“Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.”
— Jim Valvano
VERONA – Ebony Nettles-Bey can relate to the famous speech by the former North Carolina State basketball coach, delivered two months before he lost his battle with cancer in 1993.
As a sophomore at Madison West High School last season, Nettles-Bey was an all-Big Eight Conference first-team choice. Then, in a bit of an off-season surprise, she turned up this fall at Verona High School.
Now — less than a year after giving a verbal commitment to attend UW-Milwaukee to play college basketball — Nettles-Bey is battling for her life.
Not surprisingly, her main passion — playing basketball — is making it possible for her to keep fighting the brave fight.
Over the summer, Nettles-Bey found herself having difficulty breathing during an AAU tournament and an open gym session at Verona. The effervescent teenager underwent several tests and was diagnosed with stage four Rhabdomyosarcoma.
That’s a big word for cancer.
“I’ve been undergoing chemo treatment every week since September. I have to have radiation treatments next,” Nettles-Bey said.
How does she deal with the daily reality of her diagnosis? “I don’t,” she said. “I just do it.
“Playing basketball has helped me a lot. When I play, I don’t think about (the cancer). It’s my release.”
Verona senior basketball captain Lexy Richardson was excited when she first heard that Nettles-Bey was joining the Wildcats. In the days since, her initial joy has developed into tremendous respect and admiration for her new teammate.
“Ever since we found out she was sick, it has made every game feel like it could be anyone’s last,” Richardson said. “We’ve been playing more of a team game, for each other. We’ve kind of eliminated all of the individualism that a lot of teams have. We don’t have any dramas. We’re like a family out there.
“Ebony has added so much positivity to the team. She has been that missing puzzle piece that we’ve needed.”
A 5-foot-7 combination guard, Nettles-Bey averaged 16.6 points, seven rebounds, six assists and six steals per game last season at West.
After her godmother, Stacy Williams, resigned as the Regents’ head coach last spring, Nettles-Bey moved into the Verona district and made plans to try out for the Wildcats.
A month into the school year, though, rumors began to circulate that Nettles-Bey might not play for Verona this season. The reason became clear when the news of her diagnosis came out.
But Nettles-Bey refused to do things the easy way. On tryout day, there she was, earning her place on the team — and, eventually, in the starting lineup.
“Basketball is her life. It’s always been her life. She is so loyal to everything she does. She gets that from me,” said her mother, Katrina. “I always taught my kids to treat people the way they would want to be treated.
“When you’re playing a sport, you have to give it your all. You have to take what you are given and you have to strive with it. She knows what she has, but I just don’t really speak to her about it so I can keep her spirits up.”
Verona assistant coach Megan Clark said Nettles-Bey is such a competitor and is so tough that when her teammates see her on the floor, they can’t help but be inspired.
“How can you look at yourself in the mirror and not leave your heart out on the floor after you see someone going through that?” Clark said.
“I’ll never forget when she checked into the Stoughton game and the first play, she drove to the basket and made three people miss and scored this pretty scoop layup off the glass. Chills just went through your body. That’s what you want for her, and she can still do it. Look how hard she’s working. It’s just something special.”
Verona senior forward Marley Campbell said Nettles-Bey made an immediate impact on Verona’s program.
“She was definitely the star player at West. When she came to Verona, she told me and Lexy and all the other seniors that she loved being on a team where she didn’t have to shoot. She told me she loves not shooting. She loves passing the ball,” Campbell said.
“Basketball for Ebony is what she did all the time. Everybody knew basketball is what she loved doing. That’s changed. Now basketball is something she goes to as a relief. It’s like something away from reality for her.”
Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of cancer that most often begins in the soft tissues of the body including tendons, muscles, nerves, fatty tissue and fibrous tissue.
Although it accounts for a small percentage of all childhood cancers, it is the most common sarcoma arising from soft tissues. It most often affects children and young adults between the ages of 2 and 25 and is slightly more common in males than females.
Verona girls basketball coach Angie Murphy said she has become an expert on the subject. She monitors Ebony’s health status daily, staying in contact with the hospital to make sure her blood counts are OK to allow her to play.
“She is responding well to treatment,” said Murphy, a math teacher at Middleton High School who’s in her ninth season at Verona as head coach.
The two most common forms of rhabdomyosarcoma are alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma and embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. The two forms can be differentiated under a pathologist’s microscope. Both are highly malignant and can spread rapidly to other areas of the body — including the bone marrow, liver and lungs.
Treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma requires several levels of therapy. Often, it includes surgery to remove some or all of the tumor that is visible, combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to attack any microscopic tumor cells that might have spread to other sites in the body.
Ebony’s mother said the severity of the diagnosis made immediate action necessary.
“She was diagnosed Sept. 30 and they had to start chemo right away. That’s how bad it was,” Katrina said. “Her lungs had collapsed. The first three days, they drained 2,500 (cubic centimeters) of fluid out of Ebony. She had a tube placed in her and had to undergo four surgeries at one time.
“Ebony posted on Facebook when she first got diagnosed: ‘There are people out here playing with their lives, and I’m fighting for my life.’ That really touched me. She just tries to keep her spirit going. I’m just trying to take it day to day.”
In her condition, it’s remarkable that Ebony is able to keep playing basketball at all — let alone play at the competitive level she has been able to maintain as the team’s starting point guard, averaging 4.3 points per game.
“I don’t know how she does it. That’s the part that’s amazing. It’s her will,” her mother said, a touch of awe in her voice.
“Before the season, doctors told Ebony and I she wouldn’t be able to play this year. But she said to me, ‘Mom. I’m playing. I’m going to play this year, Mom. By God’s will, I’m going to play this year, Mom.’ And Ebony has been playing.”
Changing her game
Known primarily as a scorer who was the focus of the offense at West, Ebony has reinvented her game — mostly because of her illness, but also because of her new team.
Murphy said Nettles-Bey has become the ultimate floor general, handling the ball and thriving on making the pass that no one else can make. One example was the backdoor bounce pass she delivered to Campbell to help Verona pull out a 54-52 victory over Janesville Craig on Dec. 7.
“Ebony found the gap, she got through and she passed the ball,” Campbell said.
Added Nettles-Bey: “I could have taken the shot, but my teammate was wide open so I wanted the for-sure win. I just want to win.”
Murphy said Nettles-Bey is playing “at about 30 percent of her ability. She is playing on adrenaline and heart. She is an inspiration.
“It shows how important sports are in the life of a lot of kids. Basketball has always been such a huge part of her life. It’s going to help her battle this. It helps her keep positive. It helps her have something to look forward to. It helps keep her healthy to help her team. It gives her that extra boost.”
While she isn’t strong enough to get to the rim in traffic or shoot the outside shot with the consistency she once displayed with flair, Nettles-Bey has sharpened her decision-making skills while trying her best to get all of her teammates involved.
“She’s a scorer, but she’s adapted her game to fit her energy level. She knows when she needs to take a break. She knows what she can do,” Murphy said. “She hasn’t attempted a lot of shots this year. I think she had attempted one 3-pointer all year.
“Last year, she was a deep 3-point threat — we made sure we knew where she was at all times. So she’s had to modify her game.”
Middleton coach Jeff Kind agreed.
“You can tell she is not as strong and not as explosive,” Kind said. “It puts everything in perspective. It’s a sad thing to see for anybody that age to have to deal with that. She is an inspiration to everybody.”
Clark — whose mother is a breast cancer survivor — said she has the utmost respect for Nettles-Bey and her daily battle.
“Ebony is just a special kid. When you see someone her age going through this, it breaks your heart. I’m blown away by how tough she is,” Clark said.
“Her courageous fight has definitely given everyone around her more perspective about what we are doing. They know that what we’re doing is fun and it’s important to them and we want to do well at it, but (the) big picture is more about stuff that Ebony is going through. It’s more about what she is battling and just trying to not let little things get us down.”
Campbell said she is awestruck every time Ebony sets foot on the court.
“Knowing she goes through treatment literally a whole day before we actually play a game against tough teams, it amazes me how she gathers the energy to play as well as she does, knowing she is sick and doesn’t have as much energy as she did before,” Campbell said. “It gives everybody the motivation to keep pushing and playing with heart.”
Team unity unveiled
As a show of support, Ebony and her teammates are wearing T-shirts during warm-ups that honor her courageous battle against cancer.
The shooting shirts were the brainchild of Murphy, who thought it might be a way for the team to honor Nettles-Bey’s perseverance and provide some moral support.
“We were in the locker room before the first game and were ready to go. During our pregame speech from coach Murphy, she told us to take our warm-up shirts off because she had better ones for us,” Richardson said. “It was an awesome moment.”
Added Campbell: “Coach asked us if we wanted to change our shooting shirts and dedicate them to Ebony and we were all for it, 100 percent. When we got them, we were so happy that we could show everybody that we are a team, no matter what obstacles are in our way.
“Just seeing the look on Ebony’s face when Murphy pulled them out of the box, was the best moment ever. She knew we were by her side.”
The shooting shirts are black with neon yellow letters. On the front the message reads: “Beat Cancer.” On the back is Ebony’s uniform No. 10 and the word “TEAM” spelled out where a player’s name might be.
Katrina said Nettles-Bey was “very touched.”
“I didn’t know they were doing it,” Nettles-Bey said. “I was surprised. That meant a lot to me, knowing how much support they were giving me.”
Tough road ahead
Nettles-Bey scored six points during Verona’s 56-28 victory over Janesville Parker on Dec. 21, a win that gave the Wildcats (7-1 overall, 5-1 league) sole possession of second place in the Big Eight.
She is scheduled to return to the hospital on Monday to begin radiation treatment — which might end her season.
“Once the radiation starts, the doctors are saying Ebony isn’t going to be able to play at all. But Ebony doesn’t believe it,” Katrina said. “I try not to talk about it. But it’s tearing me up.
“They gave me a diagnosis that she might not make it through the year. I was at a loss for words. We go day-to-day and do the best we can.”
Katrina said she has applied with the Make-A-Wish Foundation for Ebony to meet Miami Heat star LeBron James, her favorite basketball player.
“She wants to meet LeBron James. She sleeps with a basketball. Ebony wakes up with a basketball. She will be eating breakfast and she has that basketball right next to her,” Katrina said. “She has been following LeBron since she started playing and she really wants to meet him.”
Murphy believes that goal — along with her determination to keep playing basketball with her teammates — is what keeps Nettles-Bey going mentally as well as physically.
“She has to play. It is what is keeping her going. Ebony wants to play,” Murphy said.
Verona’s next game is Saturday at Monroe. The Wildcats are scheduled to meet her former team, Madison West, on Jan. 10 in Verona.
While it appears to be a long shot that she will suit up against the Regents, no one is betting against her.
“I won’t let it beat me,” Nettles-Bey said matter-of-factly. “They’re telling me I can’t play, but I don’t know yet. I just take it a day at a time. I appreciate playing as much as I can.”
Nettles-Bey said her love of basketball and ability to focus on it has enabled her to find the strength to push on.
“Just finding something like basketball helps you forget about it (her illness). I just think about basketball (and) I believe I can beat it.”