SB Nation

Brandon Sneed | April 3, 2013

The good hurt

How Ray King lives and plays basketball with cancer

You know how heavy and achy your body feels the morning after a day spent moving from one apartment to another or clearing land or something like that? That’s how Ray King has felt every day for the last few years. And the thing is, he chooses this. As awful as it is, it’s a far better pain than what he felt before, a good hurt that’s helped him survive.

Early on a Sunday morning in February, Ray moves from his bed to his knees. He thanks God for His help so far and he asks for a bit more help today. Then he stands and before he gets ready for the day, he reaches up to touch the red, size 16 LeBrons on his desk. As he dresses, he catches a faint whiff of bleach.

After breakfast, he leaves his mom’s house and drives 30 miles down I-40 to the McDougald-McLendon Gym at North Carolina Central University in Durham, a trip he makes almost every day. He’s a freshman at the school and a guard on its basketball team.

Ray’s grateful to be alive and to get to practice and perhaps he has more reason to be thankful than most people for that, but he’s still a 20-year-old kid. Even when every moment is a gift, no 20 year old wants to go to basketball practice at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. Today’s will probably be a tough one, too, because NCCU barely beat Florida A&M University last night and they should’ve won by 33, like the first time.

Ray also got to bed later than his teammates, not just because of his long drive home, but because he has to bathe in bleach every night.

Ray also got to bed later than his teammates, not just because of his long drive home, but because he has to bathe in bleach every night. His immune system is horribly suppressed and when he lived on campus last semester, he kept getting staph infections. His doctor prescribed the special baths, NCCU couldn’t accommodate him, so he moved back home. Ray’s also fighting a cold, which for him is like the flu for a healthy person. He was up all night hacking, just trying to breathe.

Before practice, NCCU coach LeVelle Moton reviews film and then yells at his team for an hour. Then, during “Reflection Time,” he asks his players to talk about the game. The first guy mumbles something about not playing with enough energy and focus, and the next player says pretty much the same thing, and so does the one after that, and the one after that.

Then Moton calls on Ray.

“We just played soft,” says Ray. His voice is quiet, but there’s an edge, even anger, in his words that no one misses. “We were just taking things for granted.”

Silence. The guys drop their heads, unable to look their teammates in the eye.

“To hear that,” NCCU point guard Emmanuel Chapman will say later, “and to see the hurt and anger and disappointment on his face, it was terrible.”

Few freshmen can call out their team, particularly one who almost never plays, and Ray has only scored two points all season. But Ray isn’t like any other freshman, and not just because he’s done things that have made him sort of famous and friendly with LeBron James. Moton speaks next, preaching and sounding a little like Samuel L. Jackson: “This boy knows what it is to face your last 24 hours!” he says. “How would you feel if the last 24 hours had been your last 24 hours? Not good, I’d hope!”

There’s some more yelling, then it’s time to work. Ray keeps up during the drills and sprints even though his legs start burning within seconds and his lungs not long after that. Yet he only stops for water when he gets dizzy. That happens more often than usual today.

In one of their “toughness” drills, a player gets the ball under the basket and tries to score while two defenders hold big pads and push and smack him around.

Forward Ray Willis gets the ball. He and Ray are good friends, but the way he played against FAMU had frustrated the heck out of his freshman teammate, so now Ray King grabs a pad. Everyone on the team starts whooping and hollering; they want to see this. Nobody on the team hits people harder than Ray. He played football in his previous life, and he still craves contact. Willis has seven inches and 20 pounds on Ray, only 6’ and 200, but Ray wears him out, pushing him clear off the court several times. Willis makes only two layups in two minutes.

Then they scrimmage. Ray guards forward DavRon Williams, and even though Williams is 6’7, 220, Ray goes about even with Williams in rebounds, blocks him twice, rips the ball away from him twice, holds him to four points and scores twice himself.

“He’s a rock,” Williams says later. “Like a boulder. There’s no time off from that guy. Luckily, I normally get to play with him.”

They all feel lucky to play with Ray, the only teammate they’ve ever had with cancer.

They all feel lucky to play with Ray, the only teammate they’ve ever had with cancer—the only player they know of playing Division I basketball with cancer, for that matter—and because he balls so hard that they keep forgetting that he has it.

“Going as hard as he does, it pushes our starters and makes us as a team all that much better,” says Moton. “And he knows he’s probably not gonna play. You gotta talk about how mind-blowing, how selfless, that is. Because most kids who know they’re not gonna play, they don’t go that hard.”

Ray did play some this season, picking up a few garbage minutes here or there, same as most freshmen. He scored his only points of the season in December at Maryland Eastern Shore. Ray drove and missed a layup, ripped the rebound away from none other than his own teammate DavRon Williams, missed the putback, got the kick out, drove and finally made it on his third try. The way the team reacted on the bench, you would’ve thought he’d won them a championship. NCCU, however, lost in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tourney and missed making the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, with Ray on the team, the Eagles had their best Division I season ever, going 15-1 in the MEAC to finish in second place and 22-8 overall. That's just their second winning season and their first with 20 wins since joining Division I in 2007. It's exactly why his team listens when he speaks.

So, that’s the first part. Now, what was taken.

Ray started having this nightmare when he was 16: After playing a great game, he’d leave a party with friends and girls and then a man would walk out of the night, raise a gun and shoot him dead. He dreamed the same dream so often that he worried God was giving him a dark premonition. When he told his mom, Michelle, she laughed it off, saying, “Ray, how you gonna die? Why would something like that happen to you?” Bad things never happened to Ray. He was a great son. He was polite and respectful and worked hard at school and in sports. He never even got sick.

He had his future all planned out. Heading into his sophomore year at Middle Creek High School in Raleigh, here’s how Ray thought his life would go: Be a star football player, get a scholarship somewhere, probably as a running back, make the NFL, play as long as he could and then coach like his uncle, Michelle’s brother Dave Merritt, a secondary coach for the New York Giants.

And if that didn’t work, well, he was as good at basketball as he was at football—good enough, according to his coaches, to earn a scholarship in either sport.

They knew Ray on the AAU basketball circuit as “The Beast” and he led his under-15 team to a national championship. In the first round of that tournament, Ray’s team was losing by eight with 52 seconds left. His coach Dwayne West called timeout, pulled his guys together, and started to speak. Ray interrupted him: “Forget all that! We are gonna win this game! We ARE. GOING. TO. WIN.”

Ray started guarding the other team’s star player. He promptly stole the ball and beat him down the court for a layup. Then Ray stole the ball again and scored again, got fouled, and hit the free throw. And then, with time running out, Ray deflected a pass to a teammate, who hit a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, and Ray’s team won.

“I tell kids all the time,” says West, “that if you’re really talented, it’s automatically assumed because of your talent level that you’re a leader. A difference with Ray and a lot of other guys is that he just embraced that.”

But as a sophomore, Ray struggled in ways that were hard to understand. Despite scoring nearly a touchdown a game on the football field and earning the conference Sixth Man of the Year award in basketball, he cramped up during games, got out-run during drills and sometimes even asked out of basketball practice. Nothing trainers tried—riding a stationary bike on the sidelines to stay loose, drinking potassium-loaded sports drinks, eating bananas during timeouts—worked. Ray went to the doctor several times, but was always told the same thing: “You’re working out too much. You’re not eating right.” Then they’d give him some muscle relaxants, but they never made him better. They just made the nightmares worse.

“Something’s inside of me, something that shouldn’t be.”

Some nights after Ray woke up, he still felt the bullets in him. Sometimes he felt them the next day. “Something’s inside of me,” he’d say to his mother, “something that shouldn’t be.”

Then one weekend in June at a football camp, Ray could barely run and his face swelled up. When he got home, he was too fatigued to walk into the house. When she took him to Raleigh Pediatric yet again, Michelle, tired of her son telling doctors of the same problem and then prescribing the same remedies that remedied nothing, demanded blood tests.

When the results came back they were so awful that the doctors thought the machine was broken.

They sent Ray to WakeMed, another hospital in Raleigh, for more tests.

Michelle got a call from WakeMed on the way back from their office. They said the word “cancer” and told her that doctors at UNC were waiting for Ray and to get him there as soon as possible.

When they got to UNC they skipped registration and went straight into a room where they met Dr. Stuart Gold, considered one of the best pediatric oncologists on the East Coast. He told them that Ray had acute lymphoblastic leukemia—blood cancer that causes production of immature white blood cells to get out of hand. They build up in the bone marrow until there’s no room for healthy white blood cells, nor red blood cells and platelets, which are crucial to help the body fight infection, transport oxygen and stop bleeding. Leukemia itself doesn’t kill someone, but it destroys the body in so many ways that it eventually can’t function—it leads to massive fluid buildup that suffocates organs, eradicates the immune system so badly that the simplest sickness is devastating, and wrecks the healthy blood that carries oxygen around the body. In time, the body just gives out.

That wasn’t even the worst part.

Ray’s white blood cell count was already nearly 100 times too high. He had so much fluid built up on his insides that nearly every internal organ was already compromised. Had he waited one more day to be tested, that nightmare may have come true. The doctors had to start working immediately to give him a chance. First, they needed to get a catheter to pump chemo into his heart and then a spinal tap to get to the bone marrow, where leukemia is born.

It hurt worse than anything he'd ever felt before, so he bit into a towel until his jaw cramped.

Ray had so little time they couldn’t even wait to sedate him. They dug into his arm, but he was so swollen they couldn’t get a vein to take. Then they went in through his neck, but couldn’t get an artery to clot properly so they ripped the catheter out of his neck and stuck it in the other side until they wrangled out a vein that worked. There was blood everywhere. Ray felt everything and it hurt worse than anything he'd ever felt before, so he bit into a towel until his jaw cramped. On the outside, he was quiet, but his insides, flooding with acid, screamed at God.

That was the worst part. And then, still awake, he took the spinal tap.

Later when it was dark and silent and Michelle was dozing in a chair behind Ray’s bed, she woke to a voice. It was Ray, talking to God.

“Why me?” he kept asking. “Why did it have to be me?”

Over the next six months, Ray went through the typical, horrible cancer gauntlet. He withered from 195 pounds to 130. Some days Michelle had to carry him to the bathroom. Even when he went home from the hospital toward the end of 2010, he still had to make tons of trips back to UNC. The chemo came to his house in ice packs and his mother learned to inject him, sticking the needle into the one-inch plastic port in her son’s chest that fed the tube to his heart. When Ray was at his sickest, everyone told him, “Keep fighting.” It’s a great sentiment—the only problem is, how does a human being to really fight cancer? The way Ray saw it, cancer’s only objective is destruction, and his body was wrecked. Fight? Fight with what? How? There was nothing Ray could do but sit there and take it and hope the poison killed the cancer before the cancer killed him.

What drove Ray crazy is that the one thing that always gave him release from whatever frustrations life threw at him, the one thing he loved most—sports—was taken. He fell in love with sports soon after his mom took him to his first football practice when he was 8 years old. At first Ray was scared of getting hit, but she told him if he hit back right, it hurt in a good way. She even put him in his pads, took him to the backyard, grabbed two metal trashcans and told him, “I ain’t raisin’ no punk. Come on!”

He would hit cancer back, and in his fight, look to find the good hurt.

Then she taught Ray how to hit right, and he discovered there was such a thing as a good hurt. One day during a follow-up at UNC after Ray got sick, he saw a guy he’d played football with named Aaron. Aaron had leukemia too, but now, three years later, he was in remission and told Ray he was looking to play football again. So with cancer at his throat, Ray knew what he had to do. He would hit cancer back, and in his fight, look to find the good hurt.

By the spring of Ray’s junior year, he was in remission and ready to fight, but then the doctors told him that between the chemo and his body’s fragile condition, playing again was impossible right now. In time, he’d be able to work out and play some light rec ball or flag football and such, but his real career was over.

So Ray quit. He didn’t eat, didn’t leave his room, and didn’t even want to do chemo anymore. “Not if I’m never gonna have my life back,” he said. “What’s the need?”

He didn’t stop chemo. Michelle wouldn’t let that happen. But she also knew that Ray’s attitude could kill him. Neurobiology has proven that depression affects how we react to illness, that our brain knows when we don’t want to live, especially when wracked by cancer and chemo. There is only so much doctors and drugs can do, and soon enough the body falls into line with the mind. If Ray gave up, it wouldn’t quite be suicide, but it could definitely help kill him.

Michelle wasn’t about to let that happen, either. She took him to Dr. Gold and all three had a long talk.

Gold said Ray couldn’t play sports because of the catheter tube running in his chest and the one-inch plastic port in his skin that fed it. Simple as that.

Ray told him to take them out and inject the chemo directly into his veins.

There are compelling reasons doctors don’t want to do this and Gold rattled off the list of risks: His veins could collapse. If he swelled up again, they might have to dig some out like the first horrible time, and even if that didn’t happen, the chemo could burn his skin, resulting in horrific, oozing wounds. And even if that didn’t happen, playing sports would put him in close contact with too many people, increasing his risk of infection, all that exercise would leave him exhausted, and if he got hit hard enough, he could bleed internally.

Fine, Ray said. He needed the competition. He missed the contact.

“You want somebody to hit you? I can hit you,” Michelle said. “I’ll get the trashcans out again.”

“Ma,” Ray said. “I need this.”

“But why? Help me to understand! Write me out a paper with some reasons or—”

“I don’t need to write you no paper! I can name you a thousand reasons why and you already know all of them!”

Dr. Gold finally understood why, and made Ray this offer: He could play, but if his veins collapsed, or they had trouble getting chemo into him, or anything else bad happened that could be prevented by using the port, they would put the port and catheter back in his chest and shut sports back down again.

Ray shook his hand.

“Just dig a hole and put me in it,” Michelle said.

This was Ray’s one selfish act, putting his family through the stress of watching him go back out and do things that could end his life. Watching her son shrivel away to nothing was hell for Ray’s mom, no question about it, but watching him play football again was worse. She missed most of his touchdowns because she always covered her eyes.

Just as a depressed mind can kill the body, a healthy and happy mind can heal it.

Over time, however, the more she saw how happy it made him, the more Michelle found peace. He played well, scoring seven touchdowns, then joined the basketball team and led the squad in rebounds, even getting a double-double one game after coming straight from chemo at UNC, and making second-team all-conference. By the end of basketball season, Ray seemed better than Michelle thought possible. Just as a depressed mind can kill the body, a healthy and happy mind can heal it, or at least help to. He was still exhausted all the time, but he was in such good spirits that sometimes it seemed like nothing was wrong.

The local media ate Ray’s story up, but nothing moved people quite like what he asked for from Make-A-Wish, the foundation that grants requests to children and young people with life-threatening illnesses.

When Make-A-Wish first came calling, Ray told them he wanted to hang out with LeBron James, and they had it all worked out. Then he decided that was selfish. He remembered that when he first got sick, Middle Creek students and staff chanted “Pray for Ray!” at games, made “Pray For Ray” T-shirts, and held “Pray For Ray” fundraisers, collecting thousands of dollars to help with his medical costs. Hundreds of supporters wrote him letters on his birthday and sent so many notes and flowers and gifts that Ray ran out of space for everything in his room.

So many people came to visit him at the hospital—coaches, teachers, staff, students and friends that came from Middle Creek and everywhere else—that the hospital had to stop letting people in. Once the whole football team just sat in the lobby, so Ray would know they were there. So instead of meeting LeBron James, Ray called the Make-A-Wish lady back and said he would rather use his wish to thank the people who helped him through his hard times—he would actually rather buy lunch for everyone at his school. Make-A-Wish had never had such a request before, but they made it happen. Chick-fil-A served 2,000 chicken sandwiches and teachers wore cow costumes while Ray stood at the end of the sandwich line where he hugged everyone he saw and told them he loved them.

The event was so successful that, as Middle Creek basketball coach David Kushner later noted, for the first time in the history of the high school, “In the cafeteria, nobody cared where they sat.”

“If I’m not good enough, then I’m not good enough. Treat me the same way you treat everyone else.”

Despite his illness, North Carolina State University offered Ray a walk-on spot on the football team, but he didn’t get into the school. Instead, he enrolled at NCCU, the nearest option to UNC. He was going to walk onto the football team, but when he went to a practice one day and realized that Division I football players hit hard enough to potentially kill him, Ray decided he wanted to try basketball instead. He met with Moton in August and asked if he could play for him. “I don’t want to be a charity case, ” he told Moton, “If I’m not good enough, then I’m not good enough. Treat me the same way you treat everyone else. I’ve got to earn everything you give me. I need to be able to do everything you ask of everyone. If I can’t, I shouldn’t be on the team.”

The coach knew Ray was good—he’d seen him play a few times in high school and was even thinking about recruiting him then—but after hearing Ray say that, even if Moton had never seen him, he would’ve wanted him on his team. He gave him a walk-on spot.

“The purity in the game is gone,” Moton says. “Everybody now thinks basketball’s about a financial reward at the end. It’s all about, ‘How do I average 15 points per game and make the NBA and get a Nike or Adidas deal so I can get broken off so I never have to work again?’ That’s what it is. There’s so much ‘I’ in the game today. It’s sad for the game. I don’t know how to pinpoint it, but we’ve dropped the ball somewhere. But Ray just has such respect for the game, and that’s crucial to a team’s success.”

It was that humility and that respect, and hearing the story of what Ray did with his Make-A-Wish request that compelled Moton to do what he did next.

On Oct. 25 last year, Moton called Ray and told him he was on his way to pick him up. Ray assumed the coach was taking him to dinner or something for some player-coach time, and he worried that their talk might be a bad one. Although Ray worked out and watched every practice, he hadn’t been cleared to practice with the team yet. It turns out convincing a university to let a guy with cancer play Division I sports isn’t especially easy—liability and such. Even though they’d started the process in August, it still wasn’t done, and wouldn’t be until after Thanksgiving. Ray worried his coach was taking him out to tell him he wasn’t going to get to play, so as Moton drove Ray he prepared himself for bad news. Ray had no idea that just a few days earlier, while trying to acquire an all-access pass for Ray to attend the Miami Heat’s preseason game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Raleigh’s RBC Center, Moton had called LeBron James. He told him all about Ray, and how Ray had passed up a chance to meet James, and instead had given everyone lunch.

“Yeah,” Moton told James, “you got traded for some chicken sandwiches.”

James already had two-dozen requests for him to see other kids after that game, but he told Moton, “Get him here.”

After the game, Ray and James sat in the locker room and talked for half an hour. He was friendlier and more engaged than Ray could’ve hoped for, asking detailed questions about his chemo treatments, his backstory and his dreams. He shook his head and told Ray that he was amazed at what he was able to do.

As they spoke, James untied the red shoes he’d worn during the game. He took them off and holding them in his hand, reached out to Ray, who fist-bumped him. James laughed and told Ray the shoes were for him.

“Seriously?” Ray said, taking them. He could feel James’ sweat still on them.

“Seriously, man,” James said. “You’re my hero.”

By the end of it all, Ray felt like James’ little brother. He walked with James to the team bus where they slapped hands and hugged. James told him to keep fighting. After James was gone and Ray was in the car headed home, he didn’t know what to say, so he just cried.

According to Moton, the way Ray lives his life now, with such a full appreciation for it and especially for the games he can play again, made James appreciate his own life a little more. James spent more time with Ray than he planned, for the same reasons why Moton put Ray on his team and why Ray’s teammates hear him when he speaks—something about it all set James at ease. Ray reminded James, as he reminds everyone else, that in the beginning, you don’t play the game because of shoe contracts and big paychecks and media and fans. You play because it’s what you love to do.

“you get another 24 hours. Be more proud of those than you were your last.”

At the end of that Sunday morning basketball practice, Moton ends things with an exhortation: “The good news,” he says, “is you get another 24 hours. Be more proud of those than you were your last.”

When Ray goes hard like he does in practice—like he always does—he can only go so long. He feels like he’s run two miles even though he’s only been going for 30 seconds. Ray guesses he’s maybe 50 percent of the basketball player he knows he really is, and he worries that because of that Moton cuts him slack.

Not true. Moton told someone once that if there was a draft of all the MEAC players, Ray’s his number one pick. “I’ll piece together other talent around him,” he says, “but I’m taking that kid first.”

“People don’t even realize he still gets chemo,” says point guard Emmanuel Chapman. “That’s how hard he goes.”

The next night, NCCU handles Bethune-Cookman in proud fashion. After the game, even though Ray didn’t play a second, Chapman brings him up: “He’s just a constant reminder we need to respect what we have all the time. Because I don’t know my last day. That’s how he thinks, because he did. He had a last day.”

The afternoon after, Ray has to miss practice to go to the UNC Pediatric Center for a checkup and his monthly injections of the chemotherapy agent vincristine. Every two months they add a spinal tap to check his bone marrow and shoot some chemo into it. In addition, Ray takes anywhere from 24 to 40 pills per night—methotrexate, 6-MP, prednisone, scepter. It’s maintenance chemo, not the stuff that made him throw up 100 times last year, but it’s still poison. On top of aerating his immune system, the chemo messes up his brain. He’s doing OK in school—three Bs and three Cs this semester—but Ray has trouble remembering his team's plays.

At practice, without Ray, the gym just doesn’t feel right. “Einstein once said that everything is energy,” says Moton. “And energy feeds other energy. Ray triggers everyone. When he’s not here, guys just don’t compete as hard. You can feel that void.”

Ray hates missing practice, but he feels sicker than he has in awhile. He feels heavy, dragging. His voice is raspy and thick, and he just has a funny feeling he really needs to be at the Pediatric Center today. He tries not to let it worry him, but he knows there must be a reason.

As he waits his turn in a large room with space for about a dozen families, a curtain parts and a middle-aged man with short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing an untucked, white button-down shirt and jeans, steps halfway out and scans the room until he sees Ray. He stares and when Ray’s nurse practitioner, Diana Gordon, walks Ray back to a private room for his regular exam, the man watches Ray the whole way.

Ray and Gordon talk about what Ray always talks about, Sept. 30, 2013—the day his treatments are scheduled to stop. Then Gordon tells him he seems like he feels bad. She asks him what he’s been up to the last few days. He tells her about the basketball games and the practices and the homework and the writer who’s been following him around and asking him a million questions. Gordon says UNC has had some kids getting chemo play high school sports, but has never treated someone who also plays Division I basketball. She can’t imagine how much it wears Ray out. She made him take a few days off about a month ago because he was so tired. Between school and basketball, and fighting cancer, and saying yes to any and all media requests, he’s stretched about five times more—and five times more exhausted—than almost any other college student. “It’s a lot different than high school,” she says.

Ray laughs. “Yeah, a little bit.”

“Do you have a day off soon?”

“Yeah, I get tomorrow,” he says. “Thank God.”

She says she thinks he just has a cold and should be fine. He thanks her and gives her a hug. Then, as he and Michelle leave, the man from the curtains steps out again and stops him. He seems bigger than Ray, 6’3 or so and athletic. He stumbles through an introduction about how he’s seen him play at NCCU and saw ESPN’s Christmas Day feature on Ray during the Heat game. The man says it would be really nice if Ray could just say hey to his family. Now Ray knows why he had that funny feeling; it wasn’t about him, it was about this.

Behind the blue curtains, sitting on a chair, there’s a mother with puffy red cheeks who can’t stop crying, and lying on a bed there’s a little girl who’s bald and masking terror with a glare. The father exudes this palpable, desperate, angry helplessness at their suffering. The little girl has the same type of leukemia as Ray. They’ve only known a short while. Outpatient treatments weren’t doing the trick, so she’s being admitted to the hospital. They do not know if she will live or die.

He quietly reminds the father that a hug and a kiss, not anger, are suffering’s most effective balm.

Ray talks with them for a few minutes and hugs everyone. He quietly reminds the father that a hug and a kiss, not anger, are suffering’s most effective balm. He tells them that he knows what they’re facing, and the best thing they can do is decide to find their way to fight.

Ray knows, in a humble way, the impact he can have on people like this in moments like these. He recently saw his old friend Aaron—the football player who’d beaten leukemia. Aaron looked like a ghost and a mirror and an artifact from the past, and, pray to God, not a look into the future. The leukemia had come back for him. He was sick and skeletal, bald, and now struggled to talk. But it was Aaron who told Ray to keep his head up. “I can’t go back to sports now,” Aaron said. “You still can. Don’t give up.” Seeing Ray battle helped fuel Aaron’s fight. Even if it was beating him now, Aaron wanted to see someone kick cancer’s ass.

These are deciding moments, the one Ray faced that day with Aaron and the one that little girl and her family are facing with him right now—moments in which they see why they’ll decide to fight, and how.

One of Ray’s own most powerful moments came on a day during his junior year of high school, not long after doctors said he was done with sports. It was a moment when he had no way of knowing all of the wonderful things that lay ahead—his remission, his return to sports, providing Chick-fil-A, and meeting LeBron, and helping a Division I basketball team to its best season ever. Long before all that, Ray just sat on the bleachers in the Middle Creek basketball gym, bald and scrawny, watching a team practice that he’d just been told he’d never play for again. He spent many afternoons there, just watching—the saddest, angriest fan ever. Remembering what he used to do out there almost made him smile sometimes, especially at the end of practice, when Coach Kushner made them do the “Hoosier Drill.”

The whole team would line up single-file straddling the half-court line, with a leader facing the rest. The leader slapped the floor and yelled “Defense!” and then pumped his legs in quick two-inch bursts while yelling, “Pick! Switch! Through!” Then he dropped to a defensive stance and shuffled half the court to one baseline, then back to half court, then more leg pumps, then he shuffled to the other baseline or to the previous one. The idea is to make it hurt, and how much it hurts depends on how much the leader wants to work.

One afternoon, as Ray watched the team slide back and forth and soaked in their noise, he rose from the bleacher seats and climbed down to the sideline. He approached Kushner and said, “Coach, I’m gonna lead the next one.”

The way Ray said it, Kushner knew there was no saying no.

Wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, Ray walked to the half-court line. A buzz among the guys became a roar as Ray reached his spot and turned and faced the team. He slapped the floor with his skinny arms and roared with them and then he exploded into the drill. Ray went all out for a full minute and never had a dozen guys made a gym so loud. When he finished, dripping sweat and hands on knees, his legs and his insides were on fire, and it hurt so good. After that, he went to his mother and Dr. Gold to yell about the thousand reasons why he had to play again.

Back in the blue curtained room of the hospital, Ray talks with the family of the little girl. He reminds her to fight and tells her that girls with leukemia recover better than boys, so she can get even better than him. Her mother can’t stop crying, but she does smile, and her little girl’s glare softens. Fear, for the briefest moment, gives way to hope.

The mother thanks him and says, “We just wanted to see y’all here and alive.”

They exchange phone numbers. Ray gives the little girl another hug, and then it’s time for him to go home and for her to be taken in for treatment. As Ray walks away, the little girl sits up taller and her dad says something quiet in her ear, and she nods and she even smiles. Maybe she’ll find the good hurt someplace, too. When Ray boards the elevator and the doors bing and then close, Ray elbows his mom softly in the side, as if to say, “There’s another reason why.”

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Image Credit: Courtesy of North Carolina Central University

About the Author

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina. He's the author of an untitled narrative business book with Hwy 55 founder Kenny Moore (coming winter 2014) and the forthcoming novel "The Making Island" (spring 2015). He also wrote the book "The Edge of Legend" and has written for Men's Journal, GQ, ESPN The Magazine, Outside, SLAM, and more. He blogs at and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.