholarship offer from a Division I program.
Pepperdine, Fresno State, Maine and Western Michigan each showed interest, but coaches were wary that Statham lacked the quickness or athleticism to defend explosive wings at that level. It also didn't help that few programs were aware of him before his senior year because he sat out as a junior at Golden Valley as a result of an intradistrict transfer the previous summer.
To increase his profile in recruiting circles and cement a Division I offer, Statham opted to attend Westwind International, a Phoenix-area prep school that annually puts a handful of players on Division I rosters. He had just cracked Westwind's starting lineup in November when doctors stunned him with the cancer diagnosis, requiring him to return home for surgery to remove one of his testicles the day before Thanksgiving and to leave Westwind for good to start chemotherapy in January.
Even though chemotherapy lasted five to seven hours a day and there were days he was too nauseous to eat or lacked the strength to get out of bed, Statham's focus seldom strayed far from his goal of earning a college scholarship.
Sometimes he'd dissect video of his favorite college or NBA players in hopes of finding a move he could incorporate into his own game when he got healthy. Other times he'd pull a cap over his newly bald head and sneak outside to shoot for a few minutes until exhaustion forced him to stop.
"Basketball gave me the strength I needed because the chemo was a lot worse than I thought," Statham said. "My body was always aching and I was so weak that sometimes my mom would have to help me walk. When my hair started falling out in the shower, I just started breaking down and crying. It was like my world was shattered."
The weekend before Statham's final chemotherapy session in late March, he could not take the inactivity any longer. After supporting his travel ball team from the stands for the first two rounds of a local tournament, he donned his Team Xtreme jersey and begged coach Jose Rodriguez to allow him to play in the final game.
With Rodriguez subbing him out every three or four minutes because he was so fatigued and watching him closely every minute he was on the court, Statham delivered one of the most courageous performances his coach has ever seen. Statham had 25 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, staggering output considering he was 35 pounds lighter than his previous playing weight and his skin tone was paler than 1 percent milk.
"I kept telling him to take a break, and he'd keep telling me to put him back in because he wanted to play," Rodriguez said. "He was weak, but he was doing it. That told me he was hungry. Most kids would have stayed home, but he wanted to play in college that badly."
Despite orders from his doctors not to play basketball for several weeks after his last chemotherapy session, Statham knew he needed to regain his strength and conditioning quickly to have any hope of catching the eye of a college coach the next two months. As a result, he launched into an arduous workout regimen almost immediately, jumping rope or running during the morning, playing in pick-up games during the day and lifting weights at night.
"As a mom, I'd always tell him, 'Why don't you just give it a few weeks and take it easy, but he was just determined," Marty Statham said. "If he's determined, you don't stand in his way. You just try to support him."
What frustrated Statham as he was doing all this was that coaches who spent an hour on the phone selling him on their program before he got sick were barely returning his calls six months later. Derek Statham tried to explain that the intense pressure college coaches face to win requires them to be cutthroat, but the fickle nature of the recruiting process left the younger Statham disillusioned.
"The worst was when I called this coach, who called me every week — sometimes every other day — before I got sick," Statham recalled. "He said, 'I heard you fell off and you're not going to play ball anymore.' I was like, 'Are you kidding me? After all I've been through, that's all you have to say?' I asked him if I could come out and visit or send some film, and he told me he'd offered some other kids and he probably wouldn't have a spot for me. Then he hung up the phone, and I was like, 'Wow.'"
Maybe it's the sting of conversations like that one that eases Statham's disappointment at not signing with a Division I program. Although Cal Baptist's small suburban campus and high school-sized 1,100-seat gym are far cries from the UCLAs and USCs of the world, Statham likes his new school's academic-oriented environment, its history of producing pros overseas and its promise of ample playing time.
Since doctors discovered his tumor in its earliest stages and the precautionary chemotherapy eliminated almost all chance of the cancer spreading, doctors are very confident Statham won't experience a relapse. Therefore, he has been able to devote much of his attention to excelling in strength and conditioning work with the team in preparation for the start of practice next month.
Statham doesn't speak with Dushon Carter often since the ex-Westwind teammates are now at different schools, but the Cal Baptist wing still ponders the improbable play that saved his life almost every day.
"Maybe I'll buy Dushon dinner when he comes out here," Statham said.
Dinner in return for a knee to the groin? In most scenarios, it would be ridiculous. In this one, it would be a fitting gesture.
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