- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- If Nicole Hester looked in any way unique during the moments before she took the floor at the Drexel Athletic Center for one of the season's first practices, it was mostly because none of her teammates on the women's basketball team had mismatched pink and gray socks peeking out from the tops of their sneakers.
Hester is a cancer survivor, but with her hair growing again and her jersey covering the scar on her chest where a chemotherapy device had been temporarily implanted, you wouldn't know it from looking at her. You wouldn't know her from the label, either.
More than a cancer survivor, Hester is someone who survived cancer. Beating the disease gave her the opportunity to continue defining herself as she chooses.
As the soft-spoken daughter of a military father.
As the girl with an addiction to footwear -- and multi-colored socks -- that would make Imelda Marcos blush and go barefoot.
"The girl has more sneakers, oh my gosh ," Drexel coach Denise Dillon exclaimed in recalling shoe shopping discoveries as one of the most consistent topics of conversation whenever she called Hester during her time at home battling cancer.
As the avid bowler who hates to lose when she hits the lanes with teammates and roommates Anora and Narissa Suber, identical twins who joined Hester as part of Dillon's first recruiting class four years ago and haven't left her side since.
And on the basketball court, the place where she is perhaps most at home, gliding around the gym in the moments before practice, playfully trying to pry a ball away from unsuspecting sophomore Jen Stjarnstrom before showing up moments later on the other side of the court and bumping shoulders with ever-intense star Gabriela Marginean.
"She's that glue," Dillon said. "She gets along with each and every player on the team. She can connect with them in some way or another."
If you insist on putting labels on Hester, you might as well start with "basketball player."
"I've been playing basketball since I was really little," Hester said. "I don't even remember my first memory. But I guess the one that sticks out the most is just playing in the back with my dad or my brothers. I was always around boys, playing with the boys."
That lifelong infatuation with the game led her to Drexel, far enough from her home in Maryland to experience life on her own in a vibrant, cosmopolitan setting but not so far away that she couldn't count on family support or make a quick trip home.
Although she was an integral part of the rotation as a freshman, starting 19 games and leading the team in steals, finding her niche at the college level wasn't necessarily easy.
"I think she second-guessed her own talent, her own skills, and didn't realize she was good enough to start at this level as a freshman," Dillon said.
It was the same story off the court for Hester, who was by her own admission something less than a proficient manager of time. But after a strong sophomore season in which she doubled her scoring average, continued to emerge as one of the best defensive players in the Colonial Athletic Association and grew more comfortable with Drexel's demanding curriculum, Hester seemed to have found her niche entering her junior year.
Perhaps that's part of why she was so reluctant to make anything out of the fatigue she felt leading up to the start of the season a year ago or worry about the lumps in her throat that sometimes made it painful to turn her neck. Hester said she never thought it was anything especially serious -- maybe just a bad cold or a particularly stubborn flu bug -- but she wouldn't be the first person who downplayed symptoms in an unconscious effort to make them go away. She even joked with her teammates about one unlikely source of the discomfort in a story that now sounds almost macabre.
"It's funny -- well, now it's funny," Hester recalled. "Because beforehand, when I first felt the lumps and everybody was telling me I needed to check on it, and I was like, 'It's not a big deal, I'm probably just getting sick.'
"And I was like, 'What if I got cancer?' And I was just joking with my teammates."
Hester's mom finally convinced her daughter to come home in order to undergo tests at Andrews Air Force Base, and the diagnosis soon came down as Hodgkin's lymphoma. As she sat in the doctor's office listening to a physician outline how tenuous her hold on the future might be, Hester couldn't comprehend the news. But one specific penetrated the cancer's incomprehensible scope and brought home the reality of the situation.
"As soon as she told me I wouldn't be able to play basketball that year, I started crying," Hester said.
As the name suggests, Hodgkin's lymphoma affects the lymphatic system and compromises the body's immune system. As in Hester's case, one of the most common early symptoms is swelling in the lymph nodes. It is considered one of the more treatable forms of the disease.
With months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy ahead of her, Hester moved home to be near family and treatment, but she still needed to tell her teammates why she wouldn't be with them that season. Returning to Philadelphia with her dad, she stood before the team at a dinner before the first game and prepared to break the news. But the normally smiling soul who Dillon said held the group dynamic together couldn't get the words out before the tears came. Her dad had to finish for her.
"Of course, it was a room full of women crying," Hester quipped. "Bet that was a nice sight."
Even after she returned home, Hester felt it was important for her to keep tabs on her teammates and remain a part of the team as much as possible. She stayed in touch with teammates on an almost daily basis, talked regularly with Dillon and made appearances at as many games as her health and schedule allowed. As part of her vibrant personality faded under the weight of debilitating treatment, that connection to basketball, even through words instead of passes, was a reminder of who she was.
"I think the chemo is probably the worst, just because I was tired all the time," Hester said. "I didn't have the energy or strength to do anything that I thought was everyday stuff. I slept a lot, I lost my hair I just felt like a big waste."
Unlucky to be among the legions of Americans diagnosed each year with some form of cancer, Hester was fortunate to be among those who respond well to treatment. Although so worn down by radiation therapy late in her treatment that she could barely walk up a flight of stairs and wondered how she would ever get back on a basketball court, she was getting better. And eventually she felt good enough to return to the court.
Drexel's summer trip to Europe gave Dillon a chance to get the team together for extra practices before the season and gave Hester a chance to test her legs in competition for the first time in a year. Still a long way from reclaiming her physical conditioning once the team took the court for its exhibition games in Spain, she nonetheless found herself getting the familiar summons from a coach used to counting on her.
"The girl hasn't played in a year and here I'm putting her in," Dillon laughed. "That's just who she is and where she belongs."
The awards and honors that have come Hester's way since her return, including the CAA's John H. Randolph Inspiration Award presented to her before a late November game against Siena, still slightly befuddle her. For a basketball player used to getting little acclaim for her defensive efforts, fending off a disease was simply in her nature.
"It's really weird," Hester said. "I just feel like I'm getting all this praise for something I didn't really work hard to get. And I don't know if I deserve it, but it feels good to go through it."
Reality takes longer to reach a conclusion than fairy-tales, and the meandering route doesn't always end at the happiest terminus. Hester is still working her way back into top form, averaging 16 minutes through eight games (Drexel is 2-6, but the losses have been by an average of just seven points). Maybe she will still become the player she was on the verge of discovering before the illness hit. Maybe Drexel will win a conference title and play in the NCAA Tournament before Hester graduates. Maybe not.
Whatever happens, it will happen on the basketball court. The place where Hester first discovered who she was. The place where she discovered the spirit that helped her survive cancer.
"She's an incredibly strong person," Dillon said. "She doesn't show it a lot, but it's there. It's in there. And you can see now, just getting through this ordeal, it's all coming out now. Since she's gotten past it, with the final clearance, there is even a lighter air there."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.