The smile is what grabs you -- that, and the not-a-worry-in-the-world expression on Dylan Witschen's face. He breaks you down like a gifted ball-handler in the open court, beats you to the grin and does it with a sparkle in his eyes.
Stan Love got a glimpse of Dylan's gift in the Minnesota Timberwolves' locker room after a game in November, when his son Kevin invited Dylan, his family and friends for a little behind-the-scenes access. Stan Love is the emotional sort, so he kept his distance -- let his son do the talking and the socializing. And believe me, there was plenty of both, because that is what Dylan spreads wherever he goes.
|'It's pretty special to me,' T-Wolves forward Kevin Love says of his friendship with Dylan Witschen. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
Dylan and Kevin Love met through Love's participation in charity events benefiting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which provides financial support, care and research to families touched by pediatric cancer. Dylan's journey began in August 2008, when he went numb and had a seizure after making a tackle during a practice with his freshman football team at Anoka High School, about 25 miles north of Minneapolis. Tests revealed the kind of news that any family would dread. Dylan didn't have a concussion or a stinger. He had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.
St. Jude is that rare place that spreads hope to a family facing the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. With $1.5 million in daily operating expenses funded mostly through public donations, St. Jude never turns a family away for lack of ability to pay. As an employee of Target, one of St. Jude's corporate partners, Dylan's mom, Debbie, was familiar with the hospital's generosity and success.
"St. Jude is part of him now," said Dylan's aunt, Denise Webster. "It will always hold a special place in his heart."
And so that is where Dylan chose to go, to Memphis, to undergo seven months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments between September 2008 and April '09.
"He did not want to watch his family and friends see him go through this," Denise said. "He wanted to leave as Dylan and come back as Dylan. He didn't want anybody to see him sick."
Around that time, Love was navigating his rookie season with the T-Wolves. When he was approached about raising money for St. Jude with other rookies as part of the "Rookie Relief" program, he went from "why not?" to "all in" faster than he could launch an outlet pass from beneath his basket. Love was looking for a way to use his platform as an NBA player to help people, to make their lives better. In Dylan, he met someone much better at that than he ever imagined.
"It just reminds you to enjoy life, because at any time things can turn against you," Love said. "Being able to put my hands on the whole thing and develop a relationship with a kid who's been through it all, it's pretty special to me. It makes me kind of hold everything closer."
NBA players' involvement with St. Jude has progressed from a relationship with the Las Vegas Summer League, to the "Rookie Relief" program Love joined in 2008, to this week's charitable triumph -- Hoops for St. Jude Week. From March 1-7, Love, five other players and Nuggets coach George Karl raise awareness about the Memphis-based hospital's efforts to help young cancer patients and their families.
Love, the first NBA player to sign on with St. Jude, has been joined by Pau Gasol, Shane Battier, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay, Steve Blake and Karl -- the Denver coach touched profoundly and publicly by cancer. Each player has pledged to donate money for every basket he makes this season with a minimum pledge of $20,000 apiece. Coaches throughout the league are wearing Hoops for St. Jude lapel pins this week, and autographed jerseys from superstars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and others are being auctioned on eBay to raise more money for the cause. Bids are being taken through Sunday.
Coaches and gym teachers on the grassroots level can organize fundraisers in their own communities, and anyone can make a donation online in honor of a friend or family member.
The hope is that more players and coaches will become involved, with the unspoken goal being to someday match the scope and success of the most famous basketball-related cancer charity, the Jimmy V Foundation honoring late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano.
"The goal is to have our sport of basketball unite from the highest level of basketball, NBA All-Stars, down to the beginning level of basketball," said Tom Penn, the assistant general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers who is on St. Jude's board of directors.
The idea to merge basketball and St. Jude was hatched when agent Warren LeGarie and co-organizer Albert Hall began searching for a charitable partner for the Las Vegas Summer League. At a dinner attended by league executives and coaches in 2008, Karl got up and spoke passionately about St. Jude's mission and his own family's experience with cancer. In 2005, Karl had prostate cancer surgery, and it was recently revealed that the disease has recurred in his neck and throat. His son, Coby, now with the D-League's Idaho Stampede, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006.
The summer league dinner featured a 10-year-old brain cancer survivor from Las Vegas who was receiving fully paid, cutting-edge treatments at St. Jude. Tears flowed faster than these hardened basketball men could dab them from their eyes.
"That hit us all right in the heart," said Penn, who helped grow the initial charity dinner and jersey auction into the current Hoops for St. Jude concept.
They say everyone has either been touched by cancer or knows someone who has been, and that holds true in this tiny basketball circle involved in fighting the disease. Stan Love lost his mother to breast cancer when she was 59. One of his sisters died of ovarian cancer at age 50, and another sister is a breast cancer survivor.
When he isn't scouting or managing the Blazers' salary cap, Penn doubles as a borderline fanatical adversary to cancer. He officially became involved with the hospital when he was the assistant GM of the Memphis Grizzlies from 2000-07, but his connection to the organization goes back generations.
When St. Jude founder Danny Thomas was touring the country seeking donations from the Lebanese community to start his hospital, one of the people he hit up was a guy in Peoria, Ill., named Harry LaHood. Like Thomas, LaHood happened to be Lebanese. He also was Penn's grandfather.
"Grandpa Harry was there during the initial time when Danny came to town," Penn said.
Since St. Jude opened its doors in Memphis in 1962, the cure rates for many forms of pediatric cancer have gone from the single digits into the 80- and 90-percent realm. Those numbers give hope to thousands of families, yet stand in cruel contrast to those who can't be cured.
Dylan mentions little about what he's going through in his frequent e-mails to Love -- as if trying to protect him the way he protected his family and friends. Instead, he tells stories about his "Make a Wish" trip to Hawaii in December, a snowboarding outing funded by Love's family, and a trek to California complete with backstage passes to meet Bon Jovi. When Love fell just shy of a triple-double recently, Dylan wrote that he wanted a quadruple-double next time.
"I try to tell him that it's going to be tough with the blocks because I'm kind of, uh, vertically challenged," Love said. "We have our fun with that."
Snapshots on Dylan's Shutterfly page show a beaming, healthy-looking teenager decked out in a tux for a recent school dance. In another photo, Dylan shows off the St. Jude "praying hands" logo that is tattooed on his upper arm.
When he was invited to the Timberwolves locker room after that game in November, no one could've imagined the new burden he was bearing. A few weeks earlier, Dylan had begun experiencing seizures again. After all those months of radiation and chemo had eradicated the original brain tumor, Dylan's doctors had to tell him the bad news: Another one had formed. Cancer survivors demand honesty, and Dylan received it in the form of the following words: Inoperable. Incurable.
Families like the Witschens keep fighting as hard as they can -- in this case, with a huge assist from a plucky 16-year-old who refuses to stop smiling. He loves sports, and always wanted to play in the NFL someday, wearing his lucky No. 7. The local jersey shop in Anoka must've had its best day of the year outfitting the whole family with No. 7 jerseys for a "Give Thanks Walk" that coincided with Dylan's birthday in November. Look closely, and you can also find that number scrawled on the side of Love's game shoes every night.
"He told us, 'I accept what God has given me. I just don't understand it,'" Denise said. "He said, 'I want to change people's lives. I want to make a difference in people's lives.' And he truly has."