Commentary

Taking a shot in the dark

Spurred by mom's cancer scare, CM hoops junkie finds new motivation in the gym

Updated: April 4, 2011, 11:22 PM ET
By Brendan Hall | ESPNBoston.com

WEST ROXBURY, Mass. -- This time a year ago, Betsy Cullen sat her 17-year-old son, Mike Slonina, down on the couch in the living room of their Watertown home, pulled out a piece of paper and drew a small dot. She was about to drop a haymaker on his psyche.

Cullen had been complaining of headaches, so she had some medical tests done just to make sure everything was OK. Everything was not.

The dot was the size of the tumor on her brain, and at the time doctors feared it was cancer. The only way to tell was with a biopsy, but the tumor was too deeply embedded. The good news was that it wasn't on the part of the brain where her memory is stored.

Cullen waited a month to draw the dot, just to make sure all the facts were straight, and then Slonina's heart sunk. This was his best friend, the woman who raised him and the only human he's ever lived with (a 10-year-old golden retriever, Oliver, is also part of their family).

He took a few deep breaths and reacted the only way this hoops junkie knows how to: He got in his car, drove to the Waltham YMCA and shot a basketball for four hours.

For him, the gymnasium is the ultimate peace of mind, the vehicle of relief for all the stress that was mounting both at home and in the hallways at Catholic Memorial School, where for the last four years he has been a manager for the basketball team.

More specifically, it was the gym at CM where he devoted almost all of his free time -- hanging out shooting baskets before school, free periods, lunch, and even weekends. Some days, he'll get up to 1,000 shots.

"That gym honestly is like heaven on earth for me," Slonina said last month, during a practice at CM. "So many hours I've spent with my iPod blaring, nobody around, nobody in the school for that matter. I take out all my frustration on the bottom of the net."

And that's when it hit him.

"Basketball has always been my escape," he said. "I mean, I've spent half my teenage life in that gym shooting, so it was just natural for me to be there anyway. And that's when I thought, how can I turn my negative situation into something positive? Then the idea was born, it just kinda came to me."

24-hour shoot-a-thon

The idea is to take that four-hour shoot-around at the Y and multiply it by six. Starting at noon on April 9, Slonina will attempt to shoot the basketball for 24 hours straight, with brief intervals in between, to raise funds for brain cancer research. Officially he has branded this benefit as "A Shot For Life"; he has set goals of 300 shots per hour and $30,000 raised, and he's enlisting help from a variety of sources to make sure he sees this thing through.

[+] EnlargeMike Slonina
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.com "Basketball has always been my escape," says Slonina, who will embark on his 24-hour shoot-a-thon starting at noon April 9.

Within the confines of Catholic Memorial, Slonina -- often nicknamed "Slo" or "Slowie" in the hallways -- has assembled a team of a half-dozen peers who help him train and accompany him to brainstorming sessions at Massachusetts General Hospital. Throughout his interview with ESPNBoston.com, he made repeated mention that without the help of his team -- Ian Cotterell, Brian Murphy, Christian Mowles, Elliot Simmons-Uvin, Terrick Cotterell, Dave Colarossi and Laroy Streat -- none of this would be possible.

For the last six months, the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Slonina's daily routine has gone something like this: Show up at school at 6:45 a.m. and shoot for an hour, bike and lift for a half-hour during lunch, take some more shots during free periods, help run practice, then get in a few more quickies before heading home. On weekends, the Knights would practice in the morning, and then head coach Dennis Tobin would roll out the gun and let Slonina go until 5 p.m.

At one point, Slonina was working so hard, he ran out of fat to burn off, so his nutritionist amped up his caloric intake to 3,000 a day. You'll often catch him sneaking in snacks during class, a granola bar here or a piece of fruit there.

You don't need a Ph.D. to know that this is all pretty crazy stuff that will test the limits of Slonina's mind and body. And he's well aware. The four different physicians he consulted with all told him he was crazy; one even feared he might start hallucinating from exhaustion.

His mother tried to talk him out of it, telling him to go out and enjoy his senior year, not spend the last six months of it training in a gym for something extreme like this.

"The thing is, when you get a cancer diagnosis you feel so outta control, and you can't stop it. I think this is his way of him taking control back," said Cullen, 53, a self-employed photographer and art consultant.

She added, laughing, "I just think it's crazy. He's so driven and committed to it, I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that for 24 hours."

His peers at school admit they couldn't do it.

"Wow, I was shocked," says senior Matt Goreham, a forward on the basketball team who is committed to Northeastern University to play baseball. "I know there's no record for it yet, but 24 hours of shooting [is] gonna be rigorous. I'm looking forward to watching and rooting for him the whole time.

"It would have to be real personal for me to pull off something like this, which is why I think Mike can do it, because it's obviously deeply personal to him," Goreham added.

Said junior Armani Reeves, a guard for the Knights and an ESPN Boston all-state selection in football last fall, "What he's doing, it's just remarkable. He lifts, he shoots as much as anybody does. He shoots more than kids on the basketball team, to be honest. Just watching him shoot and try to make all his shots, it's really his life, he really loves playing it.

"Not many people, if they couldn't play, would just shoot for hours just for fun. That's what makes him such a great guy. When you see a kid like him do things like this, it inspires you to work that much harder at the things you do," said Reeves.

Hoops career cut short

During warm-ups at the Knights' gymnasium, it was Slonina's duty to get up behind the stage at the far end and hit the music. Then he would stay behind the stage until tipoff, not even looking back at the layup lines. It was often too much to bear.

Six years ago, when he was a seventh-grader, Slonina saw his playing career come to a screeching halt just two games into his first season on the middle school team. He remembers the team (Brown Middle School of Newton), the move (a ball fake and a drop step), and the horrible luck of it all, landing awkwardly on an opponent's foot on the way down.

Initially the injury was misdiagnosed as a sprained left ankle, but the swelling didn't go down. For three years, Slonina and his mother tried every doctor they could before seeing Dr. Michael Miller, chiropractic physician for the New England Patriots for the past three decades. As it turned out, the bone had been sitting on a nerve the whole time; Miller moved the ankle, and within seven hours the swelling had gone down.

But by then, it was too late. That was as good as the ankle was going to get, and it wasn't much good. To this day, Slonina says he can make it only one or two sprints up and down the floor before the swelling starts again.

It was a tough pill to swallow for a kid whose mother considers him "scary obsessed" with basketball. Going back to biddy league at the Boys and Girls Club of Arlington, Slonina would go home and immediately replay the game in his head, and out loud, analyzing the little details of what he could have done better.

Heck, this is a kid who keeps his fingernails long because he heard Reggie Miller did it to give himself that extra half-touch on the backspin.

He lives and dies CM basketball. The day after games, we'll sit down and talk for half an hour about the game, what went well and what didn't go well.

-- Catholic Memorial varsity basketball coach Dennis Tobin, on Mike Slonina

"I'd tell him, 'Mike, it's just a game you play for fun,'" Cullen recalled. "And he said, 'You don't play for fun, you play to win.' It was just, oh my god, and this is in first or second grade. I remember going home and saying to my sister, 'What am I gonna do with this kid?'"

It's not easy telling a kid like Slonina he has to settle for vicarious experience the rest of his life. Don't even get him started on the game that ended the Knights' season this year, a 56-53 heartbreaker to visiting archrival Boston College High in the Division 1 South quarterfinals.

"He lives and dies CM basketball," Tobin said. "The day after games, we'll sit down and talk for half an hour about the game, what went well and what didn't go well … we still haven't talked yet about the BC High loss. I think he knows that's a sore subject."

Normally, Tobin doesn't deploy a freshman as his varsity manager. But he couldn't get over the passion and enthusiasm Slonina showed for the game, and so he put the freshman at the end of the bench for the Knights' Division 2 state championship season of 2007-08.

From there, things have only flourished. When there is an odd number of players in practice, Slonina steps in for the Knights' free throw drill at the end of practices, in which the loser ends up running suicides. Teammates despised going up against him, because it almost always spelled a loss -- he's lost just four times in four years, and at that Tobin marvels, "I'm surprised he's even lost four."

When Tobin needed someone to coach the Knights squad last summer in the Brookline Summer League, he tapped Slonina to run the team, well aware of the rarity of seeing a high school senior who's never played a minute of high school ball coaching his peers on the varsity. But there was Slonina, running the team as if he were running the Celtics -- making in-game adjustments, working the officials, barking at players to show more hustle, sticking around to scout the other teams, then calling up Tobin to rack his brain about matchups, combinations and everything in between.

Slowie will be back at it again this summer.

"You could see what a junkie he is," Tobin said. "[At CM] it progressed to the point where he was like an assistant coach. At halftime he hands me stats, he's not afraid to say, 'Maybe we should do this.' He really is like a member of the staff now, as opposed to a manager."

Tobin, too, is stymied by the inability to throw Slonina into the game at any point, be it garbage time in blowouts or even a brief start on senior night. "It's very frustrating," he said. At one point, Tobin kicked around the idea of dressing Slonina in case a free throw shooter is needed after a technical foul at the end of the game. But he also played the scenario in his head of Slonina coming in cold and missing those free throws -- "And knowing the way he is, that'd bother him the rest of his life," he said.

So instead, Slonina settled for sitting on the bench in warm-up gear for four years, though Tobin has done everything in his power to make it feel like anything but.

"It's most disappointing," Tobin said. "Here's someone who could not love the game of basketball any more, just loves it so much. And to not be able to play in a game, which would be a dream come true for him."

Said Slonina, "I can't say I can step in right now and reach the potential I think I had, I'm just saying had I never got hurt … But it's been very frustrating. But I'm gonna remember that in Hour 15 when I can barely lift my arms. I mean, I'm gonna remember all those times how bad it felt."

Not sure what to expect

When he's out there by himself, Slonina often likes to run the length of the court down and back, visualizing fans in the crowd screaming for him as he pulls up for a 3-pointer in mythical transition. Once again, it's another valve of stress relief. "Maybe it's just simple-mindedness, but watching the ball go into the basket is just, like, perfect to me," he said with a laugh.

[+] EnlargeMike Slonia
Brendan Hall for ESPN.com"I swear to God, I swear to anybody, I won't quit these 24 hours, no matter what happens, no matter how tired I get," said Slonina.

Lately, Slonina has been envisioning what it will be like to shoot hoops for 24 hours, and how fatigued he expects to be in the middle of this endeavor. "I promise you, I could not put into words how much this means to me," he said. "I got four hours sleep last night just thinking about it. I don't sleep much."

After shooting in front of empty gyms his whole life, Slonina said he anticipates being rattled at first by the crowd watching him, and all of the volunteers underneath the rims who will be rebounding. In addition, the intense training has taken a toll on Slonina's body these last few weeks. "I was in better shape a month ago," he admitted.

Since the age of 12, Slonina has had a nagging tear in his right elbow, suffered during a Little League game, that has now turned into tendinitis that has forced him to put down the weights and pick up resistance bands. On top of that, and the nerve damage in his left ankle, he has Plica syndrome in his right knee; three toes on the left foot that keep dislocating; and lower-back issues -- "but really, that's just on days when I'm shooting bombs," he says.

None of that's going to stop him, he says, from bulldozing forward on this mission to wear himself out. If anything, the plan is to push himself over the limit in those four-hour sessions alone in the gym, trying to simulate how he'll feel during the shoot-a-thon.

"I swear to God, I swear to anybody, I won't quit these 24 hours, no matter what happens, no matter how tired I get," he said. "If I break my right wrist, I'll start shooting lefty. I'll do whatever I have to do, to get these hours done.

"The way I look at it, brain cancer patients, they don't get to take a couple minutes off. They don't get to take a minute off from being sick. I mean really, this is being done for them."

The best part of all

On March 8, Cullen got the best news she's gotten since that fateful day on the couch with her son. That little dot on her brain, it turns out, has not grown and apparently isn't cancer. Doctors told her it could be a lesion from an old infection, and is not life-threatening.

Which means a great weight has been lifted off many shoulders. And a whole new meaning has been brought to Slonina's mission.

"For her peace of mind, I'm very happy," he said last week. "I've lived with my mother since I was an infant, I can read her body language well. She kept saying she wasn't nervous, but I could tell she was totally scared."

So what about his peace of mind, the one so often found in the bottom of the net?

"It makes everything more fun," he said. "It makes 'A Shot For Life' more fun. It just makes everything easier. It's one more thing I don't have to think about.

"It's like, almost like it took awhile to process that she had a brain tumor, now it's going to take awhile to process that she doesn't. It's obviously made me and the rest of my family very happy. Everyone's very, very happy about the news."

For information about making donations, contact Mike Slonina at mikeslonina@yahoo.com.

Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com. Email him at bhall@espnboston.com or follow him on Twitter at @BHallESPN.

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