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Rick’s Cafe: How a knee to the groin saved a young basketball player’s life (really)

May 12, 2011, 2:43 PM EDT

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There’s no other delicate way to put this, I’m afraid: This is the story of how a knee to the family jewels probably saved a young man’s life, and certainly saved a promising basketball career. If not for that injury, doctors may not have discovered until too late that Taylor Statham had testicular cancer. This is true. But they did, and then the fight was on: and Statham was never one to back down from a fight.

So let’s begin. Our protagonist was in the middle of a scrimmage for his Westwind Academy (Phoenix, AZ) basketball team in November when the guy he was guarding drove the lane. Those who know Statham will not be surprised that he slid in to take the charge; and as happens occasionally on plays such as these, he took a knee right in the groin.

“Yeah, that hurt,” said Statham, wincing at the memory. “But I thought I’d be over it soon, and right back on the court.”

Statham has lived on the court since the age of 5, when his father gave him his first basketball and he refused to let go of it, even when it was time to go to bed. He’s played the game pretty much year-round ever since, but that all changed on that day in November.

“The injury just wasn’t getting better; the pain didn’t go away,” Statham said. “So I went to the doctor, and he diagnosed it right away. He admitted me to the emergency room, where I met with a specialist. And before I knew it I was in surgery.” The diagnosis was testicular cancer, and he underwent surgery the day before Thanksgiving.

Statham, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, had been Offensive Player of the Year,
First Team All Foothill League at Santa Clarita (CA) Golden Valley High as a senior in 2009-10. He had transferred high schools as a sophomore, and by section rules had to sit out a season before playing at Golden Valley as a senior. That meant he had one year of eligibility remaining, so after graduation his parents sent him to Westwind Academy, a post-graduate school where players can boost their recruiting chances. He was living in Arizona on his own, and on hearing the news from his doctor, his parents flew in to be with him.

“It was shocking to all of us,” Taylor said. “My mom was breaking down. I knew I had to keep strong for her.

“But it was a blessing in disguise, really,” he said. “My doctor said that if it hadn’t been for that injury, they might not have caught it in time.”

The good news was that the doctors got all of the tumor, but to be sure, in January Taylor began an aggressive round of chemotherapy. When that didn’t meet with the doctors’ expectations, they ordered a second round. That made three months’ worth of chemo all together.

“It lasted five to seven hours, every day,” Taylor said. “It took a terrific toll on my body; some days I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed. I started at 215 pounds, and was down to 180. But most of all I thought that no college was going to want me.”

Statham had been contacted by several schools before he was diagnosed, including some Division I teams: among them Pepperdine, Maine, Western Michigan, Fresno State and several mid-majors. But when he got sick, the offers dried up.

“It was at a crucial point in the recruiting process, so I understand that,” Taylor said. “It’s a business. I knew I would beat cancer, but at the time, I thought my basketball career might be over.”

But after the second round of chemo, the doctors declared Taylor cancer-free. That was just three weeks ago. “A hundred percent cured,” he said. “That was an amazing day.”

But there was little time to celebrate; he had to get back onto the court. His father, Derek, remembers his determination:

“Most would have just given up on basketball. But Taylor has so much passion and every day he worked hard to get back into shape. Though many schools recruiting him offered scholarships to other players in fear of the unknown, he just recently visited a few schools in the Bay Area and has D1 and D2 schools calling him every day now.

“He is a fighter,” the elder Statham said. “He’s one of those kids people look to when they are hopeless and he is always there.”

Parental hyperbole? Perhaps. But it’s a fact that, even before he got sick, Taylor was a regular volunteer at his church, worked with youth groups and helped tutor special needs kids.

And where once he wanted to make his college choice based strictly on basketball, now he wants to make sure that academics fit with his needs as well.

“I want to major in business,” he said. “I want to have my own business someday, because if there’s one thing I have learned from all of this, it’s that basketball can be taken away from you at any second.”

Taylor’s basketball roots run deep; his mother and father played in college, an aunt also played, and an uncle, Steve Hale, played at North Carolina with Michael Jordan. (In fact, Jordan once told writer David Halberstam that Steve Hale was among the toughest defenders he ever payed against. And that was just in practice).

Taylor returned to the court for the Westwind team between chemo sessions, with a doctor’s clearance, and his first game back had 25 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. “I was tired, but we only had two subs,” is the way he explains it.

His coach, Scott Lovely, remembers his attitude most of all. “He was just so upbeat,” Lovely said. “It was like, OK, we’re going to get a handle on this and then move forward.”

When the season ended, Taylor had his second chemo session. After that, he took to the court again for his summer league team.

“The only thing different was that he was a little weaker, and he had no hair,” said Jose Rodriguez, coach of the Los Angeles traveling team Team Xtreme. “He had a doctor’s OK, so I put him in a little at a time at first. But it was clear right away he was ready to play.”

Despite a burning desire to get back to the thing he loves, Taylor’s big weapon in this ordeal has been his eternal optimism. In fact, the only time he gets mad these days is when his teammates try to take it easy on him.

“I don’t like that,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t want anyone to worry about me. I hate that.”

As for college? Lovely says that the college that gets him “is going to get a steal. He’s valuable not only for his ability, but also his attitude. I can’t say enough about him.”

Taylor, says Rodriguez, has become the team leader. Oh, and his hair has grown back.

“When he talks, the other players listen,” Rodriguez said. “He’s like another coach out there. And he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a tough kid.

“Now, we’re just back to our normal routine,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like nothing happened.”

But of course, something has. Taylor Statham was kicked in the crotch, has beaten cancer, and is now back tearing up the court just five months later. We’ve needed a new definition of ‘#winning’ for some time now, as it happens. I think this is it.

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