Commentary

Cancer won't keep down Hannah Linz

Despite chemotherapy and radiation, Bison sophomore hasn't missed a game

Originally Published: December 23, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The hair told one story as Hannah Linz stepped on the court for the first time this season, barely four minutes into North Dakota State's opening game. Gone were her familiar long locks, the close-cropped look that instead hugged her head a reminder of all that had played out since the day in April when she could barely catch her breath to complete the simplest shooting drill.

[+] EnlargeHannah Linz
Courtesy of NDSU Athletics Media RelationsHannah Linz, a 5-11 sophomore guard who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma on April 8, 2010, never considered redshirting this season.

It took her all of 89 seconds to turn the page, a flick of the wrist providing a perfect punctuation mark on an end and announcing a beginning. Her first shot of the season, her first shot in a real game since she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma seven months earlier, dropped through the net for three points.

Less than a minute and a half later, a second 3-pointer did the same.

The hair will grow longer with time. The Rapunzel-like range suggests Linz again has plenty of the latter to spare.

"There's the old Hannah -- the new old Hannah," North Dakota State coach Carolyn DeHoff recalled of the reaction to Linz's rediscovered range. "There it is again, [it's] not taking her throwing all her might into a shot that barely made the rim. They were nothing but net, and they were NBA 3s."

You had better master an outside shot when you grow up in Watkins, Minn., playing against an older brother who eventually sprouted to 6-foot-6, seven inches taller than Linz now stands. By the time he wrapped up his own college career in 2008, Luke Linz ranked as one of the all-time leading scorers and rebounders for Concordia College. With parents who weren't basketball players, Hannah learned the game in large part from her brother. Which means she learned the hard way.

"We'd always play outside against each other -- I kind of got whupped," Hannah said. "But he was a good role model for me."

It was her older brother who she followed to Minnesota Timberwolves basketball camps as a kid learning the game, no matter that she was sometimes the only girl playing amongst the boys in such settings. By the time Hannah Linz reached high school, skill caught up to stubbornness. She started for five seasons at Eden Valley-Watkins High School, including her eighth grade year, and finished her prep career third all time in scoring in Minnesota girls high school basketball.

Working on her first recruiting class after taking over the North Dakota State program prior to the 2008-09 season, DeHoff knew she wanted both sides of the equation: talent and tenacity. She had to re-recruit Linz, who had a relationship with the previous coaching regime, but DeHoff was convinced the effort would pay off.

I don't take anything for granted anymore. I'm excited to be able to be on the court, instead of dreading going to a practice or something. I'm excited that I'm physically able to do that and be out there with all my teammates because they're my friends and they've been so supportive through all this. It's so fun to be out there with them.

-- Hannah Linz on life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma

"She can be stubborn, but it's in a good way; it's directed well," DeHoff said. "Those are the type of kids I really feed on because you don't have to say a lot to get them motivated. They're just internally motivated. And when you do get on them, you can see them respond to what you're asking immediately."

There the story could have faded contentedly into oblivion, at least outside of Bison faithful in and around Fargo, with Linz enjoying a four-year career somewhere between very good and great for a program still finding its footing in Division I after years of championship contention in Division II.

But instead of steady success, Linz found only frustration as a freshman. Without trying, she had started to lose weight the summer before college began, gradually but steadily enough that by the end of the first season, she had shed 25 pounds from a frame that hadn't topped 160 pounds to begin with. Physical demands she knew she shouldn't be struggling with -- sprints, drills and conditioning -- left her whupped worse than anything Luke delivered in their driveway games.

"I would say midseason is when I really noticed that it was harder to breathe," Linz said. "I couldn't take like really deep breaths, I was tired after just a couple sprints up and down the court. It was toward the end of the season, and I'm thinking, I should be in great shape. I don't know why it's so hard to breathe and why I'm so exhausted from these sprints."

She had a cough for a time and thought the problem might just be bronchitis. She wondered at another point if she had asthma, despite no prior evidence to suggest it. DeHoff had her tested for an iron deficiency, but the blood work for that came back negative, too. Her eating habits -- "she loves to eat," noted DeHoff -- weren't an issue. It remained a mystery for all concerned, but a mystery that cost Linz any significant role on the court as the season came to a close.

It wasn't until a month after the season ended that things came to a head. On April 6, DeHoff elected not to offer a spot to a junior-college player who would have competed for minutes with Linz. The coach was convinced that they could put some weight on the rising sophomore and get her back to playing at the level she had performed as a recruit. Two days later, everyone found out just how daunting an endeavor that would be.

[+] EnlargeHannah Linz
NDSU Athletics Media RelationsOf Hannah Linz's 30 made field goals this season, 23 are from behind the arc, where she's shooting 38 percent. Linz is averaging 9.5 points through 10 games.

After barely completing drills during individual workouts on April 8, the breathing issues that had plagued Linz during the season's final months finally forced her to seek further medical assistance. At the direction of the team trainer, she went to a clinic on campus, where X-rays revealed fluid in her lungs and led the doctor to send her to a nearby hospital for a CT scan. Assistant coach Jaime Berry went with Linz at that point, but the level of concern was still such that the two spent much of the long wait in the emergency room trading "Anchorman" quotes.

At one point in the movie, Will Ferrell's character offers the memorably understated line that a brawl of surreal proportions "escalated quickly." In Linz's case, it was anything but a punch line.

Doctors at the hospital told Linz there was a large mass in her chest that was constricting her lungs, the source of her breathing problems. An oncologist told her she was "99 percent" sure it was cancerous, and a subsequent lymph node biopsy confirmed it was Hodgkin's lymphoma. By the following day, 24 hours after she had been on a basketball court wondering if she had bronchitis or the flu, she started chemotherapy.

As cancer goes, Hodgkin's lymphoma is, as Linz's oncologist put it to her, the kind you want if you're going to get the disease. The survival rate is frequently cited at close to 90 percent, and the Mayo Clinic's website describes it as "highly treatable." None of which changes the reality that anything that involves the term "survival rate" is far from an everyday human experience, especially for someone like Linz, still seven months shy of her 20th birthday at the time she was diagnosed.

After she initially asked DeHoff to call her parents that first day, saying she feared she wouldn't be able to tell her mom the news without breaking down, Linz by all accounts never deviated from an optimistic outlook in which beating the disease was the only possible outcome. She had the fortunate combination of a form of cancer that could be beat and an attitude that she would do just that. Nevertheless, six months of chemotherapy can test a person in ways beyond losing hair.

"It's not a good time," Linz said dryly. "The first couple [of chemo treatments] were fine; I didn't get sick or anything. But toward the end, I think my body just got sick of doing it, and I got sick from it the last couple of times. The smells -- everything reminds you of chemo. Just being in the cancer center triggers the memories. You kind of have to not eat your favorite foods because you probably won't like them after."

One thing that was never up for discussion was whether Linz would play this season. DeHoff found out how many games she could play and still apply for a redshirt should the physical toll prove too much, but the first conversation the two had about any redshirt was also the last conversation they had on the subject.

"The way she said it and how she said it was like, 'Don't even go there' with her," DeHoff said. "Don't talk about it; this is what she wants to do. So if this is what's going to drive her and get her back and beat this thing, then there's no discussion about her not playing [this season]."

Linz finished her academic work this past spring, even as she underwent treatment for the cancer. She took classes this summer as the treatment continued (the Salutatorian of her high school class, she got A's across the board on the summer work). But if making it through treatment and keeping her course work in order were the work that had to be done, basketball was the reward waiting to be claimed. She finished the final radiation treatments that followed chemotherapy at the end of October, even as she went through as much preseason work as she could handle, and played 12 minutes in the team's first exhibition game Nov. 2.

She feels good, even as she awaits results of the first of regular CT scans to make sure she remains free of the cancer. And she looks the part on the court, where she's shooting better than 38 percent from behind the 3-point line, just outside the the top 50 nationally.

"I would say it's changed me a little bit," Linz said of the year behind her. "I don't take anything for granted anymore. I'm excited to be able to be on the court, instead of dreading going to a practice or something. I'm excited that I'm physically able to do that and be out there with all my teammates because they're my friends and they've been so supportive through all this. It's so fun to be out there with them."

An assistant on the Utah team that came within seconds of the Final Four in 2006, DeHoff said the only thing physically separating Linz from the best of the big conferences might be half a step of foot speed. But, DeHoff also noted, competitiveness can take a player like that a long way. All the way from the shadows of an older brother's long arms to the top of the Division I shooting charts.

And all the way back from cancer.

"It's not surprising that she did it because it's just who Hannah is," DeHoff said. "Her ability to inspire us as a team is incredible. It's not us who lifted Hannah; it was Hannah who lifted us."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.