King battles cancer for playing time with Eagles
The game already was in the bag for N.C. Central when freshman guard Rashawn King finally stepped on the court against Utah Valley with just 54.7 seconds remaining in the game on Nov. 27.
“First action of the season, man,” NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said. “I wanted to get him in and get him a shot. We drew up something for him.”
King launched a 3-pointer.
It was an air ball.
While there wasn’t even a full minute on the clock when King got on the floor, it wasn’t about how long he got to play but that he actually was competing after spending the last couple of years playing the best defense of his life versus cancer.
“God — he does stuff for a reason,” King said.
Two summers ago, King was at a football camp at East Carolina University, where he was dropping footballs that he normally caught, not looking like the kind of guy who was supposed to make plays out of the backfield during the upcoming season for Middle Creek High School in Apex.
A teammate told King he didn’t look right, and his sluggish, swollen body and blurred vision were telling King the same thing.
So he went home to Raleigh and had his blood checked at Raleigh Pediatric Associates, where it was thought that the equipment was malfunctioning because King’s white blood-cell count was off-the-charts high.
King said he was sent to WakeMed Health & Hospitals to have his blood drawn one more time. The results were sent to UNC Hospitals, and then back to Raleigh Pediatric, where a doctor was crying when he reached King by phone.
It turned out that the machine didn’t need fixing — King did.
“All of this happened in one day,” King said.
Instead of competing for a starting job in Middle Creek’s backfield, King was fighting for his life.
Treating the disease
The doctor’s diagnosis was leukemia, which is blood cancer.
“He told me that if I would have never come in, I probably would have had one or two more days to live,” King said. “Days.”
All King knew about cancer was that it kills people, the way breast cancer took his grandmother and pancreatic cancer claimed his uncle.
“But you know, the funny thing about it is, about a week or two before that, I was having bad dreams about me dying and passing away,” King said. “I woke up, and I told my Mom and was like, ‘Ma, I don’t think I’m going to make it past 18.’ And she’s looking at me like, ‘You’re crazy.’
“And then that weekend, that’s when everything happened.”
Dr. Stuart Gold, the chief of UNC’s Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, told King that he would be fine, explaining that his physical fitness was the reason he hadn’t died.
Cancer still is in King’s body, but chemotherapy has the leukemia in remission.
The treatments took a toll on King, took his hair, sapped his strength. He takes close to 20 pills several times a week to counter the cancer.
“I’m feeling good, still doing chemotherapy once a month,” King said. “Actually, that ends Sept. 30, 2013, so I’ll be cancer-free then.”
Cancer caused King to miss his junior season of football at Middle Creek, but he returned as a third-string running back as a senior.
Football is his favorite sport, and he wanted to play in college but didn’t believe his body was ready for that sort of contact.
Dr. Louis Diehl, who specializes in hematological malignancies at Duke University School of Medicine, said a cancer patient receiving a hard blow common in contact sports could be more susceptible to internal bleeding. It just depends on the person’s platelet count, which impacts blood clotting in the human body.
Chemotherapy reduces the count of platelets, which are used to stop bleeding, Diehl said.
“Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells,” Diehl said.
Early rounds of strong chemotherapy are geared toward killing the major cancer cells, Diehl said, adding that some cancer cells will be resistant to treatment and require longer treatment programs.
Recruiting, in reverse
Basketball has a certain amount of contact, yet King was on the floor of NCCU’s McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium during the summer of 2011 when Middle Creek’s basketball squad was playing during a team camp.
Moton was in the gym and saw King, and the coach couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him.
“Because I knew the nuances pertaining to his situation,” Moton said. “I knew that the kid was having nightmares about dying.”
Moton, who is from Raleigh, knows King’s father. Moton’s wife goes to the beauty shop where King’s mother does hair, and he said he was coaching Amateur Athletic Union basketball in the same organization where King teamed with N.C. State freshman Rodney Purvis when they were 8 or 9 years old.
Moton said he thought so much of King as a football player and, quite frankly, as a tough-as-nails kid, that he figured NCCU football coach Henry Frazier III could use him.
“I actually put a bug in Frazier’s ear last year,” Moton said. “I said, ‘Look, man, you’re going to have a kid that can possibly come play football for you that’s overcome leukemia.”
But King had other plans.
“He knocked on the door and said, ‘I want to come play basketball at North Carolina Central,’” Moton said. “I never recruited him. He recruited North Carolina Central.”
King earned a walk-on spot on NCCU’s basketball team.
“It wasn’t a charity case,” Moton said. “My job is to not be the president of the United States. My job is to get the best basketball players I can get to help this program win.”
When healthy, King will give NCCU more depth at the wing position, Moton said.
Passing on lessons by example
King’s athleticism showed against Utah Valley.
Shortly after King shot that air ball, he found himself playing defense on the other end of the court near the baseline, where he soared to block out of bounds a shot by Utah Valley’s Will Sinclair.
Sinclair stands 6-8, but the 5-11 King made the play despite not even being in basketball shape and not having his timing down, Moton said.
“I had to find a way to recover myself from that air ball,” King said.
As impressive as that block was, King’s teammates and coaches have been more floored by who he is and what he represents.
“He’s a very strong individual, as far as what he’s been through,” NCCU guard Jeremy Ingram said. “So I just look at that as motivation to me to exploit the opportunity that I have at hand and just go hard every day like it’s my last.”
NCCU senior Ray Willis said there are times at practice when he and his teammates feel like they’re running on fumes.
“But then you look to your right, and there’s a kid who’ll give anything to be out there,” Willis said about King. “So we play for Rashawn. We play for people back home. We play for everybody that didn’t have the opportunities we have now.”
Point guard Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman said he was a senior at Raleigh Enloe when King was diagnosed with leukemia.
“To see him now on my team, it’s amazing,” Chapman said. “Every day, we look at him, and how can we take anything for granted? That kid’s been through a lot.”
Coaches are tasked with showing their players the finer points of playing ball, which tends to include life lessons, but Moton said King is the teacher when it comes to demonstrating what it really means to live.
“As a grown man, as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a brother, that’s wrong for me to go home because I’ve lost a basketball game and not be the father I need to be toward my daughter and not be the husband I need to be toward my wife,” Moton said. “Rashawn King has reminded me of what’s really important in life, because we get caught up in this rat race of society called winning and losing.”
NCCU over the weekend used two free throws apiece from both Willis and Stanton Kidd with less than 23 seconds left in the game against rival N.C. A&T to eke out a win on the road in a hostile gym.
Moton would tell you that Willis and Kidd felt less pressure at the foul line on account of the time they’ve spent with King.
“He’s redefined the word pressure,” Moton said. “I tell these guys, ‘Look, you can’t step up to the free-throw line saying this is some pressure. Nah, this is not pressure.’”
Moton said he was chilling over there on the bench, and King was responsible for that.
“I was relaxed during the game, more relaxed than I’ve ever been,” Moton said. “He brings a sense of normalcy to everyone involved. It relieves the pressure, because of those reasons.”
‘Getting back into life’
Diehl, the Duke doctor, marveled at King.
“If this young man is playing basketball while getting chemotherapy, my hat goes off to him, and I love to hear that,” Diehl said. “He’s getting back into life.”
To hear King tell it, his life may include football at NCCU.
“I’m actually going to try to walk on next year, see how it goes,” King said.
King, 20, said he has his moments when he asks himself why God directed him down his current path.
“I ask myself that every day, every morning,” King said. “I have my moments. Everybody has their moments.”
King had a shining moment when he changed his mind about his request that was to be granted by Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina.
Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, and the organization was going to send King to an NBA All-Star Game to fulfill his dream of meeting the Miami Heat’s LeBron James.
But King decided that his request was selfish and instead asked to have lunch served for everybody at Middle Creek to show his appreciation for all of the folks who prayed for him and otherwise offered support while he was battling for his life.
“I thought that was the most heroic thing ever,” Moton said. “After all he had been through, if anyone in the world deserved to be selfish, it was him.
“In all honesty, man, I’m not sure I would have done that. At 18, 19? At 38, I’m not sure I would have done that. You get a chance to meet your hero, and you decline that to feed a school that was there for you.”
But Moton knows people, including James, and he used his network to arrange for King to have an all-access pass at PNC Arena when James and the Heat played a preseason game there against the Charlotte Bobcats in October.
King didn’t know where he was headed that day when Moton told him to go for a ride with him.
“The kid is such a good kid, not once did he ask, ‘Where are we going?’” Moton said. “I could have kidnapped him and taken him to New York.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was at PNC Arena that evening, and Moton introduced him to King.
Moton said he previously had told Krzyzewski about King. Krzyzewski sent King some signed Olympics memorabilia, Moton said.
James gave King some memorabilia, too.
“He gave me the shoes he wore that night,” King said.
King said he hasn’t tried on those sneakers that James gave him.
“They’re too precious,” King said.
James also gave King some words of encouragement, along with a soulful handshake.
“On the way back, he told me, ‘Coach, you’re my hero,’” Moton said. “I went home and told my wife; I was like, ‘Tonight was the proudest moment of my coaching career ever, and I’ve had some great ones.'”
The coach didn’t draw it up that way, but it certainly counted.