Commentary

Sylvia Hatchell doing 'really good'

UNC coach still hoping for possible return to sideline by season's end

Originally Published: December 17, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

The first thing Sylvia Hatchell does is reassure you. Yes, she's feeling OK. Better than that, in fact.

"I am doing really good right now," Hatchell said, then adds with a chuckle, "My biggest problem is I get bored."

Hatchell would love nothing more than to be at work with her North Carolina women's basketball team, deep into her daily to-do list. Cancer has a way, though, of shoving itself to the top of that list and trying to force off everything else.

Hatchell, diagnosed with leukemia in early October, hasn't let that happen. Yes, she has had to step away from the sidelines, but every day she watches video of the Tar Heels' practice. She talks to her longtime assistant and close friend Andrew Calder, who is active head coach in her stead, and her other assistants, including former UNC star Ivory Latta. She calls and texts players.

She also keeps in contact with a vast network of fellow coaches, administrators, businesspeople, celebrities, musicians, etc., that serve as a support system. She is amazed and filled with gratitude at how many have reached out to her.

"And when my numbers are good," she said, referring to her white blood-cell count, "I go to the office and even go watch them shoot around a little. I can't be in crowds much, but I've had one-on-ones with players. They put on a mask, and we talk. Last week, the kids were able to come to my house. We had a Christmas party here.

"I know that the young players need encouragement. I try to build them up, give them some words of affirmation. Sometimes, I'll surprise them with visits if my numbers are up. The hardest part is that we can't hug each other. I have to say, 'No, I can't do that now, but I've got my heart wrapped around you. Don't you ever question that.' My heart's right there with them. I can't wait to get back."

Hatchell is one of those people who've never had time to be sick. She so rarely missed work that she easily remembers the details of the one week nearly 25 years ago when she had to be out for two games after giving birth to her son, Van, in January 1989.

"I missed the NC State game on Tuesday; that's the day he was born," she said. "Then I missed Radford on Thursday. But I was back for Georgia Tech on Sunday."

There has always been a never-ending "next thing" for her to get to. And 2013 has been especially jam-packed. Hatchell got her 900th career victory in February. In April, she found out she was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. As this past summer began to turn to autumn, Hatchell was her usual self: happily over-scheduled.

"I was rippin' and runnin' like you can't imagine," she said.

Sylvia HatchellAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallSylvia Hatchell was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in September.

'Routine' check-up

The Thursday before Labor Day, Hatchell went in for a routine physical. Then it was on to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and a meeting with the mayor in regard to her team's games there this season. She also wanted to enjoy a little beach time before things got really crazy.

She would be going to Springfield, Mass., for the Naismith induction the first weekend of September. After that was a planned recruiting binge in which she had six home visits scheduled in five days -- in a different state every day. Followed by speaking engagements, a Nike clinic, the start of basketball practice, and supervising the easing-in process of four blue-chip freshmen.

Her calendar was bulging at the seams. So when she got the call the day after her check-up, she didn't consider slowing down. A viral infection, possibly, she was told. Maybe an auto-immune issue, probably nothing to worry about. But her white blood cell count was low. They needed to do more tests.

Robin told me, 'You've got to learn to take your hands off the steering wheel … you've got to let other people do their jobs and help get you through this.'

-- Sylvia Hatchell, on friend Robin Roberts' advice

Hatchell squeezed in additional medical appointments, but took nothing off her plate. She developed a sore throat, got some medicine for that. Then she was into the second week of October, with doctors still concerned but not knowing what was wrong with her.

It was then that Hatchell paused and actually took note of how she felt: tired. She at first brushed it off as travel fatigue, but the low white blood-cell count persisted. Eventually, it was Hatchell herself who pushed for a bone-marrow biopsy.

She got the news on that result, and at first it just didn't really sink in.

"They told me I had acute myeloid leukemia," Hatchell said. "The doctor said, 'Coach, it's treatable, it's curable, but we need to get you in here and get our arms wrapped around it.'"

Hatchell explained to her doctor that she was really, really busy. She had an upcoming promotional event at her alma mater, Carson-Newman, with country singer Ricky Skaggs. Then another event at the Biltmore in Asheville. Then another …

"I had all these things lined up," Hatchell said. "The doctor said, 'We have to get you in here.' I said, 'When?' He said, 'Tomorrow!'"

Hatchell called her husband, Sammy, who was out of town giving a basketball clinic. She then had to meet with her staff and the team. She told her doctors to spell out the game plan. Soon, they had put in a port and started chemotherapy.

"You talk about a tsunami hitting you," Hatchell said.

Sylvia HatchellAP Photo/Winslow TownsonSylvia Hatchell won her 900th career game last February.

The battle begins

Hatchell spent nearly a month in the hospital. She kept her sense of humor. Attached to a pole that held IV medicine, she named it "Stanley" and referred to it as her new dance partner. Everyone who knows Hatchell knows how much she loves to shag dance. "Stanley" wasn't any good at that, but Hatchell made the best of it. She did laps at the hospital -- "17 equaled a mile" -- with "Stanley" at her side.

"The lucky thing is we caught this early," Hatchell said of her illness. "And it helped that I was in great shape. I've worked out with a trainer for years, and that was important in being able to deal with this."

Hatchell will be 62 in February. The advice she would pass on to anyone is this: Try to stay fit, but also don't forget to go to regularly scheduled health checkups.

"It was just a routine thing that first showed this," Hatchell said. "I didn't go in for that because I was feeling bad. I had no symptoms."

The hardest part is the mornings, when I open my eyes, and realize, 'This is real, and you have to deal with it.'

-- Sylvia Hatchell, on her fight against leukemia

Hatchell said she has three more treatments where she has to go into the hospital for five-day periods. She hopes to be finished with that by February.

"All my numbers have come back really, really good," she said. "My prognosis is really good. They'll have to monitor you for five years, but I'm in a great place being treated here.

"My doctors are just incredible. But one of them told me, 'Your biggest problem is going to be patience. We'll get you back to coaching, but it's going to take some time.' It is a day-to-day thing as far as how you feel."

Right now, her team is in Myrtle Beach, where the Tar Heels beat New Orleans 124-41 on Monday. UNC, ranked No. 14, will face a far tougher challenge there Wednesday in No. 10 South Carolina.

Hatchell would love to be there with them. But right now, she has to focus on just getting well.

She says "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts -- who has fought her own battles with cancer -- checks in with her and offers advice.

"Robin told me, 'You've got to learn to take your hands off the steering wheel,'" Hatchell said. "She said, 'You're like me: an in-control type person. But you've got to let other people do their jobs and help get you through this.'"

Sylvia HatchellAP Photo/Gail BurtonSylvia Hatchell, Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt, C. Vivian Stringer and Tara VanDerveer make up the 900-win club in women's hoops.

Longtime participant

Hatchell's involvement with the fight against cancer is lengthy. She has been active in that regard for many years, especially in support of UNC's reknown Lineberger Cancer Center.

Hatchell was friends for many years with late NC State women's hoops coach Kay Yow, whose battle with cancer stretched out over two decades before she died in 2009. And, of course, Hatchell knew the late Jim Valvano, for whom the Jimmy V Week For Cancer Research is dedicated.

Other colleagues, such as former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, who survived pancreatic cancer, are close to Hatchell, too. And cancer struck one of Hatchell's players, Jessica Breland, during her recent UNC career as well.

Hatchell, a North Carolina native, has a cabin and some land out near the Asheville, N.C., area. Drive about 3 hours, 45 minutes west of Chapel Hill, and you'll reach Hatchell's blueberry patch there. It's on Flat Creek Road in Fairview, N.C., just follow the signs.

When the berries are in season, take a bucket or two and go picking. Payment is on the honor system: The request is that you mail a donation check -- $10, $20, whatever you can afford -- to the Lineberger Center.

The blueberry patch fund-raising idea began around 2000, around the time Hatchell had a "scare" with ovarian tumors that turned out to be benign.

When Breland was ill, Hatchell was so grateful for the care Lineberger gave her player that she began another project: supporting a "school" associated with the center's pediatric division. Essentially, teachers are retained to help tutor students staying there to undergo treatment, so they don't fall behind on class work while away from home.

Now Hatchell is being treated at Lineberger herself. She wonders if there is an outside chance that she'll be able to return late this season. When she even mentions it, though, you remind her of Roberts' advice: hands off the steering wheel. And Hatchell laughs, "I know, I know."

But if everything progresses as it has, Hatchell looks forward to being back full strength with her team next season, at the latest. She finds ways to pass time.

She writes letters. She has taken to watching episodes of the old TV series, such as "The Andy Griffith Show," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke." She jokes that she now orders too many things from catalogues and via online shopping. She praises her network of friends -- many fellow coaches, others who date back to childhood -- for keeping her company.

But nothing really fills that void of missing basketball and her lifelong occupation.

"You don't realize how much you love something and how much it's a part of you until you don't have it, especially when it's taken away so quickly," Hatchell said. "The hardest part is the mornings, when I open my eyes, and realize, 'This is real, and you have to deal with it.'

"I promise you, when I get back, there will be nobody more dedicated to their job than me."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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