Commentary

Coble chooses mother's fight against breast cancer over basketball

Originally Published: December 4, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The plaque Kevin Coble recently gave to his mother, Carlys, says: "Over the years, she changed in my eyes, only from being the best mom in the world to being one of the most amazing women I have ever met."

"It brings tears to my eyes every time I think of those words," Carlys Coble said.

Kevin Coble recently turned 20. But he's hardly a young adult. He's had to make decisions that a carefree college sophomore usually doesn't have to face. And he's proven to his mother that he feels every bit of that sentiment on the plaque.

L-R Randy Coble, Carlys Coble, Kevin Coble.
Courtesy of Kevin CobleSophomore Kevin Coble chose to leave Northwestern this semester and stay with his mother through her chemotherapy treatments.

After becoming the first freshman ever to lead Northwestern in scoring and rebounding and being named to the all-Big Ten freshman team last season, Kevin walked away from the Wildcats. He's back living with his parents, Randy and Carlys, in their home in Phoenix. Instead of competing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, he's watching it on television from thousands of miles away.

It has not been easy, but it's a decision he was more than happy to make and one that Northwestern coach Bill Carmody supports.

In July, Carlys Coble was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, which had entered her lymph nodes. She's been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and Kevin has been by her side since the initial diagnosis.

"He and his family are very close, and he's especially close with his mom," Carmody said. "I don't think she missed a single game last season. She was even in Puerto Rico when we played.

"He's a special kid and he thinks of other people first. He realizes that basketball is very important to him but this is his priority No. 1. He left no doubt that that is it."

Kevin will be home with his mother for a few more weeks. Carlys has three more chemotherapy treatments, the next one starting Thursday. There will be one more in the Phoenix-area on Dec. 27. After that, the plan is for Carlys and Kevin to move to Evanston, Ill., so Kevin can return to the Wildcats. Carlys' sixth and final treatment is scheduled for Jan. 17 in the Chicago area.

And Carlys is determined to be sitting in the stands, watching Kevin in the Big Ten opener on Jan. 2, when Northwestern plays Penn State.

"I can handle one last treatment up there now that I know what to expect," said Carlys, 52. "That's the light at the end of the tunnel.

"One of the wonderful things in life is watching Kevin play basketball. I love all those kids [on NU]. That's my golden ring to grab for."

Once she is through with chemotherapy, Carlys will go through a round of radiation treatment. Carlys said her prognosis is good, because the cancer was found early.

Still, Carlys' doctors were more than a little surprised when she told them her last treatment had to be in Chicago, so her son could play in a basketball game.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/Brian KerseyNorthwestern coach Bill Carmody's team has struggled without Coble, last season's leading scorer and rebounder.

"They thought I had two heads," Carlys said. "I told them I wanted to be there for the Penn State game. They were just shaking their heads. I'm so proud of Kevin, I just love him to death."

That's because Kevin didn't hesitate when he made his decision.

Kevin Coble stood in a Phoenix-area hospital hallway in July when the doctor told him about Carlys' condition even before she knew. Right then, nothing else mattered, certainly not his basketball career.

Kevin watched as his mother had a lumpectomy at the end of July. An infection delayed her first chemotherapy treatment until September. And when Kevin saw Carlys' reaction to the first round of treatment, how it made her violently ill, he made his decision to temporarily leave the Northwestern team. He had to stay home. The family's only child had no other choice but to be with his mother.

Carlys spent Kevin's childhood taking care of him and going to as many of his basketball games as possible. So naturally, when the roles were reversed, Kevin didn't flinch.

"It's something I view as necessary and sort of a real simple decision," Kevin said. "It's been hard, very, very hard. There's nothing that makes the pain or the realization go away. It's always there. There's no escape from it. I might get away from it by playing basketball, working out or doing school, but it's a recurring theme that this is real and happening and I have had to come to terms with that every day. To see my mom hurt like that is very difficult."

Carlys said she wasn't surprised by Kevin's decision.

"The first thing out of his mouth was, 'I'm not leaving you Mom,' and that was that," Carlys said.

Carlys said she feels fine in the days leading up to each treatment, which she gets once every three weeks. But after the treatment, she said she feels "worse than I've ever felt, and I'm a healthy person."

That's when Kevin becomes a home health aid. His father, Randy, is a financial planner and has a fluid schedule, so he is able to be at the treatments as well. But when Randy is working, Kevin is the primary care giver to Carlys at home. He makes sure she takes her medication. He cooks for her. He provides emotional support.

"He talks me through it, at my bedside, and is there to say, 'Mom, you'll be OK,'" Carlys said.

The two often pray together, too. Kevin went to Scottsdale Christian High and his mother's Christian faith has been a mainstay in their battle against cancer.

And Carlys' support group is expanding. She said she has been impressed by the outpouring of support from the Northwestern community, from school president Henry Bienen down through to the athletic department. She said she has received notification cards from donations made in her name for breast cancer research from countless people she doesn't know.

Carmody even had his sister, Suzanne, the director of physician referral services at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, contact the Cobles. Carmody said he knew Suzanne could talk about cancer in a way he couldn't.

But the support also had to trickle down to Kevin. To pull this off, to stay eligible to return in January, Coble had to still take classes. So he talked to Bienen and multiple advisers and professors to figure out a way. He signed up for three courses: statistics, Swahili and adulthood and aging from the social policy department.

Coble talks to his professor on the phone to work with the Swahili pronunciation. He takes exams at the same time his classmates take them at Northwestern, but he does it at his high school. He goes online to get notes posted by the professors from their respective lectures. He e-mails professors if he has a question about anything.

[+] EnlargeKevin Coble
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast season, Kevin Coble became the first Northwestern freshman to lead the team in scoring and rebounding.

Coble squeezes in his studies during his mother's treatment period when she naps. His dedication to academics is par for the course, since he was a 4.0 student in high school.

His workout regimen is just as structured as his academics. He works out at a health club in Phoenix with some of the same folks who train NBA products Richard Jefferson and Mike Bibby. He also works out with his former high school.

"I'm doing as much as possible to make this work," Kevin said.

Last week, Coble went back to Evanston for three days to meet with his professors and go through a workout with Carmody.

To Carmody, the 6-foot-8 Coble is a true ballplayer, someone who can find a way to score and fit in quite well in Northwestern's Princeton offense. Last season, he averaged 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds and shot 38.8 percent from 3-point range. He was the most obscure name on the Big Ten's all-freshman team that included Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Raymar Morgan and Tyler Smith.

He may not be in midseason form just yet, but he will be a welcome addition to the Wildcats.

"He looks good," Carmody said. "I don't think he's in the shape he has to be in yet, but he's shooting the ball and it won't take him too long."

But Carmody said Coble's emotional state after being thrown back into the Big Ten will be hard to gauge.

To say the Wildcats have struggled this season would be an understatement. Northwestern was 3-4 through Monday, losing by 11 to Stanford, by one at DePaul, by six to Brown and by 42 at Virginia. The only wins so far were over Benedictine, Savannah State and Arkansas State. A road trip to Western Michigan on Saturday won't be easy, considering the Broncos recently beat Davidson. A game against Howard is on the slate before the Big Ten opener against the Nittany Lions.

Coble said watching his teammates struggle has been difficult, but his teammates constantly e-mail him to check on his mom.

And he said no one has put any pressure on him to get back on the court.

"And that was really cool, so I didn't have to worry about it or feel the pressure of letting them down," Coble said. "There's been none of that."

So if everything goes as planned, Coble will be back in Evanston by New Year's, practicing with his teammates and on the court for the Big Ten season with his mother -- and probably his father -- in the stands. They will return to the family condo in Evanston, where his mother said they're used to tight quarters and will have no problem dealing with her final treatment and his intense school/basketball life.

"Anything at this stage is a piece of cake," Carlys said. "Thanks to the early detection, the incredible medical care, I feel great. I have my [bad] days. However, more of them are behind me than ahead."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com