Commentary

NDSU finds solace in basketball

Originally Published: February 15, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

FARGO, N.D. -- Looking at Hannah Linz lying exhausted on the court, North Dakota State women's basketball coach Carolyn DeHoff saw an opportunity to teach a basketball lesson. Here, it seemed, was an example of the effort required to make a season successful, personified in the prone form of a player who had to come back from cancer to be on the court at all.

Practice wasn't going particularly well on the day in question, which is why Linz and her teammates found themselves on the end line waiting to run. The ensuing din of dozens of pounding sneakers was interrupted only by a series of squeaks as each player reversed direction, the same soundtrack heard in every gym in the country in the days before a season. The sprints completed, the coach called attention to the senior short on breath.

[+] EnlargeLinz
Courtesy of North Dakota State AthleticsHannah Linz beat Hodgkin's lymphoma once; the odds are in her favor she'll beat it once again.

If the others wanted the kind of season to which all presumably aspire, they would be wise to follow Linz's lead.

"I really reflect back on that day because then she got up and she actually had tears in her eyes," DeHoff said. "And I didn't really think about it, what was going on, other than, you know -- here's a kid, again, who has gone through what she's gone through and gets to a certain point and can't go any further. Wants to go further but can't.

"So I just kind of felt it was that."

Tumor detected

What DeHoff didn't know was that Linz already sensed it wasn't to be the kind of season the senior had once envisioned. In the days before that practice, Linz asked teammate Katie Birkel to confirm her suspicions that something wasn't normal about the swelling near her collarbone, in close proximity to the location of the tumor associated with the Hodgkin's lymphoma with which she was diagnosed the spring of her freshman year.

It was perhaps the first, and certainly the least authoritative, of the dozens of tests that would follow.

"Not that I know much, but I can tell if it feels different from the other side," Birkel recalled.

It did.

By the time Linz was singled out in practice, she had already followed up on her suspicions and sought a professional opinion. Weeks of tests and multiple biopsies followed. She told DeHoff about the tests, the telltale glowing on the PET scans and her concerns that her cancer was back. Gathered together one morning early in the season, those on the team who didn't already know were told. And then they waited.

All the while, Linz continued to play out her senior season. Two things just about everyone mentions when talking about Linz the basketball player are her range as a 3-point shooter and her penchant for no-look passes. Former Bison coach and Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Amy Ruley began the recruiting process with Linz and recalled worrying that a bigger school might swoop in and steal the Minnesota native. But the range and energy that waned before anyone knew what was wrong with her when she was a freshman were slow to return when she came back after chemotherapy and radiation treatment the following summer and fall of her sophomore year.

It wasn't until this past summer that, like the long hair that finally tumbled below her shoulders again, her game seemed fully restored to its former glory.

"This year, you could just see it," DeHoff said. "You could see her strength, her endurance. She could sustain. She never had to be pulled out. Her passing, it was coming back, seeing the floor. Her making 3s, those types of things."

Cancer returns

On Nov. 30 in a game against rival North Dakota, Linz matched a career high with 18 points and hit 4 of 7 shots from the 3-point line. Less than three weeks later, on a road trip to Wisconsin-Green Bay, she received the official diagnosis that Hodgkin's lymphoma had returned (Linz and her family have asked for privacy and have declined interview requests since the diagnosis was made public; her mother is posting updates on treatment via a journal hosted on the caringbridge.org site). She told her coach first, one of the few times DeHoff had seen Linz break down in tears. They never discussed whether she should play that night. What was unspoken was that it wasn't up for debate.

The only question was when to tell the rest of the team. Fearing it would be worse for players to read the distress in their friend's demeanor without knowing the details, they elected to share the news before the game.

"It just got dead quiet in the room," Birkel recalled. "It's hard to know what to say, especially for someone who is so positive about everything. Everyone just kind of reflected for a while afterward. I think there were a few tears. We just had to tell Hannah we're going to be there for her, for every step. She knew that she would likely not be playing many more games. ... So, I mean, I don't know, knowing there's a game that day is just kind of hard."

The movie version would surely have allowed Linz to hit the winning shot for an inspired team that night. Life isn't fiction.

It wasn't a game North Dakota State was going to win anyway, not against an NCAA tournament-tested team that is all but unbeatable on its home court. And on this night, the Bison lost by 35 points, still their most lopsided defeat of the season. Linz played 18 minutes and missed all four of her attempts from the floor.

She played again two days before Christmas, even as plans for treatment took shape. It wasn't until the team was driving to South Dakota State a week later that she told anyone associated with the program that the game that night would be her final one. Even then, she kept the information mostly to herself. She told DeHoff and a couple of teammates, including Dani DeGagne, a fellow senior and friend with whom she always sat on the long bus rides that mark life in the Summit League.

"She seemed at peace with it, almost," DeGagne said. "She seemed a little upset and a little sad -- who wouldn't be? But she tried to stay calm about it and keep herself collected."

Linz played 27 minutes in a 76-57 loss that night. Her final entries in the play-by-play log were a steal and a 3-pointer with a little more than a minute to play. Not a Hollywood ending, perhaps, but sweet in its own small way.

"All I know is I wanted to play her as much as I could," DeHoff recalled of that night.

Upon returning from the game at South Dakota State, Linz and many of her teammates went out to the wing joint next to campus -- half off everything on Sunday nights tempting their student budgets. It was there that many of them learned she had just played her final game hours earlier. She talked a little bit about it, but they didn't dwell on it, didn't eulogize her career. They just did what teammates do after a road trip.

"We kind of went on with the night," Birkel said. "We joked around, we talked about whatever we were talking about at that point in time."

Hope for the future

Her locker still looks inhabited, a picture affixed to the nameplate and a typical collegiate mountain of clothes piled haphazardly inside, but Linz hasn't been able to come around all that often in recent weeks. She is enrolled in school, with one semester left to complete her nursing degree, which left her busy finishing clinical work and getting ahead in her studies in advance of the chemotherapy she surely remembers all too well. When she spoke a little more than two years ago about her initial comeback, she joked that she learned not to eat her favorite foods in the times around treatment. That nothing associated with those days can be thought of with any fondness.

[+] EnlargeLinz locker
Graham Hays, espnWHannah Linz's locker still looks inhabited, but she hasn't been able to come around all that often in recent weeks.

According to her mother's journal posts, there is a 66 percent rate of long-term remission for recurrent cases with her course of treatment, specifically stem cell transplant, a percentage that is in line with data from the National Cancer Institute. And while her basketball career is over, the percentages are in her favor that she will be able to graduate, to go into nursing, to have a career and a family. But no one so young should have to measure life in percentages.

All the more to have to make such calculations twice.

North Dakota State's senior day is scheduled for March 2, the return game against South Dakota State. It isn't clear if Linz will be able to attend, as it's dependent on the treatment schedule in advance of her stay at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota later that month for more aggressive chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant.

DeGagne will be recognized that night, but her mother, Colleen, who worked overnight shifts as an intensive care nurse so she would always be around to support her children in all their athletic exploits, will not be there to stand alongside her. The woman described by her daughter as someone who "loved red wine and loved having friends over" and who had a "contagious laugh" passed away on Jan. 28, 2011, after a long battle with breast cancer.

This is North Dakota State's world, one in which all the toughness and kindness in the world offers no protection from cancer. It is a harsher world than the one we like to construct around our games.

Yet three days after her mother passed away, and after she returned home to be with her family, DeGagne played in a game against Southern Utah that mattered not one bit to anyone not in the gym that night. She played because it's what she knew, what her mom knew and because basketball is, as she put it, her peace. So, too, Linz played hours after learning for certain that her cancer had returned. And so she sat on the bench with her teammates this past Saturday, her pink shirt and their pink uniforms not rote but poignantly powerful. Somehow when its clichés are stripped away and its powerlessness in the face of real adversity exposed, sport can provide more honest solace.

This is not the season Linz or any of her classmates envisioned, nor, surely, the experiences they thought would define their college careers.

"Coming in as a freshman you have all those dreams and hopes for what your college career will be," Birkel said. "I have to say it's been a great ride -- I can't really ask for much more. But you do put things in perspective, and you realize that, obviously, basketball's not the biggest thing in our life and there are all these other things going on around you. You have cancer, you have injuries, you have people's parents dying.

"I want to do the best that I can and finish out my career well, but I know there are a lot of bigger things in the world that are going on. I can put our not-great season in perspective and realize we're going to do what we can."

So, too, will Hannah Linz.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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