Hatchell continues road to recovery that will lead back to bench

Jan. 13, 2014 @ 10:24 PM

Sylvia Hatchell knocked on the windows of Tyler’s Taproom from the sidewalk, announcing her presence to the crowd of about 25 supporters well before she made her way through the entrance.

She entered the room to a standing ovation, shouting, “Nobody’s sick, right?” through her surgical mask. Her blonde wig came off when she pulled off her cap. “Where’s my hair?” she asked, before bowing down to the audience and showing off the down that has started to grow back on the top of her head.
The scene is vintage Hatchell – feisty, animated, vibrant. It’s exactly what many in the crowd were hoping to see from the Hall of Fame coach, who was diagnosed with leukemia three months ago and has stepped back from on-court coaching as she undergoes rounds of chemotherapy.
Hatchell said she’s now cancer-free – tests taken Jan. 3 showed she was in “complete molecular remission” – though she still has to go through two or three more consolidation treatments to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back.
Before she sat down to tape her 30-minute weekly radio show in front of the live audience last week, Hatchell said she had just finished 30 minutes on the treadmill.
“I’m so lucky because they caught it early and I’m in great shape,” said Hatchell, who works out with a trainer every day.
In fact, it was the feeling of fatigue that let Hatchell know she was sick, along with an annual physical conducted before Labor Day that showed her white blood cell count was low.
She took steroids to help get through September, which she called the busiest month she’s ever had. It included a span of six home recruiting visits in five days, speaking engagements and Nike clinics, and most notably, her induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“We were just ripping and roaring everywhere,” said Hatchell, who said she was home for just three days that month.
Still, her cell count remained low, and on a Friday in early October she went to the UNC Cancer Center for a bone marrow biopsy. After conducting a team practice that day, she received a call telling her she needed to come back Saturday. She wouldn’t leave the hospital again for another month.
“You talk about a tsumani hitting you,” Hatchell said.
But Hatchell had always told her players that their attitudes matter so much in life. Now it was her turn to put those words into action.
When her hair started falling out, she created a “shave my head party” and invited people in. First her sides were shaved so that she had a mohawk. Then the mohawk was shaved so that she had a rat’s tail. And when she was completely bald, she had the Tar Heel foot painted on her head and sent the pictures out over social media.
“There's times I get a little down, but 95 percent of the time I'm upbeat, ready to go,” Hatchell said.
She has also stayed active with her team, which is 14-3 and ranked No. 9 in the country.
While in the hospital, she would watch videos of practices on her iPad as soon as the sessions were completed, and spoke with interim coach Andrew Calder every day. Recently she has started coming into her office at Carmichael Arena a few times a week, and she has watched the past few games from a press level above the court.
Hatchell has also been able to deliver some of her trademark motivational talks to her team before games.
"She gave one of those $50,000 Pat Riley speeches to the team the other day,” Calder said. “Businesses pay $50,000 to hear speeches like that. It was a tremendous, unbelievable speech to the players about attitude, and this is the ACC season, how to approach each game."
Hatchell still hopes to join her team on the bench before the season ends.
“The whole process is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hatchell said. “But again my prognosis is really good; my doctors are excited. They just look at me and shake their heads, you know, 'You are just doing fantastic.’”