By Eric Crawford and Danielle Lama
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Patrick McSweeney can barely remember a time when he didn't have cancer. He and his family found out that he suffers from leukemia when he was five years old in 2004, and over the next 10 years he has fought off the disease four times.
In and out of remission, in and out of hospitals, and during the periods in between, trying to build a regular life. That has been the cycle for the 15-year-old St. Xavier junior. During a relapse two years ago, he filled out a card from a group called Team Impact, which pairs seriously ill young people with college athletic teams. He chose Bellarmine as his school, because it was close to home, and he chose basketball as his sport.
When that request reached the desk of Bellarmine basketball coach Scott Davenport, well, if you know Davenport, you can only imagine how it was received.
Or maybe you can't. Since that day, McSweeney has become a regular at Knights Hall. He was there for some games last season, got to know many of the players, and even has his own locker in the Bellarmine locker room.
"Look at all the great programs we have in this area -- Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana," Davenport said. "That he picked us was special."
But Davenport had another dream for McSweeney that he didn't talk about. On Sunday, when Bellarmine's starting lineup is introduced in the KFC Yum! Center before it faces the University of Louisville at 12:30, you'll see what Davenport has been up to all summer.
He petitioned the NCAA, spoke to U of L coach Rick Pitino, stayed in contact with the compliance offices at his own school and U of L and got permission from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Wednesday morning, he got word that McSweeney would be allowed to suit up for the Knights in their game against Louisville.
He gave the word to McSweeney's parents that morning, and they told him he could deliver the news himself to Patrick Wednesday night.
He showed up at the door with his son Doug, video coordinator in U of L's program, a shoebox and a pair of Bellarmine's adidas shoes in hand. Let Patrick pick up the story from there.
“I was in my room and it was 8:30 at night when my dad came to my door and said I had a visitor,” McSweeney told WDRB's Danielle Lama in an interview Thursday night. “I was completely confused because I had no idea why anybody would be visiting at 8:30 in the evening. So I walked down and coach Davenport is waiting there with a little shoebox in his hands, and he has his son with him, and they started talking to me a little about how these are the same shoes that the whole team wears, and started talking about the big game that was coming up, and since Louisville had a better season last year Bellarmine got the first pick draft rights, so he said, you're our first pick.”
At first, Patrick wasn't sure what that meant.
“When I heard that I was just extremely excited at that point. I thought, 'Oh wow, I'm going to get to sit on the bench. I'm going to get to talk to the players.' I've talked to them a lot from last season, I went to a few of their games. But sitting on the bench with them, and getting to wish them good luck, to me was just an exciting thought.”
Then Davenport sprung a surprise.
“He also said, ‘You're going to be in on the first play.' And I was just speechless. At first I was just laughing with it, thinking he was joking, but he stayed straight-faced and said, ‘What are you laughing about? I'm being completely serious.' And so I just stared at him. Like, really, the very first play I'm actually going to be playing in the Yum! Center against Louisville, my favorite college basketball team, with Bellarmine. To me, like I said, I couldn't even believe him. I was speechless.”
Davenport said it was a special moment for him.
“It's one of the greatest things I've ever done,” he said. “On or off the court. He was stunned. Doug represented their staff. He just kept saying, ‘You're serious?'”
Davenport had been thinking about the gesture for a while, and began working on it at the beginning of the summer, long before anyone had heard of Lauren Hill, the Cincinnati girl with an inoperable brain tumor whose baskets for Division III Mount St. Joseph's College inspired the nation this past week.
Davenport's gesture for McSweeney has drawn similar national interest. Dana O'Neil wrote about it for
, and outlets from around the nation already have asked WDRB for video of an interview with McSweeney, or of his appearance in Sunday's game.
“We said, if we're going to do this, we're all in,” Davenport said of getting McSweeey involved in the program. “If we get a T-shirt, he gets one. He has a locker in our locker room. . . . The actual idea for the game was born this past summer. He came to our basketball camp, good little player, and we started brainstorming on whether we could do anything special. But it took a lot of work from both universities, both presidents, both athletic directors, both compliance offices, the Great Lakes Valley Conference, the NCAA.
“Thankfully, everything fell into place. I met with Coach (Rick) Pitino eight weeks ago, and he said, in his own way, if you ever ask me anything this stupid again, you'll see a side of me you've never seen. You know I want to do this. And we went forward from there.”
The experience comes at a good time for McSweeney, who will head back to Philadelphia next week for two weeks of bone marrow and T-cell treatment. He got some disconcerting news this week when doctors told him they couldn't find any trace of T-cells that had been previously implanted. The news had an upside — they couldn't find any cancer cells either. Nonetheless, he'll go to Philadelphia for more treatment right after the game on Sunday. The family was going to drive up right after the game, but when Pitino found out they were facing that trip, he offered to pay for the family to fly up, and for their transportation and hotel while there.
McSweeney talks calmly about his disease and the treatment he's now receiving, which is relatively new. He calls his condition right now “pretty good,” noting he's able to go to class at St. X, and other things that a regular high school kid can do. But it hasn't always been that way. He's been very sick, and knows well the ravages that chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can bring. He said he's optimistic about his next round of treatment.
“They're going to perform a bone marrow tap and going to give me a few more T-cells, because they keep extra,” he said. “. . . I relapsed for the first time at the age of 10. Then I relapsed again at the age of 13, and then my most recent relapse was this past March, when I was 14.”
Davenport said this gesture is to give help and hope to a young man who could use it. But it's also a benefit for his players to be involved.
“What I told our players, this is life's lesson,” Davenport said. “Our players may have to take care of a parent, or a son or daughter or grandparent. So this is life, it's really what sports or coaching is. We talked about it right in that locker room, and that was one of the toughest locker rooms I've ever been in. These kids love him and they've talked to him, coached him. And they're thrilled.”
McSweeney started playing basketball and soccer while a student at St. Margaret Mary school. He said he likes those sports because of the constant movement. Many fans use sports to escape from real life. McSweeney said he uses them to escape from a reality far more serious than most of us face.
“Really, almost anything, not in the hospital, I consider to be an escape,” he said. “Whether it's going to school or playing X-box with my brothers or playing basketball. Just not thinking about it is kind of an escape. Because if I'm not thinking about it I'm not worrying about it and if I'm not worrying about it then I can do just regular things and lead a regular life.”
On Sunday at the KFC Yum! Center, he'll do something extraordinary, and Davenport says he expects it to be an extraordinary moment.
“I hope here's not an empty seat in the place,” he said. “It'll be a great day for him, and for this community.”
Said McSweeney: “I just want to make the most of it and have fun with it.”
Copyright 2014 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.