I did two things Friday. I went to see Sylvia Hatchell at the UNC Cancer Hospital and I watched Carolina play a basketball game at the Smith Center.
These two things were exactly 0.8 miles apart. And it seemed a little awkward that here we were, 15,833 of us, gathered in the Smith Center clapping and cheering while Carolina defeated Holy Cross, 62-54, as less than a mile away, someone we all know was sitting--she was not in the bed, she wants you to know, because she does not get in the bed, and just for reference she doesn't wear the hospital pajamas, either, but we'll get to that--in the hospital battling leukemia.
These things seem to fit together very awkwardly. Here, we are worried about zone defenses and foul trouble. There, they are worried about white blood cell count and chemotherapy.
Before entering the hospital room, I had to put on a gown and gloves. Along with those items, I put on my very best serious face, because this was serious, real-life stuff. I was prepared to see, I don't know, a sick person.
What I saw was a basketball coach. A bald basketball coach, yes, but she still carried it better than, say, Seth Greenberg. And do you know what, of all things, Sylvia Hatchell was doing when I walked into her hospital room?
She was talking to the ACC supervisor of officials about Monday night's Carolina-Tennessee game. And suddenly, the two things didn't seem so very far apart after all.
I'll give you this: it is a little silly to say that Marcus Paige showed toughness by taking over in the second half when Carolina desperately needed a leader against Holy Cross. That was not tough. That was just basketball.
Tough is Hatchell eyeballing you from under her Carolina blue baseball cap and saying, "I don't get in the bed. I get in the bed to take a nap and to sleep but otherwise I'm sitting in a chair or I'm exercising or I'm reading cards people have sent me. And I don't wear the hospital gowns and pajamas. I don't do that. All I wear is Carolina stuff."
She is right. She is wearing a white Carolina basketball t-shirt, Carolina blue gym shorts, a Carolina blue warmup jacket, overstuffed Carolina bedroom shoes and the aforementioned Carolina blue hat. She looks like she is about to watch the game while waving a foam finger which, who knows, she just might be.
Anywhere other than this environment, she would simply look like a really big Tar Heel fan. But she is at the UNC Cancer Hospital, as she is reminded every morning.
"That's the hardest part, the mornings," she says. "I open my eyes, go back to sleep, wake up, go back to sleep, and wake up. It's like a dream. And after two or three times I realize it's not a dream and I really do have cancer. And at that point I'm like, 'Alright, let's deal with it. What's my plan today?'?
The plan is for three more rounds of chemo. She started with the formidable 7/3 program, which is seven days hooked up nonstop to chemo, including three days of the highest intensity chemo available--"They had to put on radioactive suits to put that stuff into me at night," she says. Then, if her numbers continue to be as good as they are right now, maybe her doctors will think about letting her be at practice with her team again. She is working out for nearly two hours every day, including the chemo days, which amazes her doctors. It amazes everyone, really.
When you ask who she has heard from, she turns on her cell phone and reads back the most recent calls: "Charlotte Smith, Pat Summitt, Howard White (a vice president at Nike/Jordan Brand), Larry Fedora, Roy, of course, and Mike Krzyzewski."
Almost as if asking permission, it seems necessary to ask Hatchell if she still considers basketball games to be important. At the Cancer Hospital, she sees real life every day--she's living real life every day. We spend so many of our waking hours thinking about things like basketball games, but it's easy to imagine that when you get to where Hatchell sits now, it's possible that, say, J.P. Tokoto's field goal percentage may not seem quite as important.
So has it changed her outlook on what matters?
"Basketball absolutely matters," she says. "It teaches you about real life, because you're always going to have opponents. And you have to be able to be a warrior when you're out there facing opponents, no matter what they might be."
Every night, I leave the Smith Center around an hour after the game is over. Without fail, there are dozens of fans outside a back entrance waiting for autographs and pictures of their favorite Carolina players. Even after lackluster games like Friday's eight-point win over a nonconference opponent, they are out there, because Carolina basketball is the kind of thing that makes people stand in the rain at 11 p.m. on a Friday.
Eight tenths of a mile away, it's almost time for a shift change at the hospital. Some life-saving doctors and nurses go home. Other life-saving doctors and nurses arrive back at work. No one asks for an autograph. No one bugs them for a picture.
Earlier that day, Sylvia Hatchell had looked out her window, from which she can see almost the entire Cancer Hospital, the place where she got a private tour before the building opened because she's been such a tireless fundraiser for UNC Lineberger. She nods her bald head and her Carolina blue cap towards the window, as if to encompass the entire place--the doctors and the nurses and the patients and the volunteers and every single one of them.
"These people," she says, "are unbelievable."
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