Hoop Dreams Come True

Writer: 
October 1, 2004

 

On the ball:court time builds confidence for health-threatened kids

On the ball:court time builds confidence for health-threatened kids.

Photo: Jon Gardiner

One Saturday morning in late June, Gregory Parrish, an eleven-year-old attendee of the Hoop Dreams Basketball Academy, was shooting baskets in the Intramural building on West Campus. Former women's team guard Sheana Mosch '03 was rebounding for him. "Did I make it?" he would ask after each shot. Parrish asked because he couldn't see for himself. He has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that has caused tumors to grow along his optic pathway, reducing his vision to only about 10 percent of normal.

Mosch would tell him the truth: "No. Close. But no. Try it again." And he would try again. And again. And each time that he would miss the shot, Mosch would give him the ball, and with the same resolve he would shoot for a hoop he couldn't see. "Swish! You made it, Greg!" said Mosch on the seventh try. Parrish smiled wide, putting his hands in his pockets and kicking at the ground, and walked to another spot on the court, ready for the next shot.

Hoop Dreams, a basketball program for kids who, like Parrish, are battling life-threatening diseases, is the product of a seemingly perfect, if unusual, match. To the list of unstoppable duos on the court--Jordan and Pippen, Stockton and Malone, Bryant and O'Neal--add one more: Friedman and Zeillman, the former an internationally recognized neuro-oncologist and director of Duke's Brain Tumor Center and the latter, a basketball coach nonpareil, an ex-college player at Guilford College with a social conscience and a knack for coaching kids.

The two first teamed up more than four years ago when Mike Zeillman, then an assistant coach at Durham Academy, began mentoring Henry Friedman's ten-year-old daughter, Sara. "And it was clear to me, this is a guy who has terrific skills--and I don't just mean playing. I mean teaching kids how to play," says Friedman. After getting to know Zeillman for a couple of years--"because I'm really careful about who I'll expose my kids to"--Friedman asked Zeillman what his dream was. "He told me he really wanted to have his own gym one day so he could centralize his operations," Friedman recalls. "At the time, he was giving basketball lessons all over town. So I said, 'Okay, how about if you add to that vision one of giving back to people in the community who have a lot less going for them.' And he said, 'I like that idea.' "

Lots of people liked that idea, and, in short order, Friedman turned idea into action. "I don't know basketball from a hole in the wall, in terms of teaching it," he says. "But I'm good at organizing people." Over the past year, he's seen Hoop Dreams through incorporation as a nonprofit organization and put together a board of directors made up of Duke alumni and parents and area business owners, including former Duke and Green Bay Packers quarterback Anthony Dilweg '89, chairman of the Dilweg Companies, a Triangle-based real-estate firm; Bill Jessup '39, whose late daughter was a patient of Friedman's before she died of breast cancer; Bret Butters, son of former Duke Athletics Director Tom Butters; and John McAdams B.S.E. '70, M.B.A. '80, president of the John R. McAdams Company Inc., a civil-engineering and land-planning company in Chapel Hill.

Hoop Dreams, Zeillman is careful to point out, is not a camp. Camps end. "This isn't the kind of thing kids go to for a week and then go home and savor the memories. This is year- round. It gives the kids something to look forward to every week." Parrish, for one, cannot wait for Saturday to roll around so he can keep working on his two-balls-at-the-same-time dribbling trick. "Sports are his life," said his mother, Barbara Parrish, who sat watching on the sidelines. "He loves this, loves playing, loves the girls"--members of Zeillman's AAU team, the DC Starz, volunteer to coach and, on occasion, Duke players make an appearance--"and when he goes home after this, he'll find his older brother and teach him the tricks he learned."

It isn't that children want so desperately to learn how to play basketball, says Friedman, who for years has treated children and adults with brain and spinal-cord tumors. "It's that these kids just want to do anything that they can do really well, something even healthy kids can't do. So you've got kids here with brain tumors, with sickle cell [anemia], with leukemia, who can dribble two, even three balls, spin around, and keep doing it. And it gives them this sense of accomplishment [when] they don't have many accomplishments in their lives."

While the kids play ball, mothers and fathers in attendance sit on tumbling mats on the edge of the court. They don't read books or newspapers or talk on cell phones. They just watch, amazed, they say, by what they see. "He can't see the ball two inches in front of his face," said Barbara Parrish of Greg, "and he's dribbling two balls at the same time. Do you know how that makes him feel?" Hoop Dreams may have been created for kids, but it seems to give a psychological boost to the people who love and care for them, who take them to the doctor and sit by their hospital beds.

Tom Lynch watched as his son Kevin, a thirteen-year-old diagnosed six years ago with Wilms' tumor, a cancer of the kidney, worked one on one with Zeillman on some more advanced skills. "He just had his five-year 'post-chemo,' and after that they stop tracking the cancer--which means, basically, you're over it. You beat it," he said. "So we're very fortunate. I tell people, This kind of experience, it's really tough. But Hoop Dreams has been a huge confidence builder for us, for him. They're really developing a relationship with these kids. You know, Kevin's thirteen. He's not going to listen to me. I'm his dad. But he'll listen to Coach Mike."

In his role as public-relations officer and chief fund-raiser, Friedman may have the biggest hoop dreams of anyone. With support from friends and colleagues at Duke and UNC, he plans to make the program available to kids with special needs from all over the country. Duke Athletics Director Joe Alleva has let Hoop Dreams use any available gym on campus until they move into their planned new digs in Durham, a 22,000-square-foot facility, which Dilweg has pledged to build at cost. "Nobody else is doing this kind of thing," says Friedman. "And we want to expand it. We want to offer things that deal with the psychosocial issues these kids have, as well as their health. And not just kids with cancer, but kids with all kinds of conditions."

Though only a year old, Hoop Dreams has already scored some big successes. "We just received a $20,000 grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is a real seal of approval," says Freidman. He talks about it with kid-like enthusiasm, barely pausing to breathe. "And 60 Minutes is running a piece on us in the fall. Have you seen our DVD? Ed Bradley narrated it for us. Ed Bradley! You gotta see this. I'm telling you, it'll rip your heart out. Just rip your heart out."