Commentary

Davis enjoying a second chance after battle with cancer

Originally Published: December 5, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

He misses Chinese food.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Davis
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziKelvin Davis has returned to the court for San Diego State after receiving treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Kelvin Davis is living with cancer, playing basketball with a port in his chest where the nauseating chemotherapy medications once entered his body, and sitting through 30 minutes of radiation every day before dashing to the San Diego State campus in hopes of participating in even a few minutes of practice.

He brushes all that off with the attitude of someone battling a pesky hangnail.

But not being able to eat Chinese food? That really gets him.

"Just the smell of it, it turns my stomach," the Aztecs senior said. "I'm an East Coast guy. Of course I love Chinese food. I hate that I can't eat it."

There is no blueprint for how to react when a doctor tells a patient he has cancer. Davis could be writing one. Whatever punch to the gut the initial diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma might have been, it has been beaten into submission -- and the cancer into remission -- by Davis' determination and spirit.

His port still needs to be cleaned monthly, and while the radiation treatments haven't even ended yet, Kelvin Davis has played in six of the Aztecs' first seven games.

"He never complains, never," said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. "He's never once said 'Why me?' I can't believe it, really. It's amazing to me. He just stayed with it and battled the whole time."

Last season, Davis arrived in San Diego at the end of a circuitous path that took him from his Connecticut home to UTEP to the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college, before finally hitting the opposite coast and his most recent stop. A long-range shooter who can score points in bunches, Davis was exactly what Fisher thought his program was lacking.

Through the Aztecs' first 15 games, Davis hit double figures 10 times, averaging 11.5 points per game out of the gate. The 3-point threat also delivered from the arc, where he was knocking down 46 percent of his attempts.

And then it all stopped.

San Diego State played 17 more games, but Davis scored in double figures only once. He went scoreless five times, his numbers tumbling to just 4.2 points per game.

I didn't think this could happen to me. Who does? But it did happen to me. The doctors told me the people who have a good attitude do really well. The ones who make excuses or feel sorry for themselves struggle. To me, this isn't that bad. Life knocked me down, but I got back up. I'm still here, still playing basketball.

--Kelvin Davis

More curiously, his minutes started dwindling as the fatigued Davis kept motioning to Fisher for a breather. Fearful he'd lose playing time altogether, Davis didn't say anything to Fisher or the team's medical staff about the weariness that made him feel as if he was running underwater or about the rapidly expanding growth on his neck.

By season's end, Davis was sapped. More frightening, the growth on his neck was now so large Davis literally couldn't turn his head to the left.

Suspecting a nasty bout of mononucleosis, the team sent him to the hospital for testing, which showed an abnormally high white blood cell count. As a precaution, doctors biopsied the growth on his neck.

"I still wasn't thinking anything," Davis said. "I never even thought about cancer."

By the time the doctors had their diagnosis, Davis had pneumonia, a complication from the biopsy that kept him in the hospital a week. He was so preoccupied with trying to breathe and frightened by the blood he was coughing up, he didn't even have time to process the news that he had cancer.

Davis called his mother, Doris, who scrambled for a cross-country flight that felt endless.

"Oh, it was a long flight," Doris said. "I was worried about him, but the doctors did ease my mind."

Hodgkin's lymphoma (or Hodgkin's disease) has an 86 percent survival rate and is considered one of the most curable forms of cancer. Because of the size of the lump on Davis' neck, doctors decided chemo and radiation would better remove all the cancerous cells than surgery. So, months after his basketball season ended, Davis had his first of a series of 12 chemo treatments.

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It was exactly the hell he'd heard about: an endless run of nausea triggered by even the most common foods. Onions turned his stomach; even certain drinks made him gag.

Exhausted, sick and dropping weight, Davis still insisted on playing summer pickup games with his teammates when he felt up to it.

The chemo ended in September, followed in short order by a 17-day stretch of radiation. Those treatments aren't nearly as debilitating as the chemo, but they did sap Davis' energy.

When the Aztecs started individual workouts in September, Davis was so tired he just lay down on the ground.

"The other night we practiced from 3:45 to 5:45 and Kelvin came running in at 5 o'clock," Fisher said. "The doctors told me to make sure we keep an eye on him, but also to let Kelvin read his own body. He wants to be treated as if he's healthy, so it's very important we don't tell him no."

Davis didn't have to play this year. Though he used up his redshirt season as a sophomore at UTEP, he could have applied for a medical-hardship waiver. Technically the option is still on the table. Under NCAA rules, players can no longer redshirt after they appear in 20 percent of a team's regular-season games.

But Davis needs basketball. It's the carrot that keeps him going; the motivator that got him through the long days strapped to a chair as poison seeped into his body.

"If he had to give up basketball, he wouldn't be like he is now," his mother said. "Basketball keeps him going."

So Davis plans on playing this year. He doesn't know what that will equate to, nor does Fisher. Davis still tires quickly, unable to play for more than a few minutes straight without a breather. He has missed one game in its entirety. His most productive night came against Fresno State, a 17-minute, 9-point, 5-rebound effort in the Aztecs' win.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Davis
AP Photo/Denis PoroyDavis has appeared in all but one game so far this season for the 6-1 Aztecs.
Fisher is every bit as anxious that Davis return to form. San Diego State has been without senior Lorenzo Wade. Wade, the Aztecs' leading scorer and All-Mountain West performer, had been suspended since October after being charged with stealing a television from a woman's home. Those charges were recently dropped, and Wade is set to return to the Aztecs at some point this season.

"Kelvin brings us what we lack right now: the ability to rein in some long-range shots and score points in bunches," Fisher said. "He can be an instant offense for us to give us the kind of spurt every good team needs."

Both hope that will come in time, but there's no guarantee. Everyone responds differently to treatment.

Though anxious to help his team, Davis doesn't really care how many minutes he plays; how many points he scores. He used to be consumed by that. A typical kid, he'd hang his head after a missed shot or a bad play.

No more.

He's human. He has bad days: days when he's frustrated that his stamina isn't back or annoyed that he's missed practice time so he's not as in sync with his teammates as he needs to be.

Mostly, Davis charges through life like a little kid. Twenty minutes of a rigorous practice is better than no practice; 10 minutes in a game beats a seat on the bench; enjoying what's in front of you is always better than ruing what might have been.

"I didn't think this could happen to me. Who does?" Davis said. "But it did happen to me. The doctors told me the people who have a good attitude do really well. The ones who make excuses or feel sorry for themselves struggle. To me, this isn't that bad. Life knocked me down, but I got back up. I'm still here, still playing basketball."

And who knows? Maybe someday he'll be able to fill his plate with Chinese food.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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