Sometimes, in sports, situations arise that take the focus away from the game and put it squarely on real life.
For Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly, this season has been one such occasion. Not surprisingly, Fennelly, 54, has used his beloved basketball as a way to keep his mind off of his battle with cancer.
In early October, Fennelly was diagnosed for the second time with cancerous lesions on his vocal chords. The first time they surfaced, in 2005, Fennelly was lucky and the lesions were noninvasive, which allowed doctors to cut them out and allowed Fennelly to move on. This time, the lesions infiltrated the ISU coach’s vocal chords, and Fennelly was required to undergo six weeks of radiation treatment to eliminate them.
Fennelly completed his treatment the week of Thanksgiving, and university officials said Tuesday that Fennelly’s most recent appointment revealed that the treatment had gone as well as could be hoped for and that a full recovery remained the prognosis.
Although Fennelly’s future seems promising, his second battle with cancer has been considerably more challenging than the first. Through it all, he has retained the same intense spirit and fire that have defined his career.
“My health issues do not change my focus at all,” he said in an interview with ESPN.com in November. “I am just as committed as ever to my team and Iowa State University. I will not change what I do and will not miss any practices or games.”
He hasn’t. But others have been forced to take on a greater role within the ISU program.
Because Fennelly barely can talk — one ISU staff member described his voice as “just a whisper” — his assistants have picked up most of his speaking engagements. With the help of a microphone, Fennelly continues to conduct Monday news conferences and still handles the postgame talks. In order to make that possible, he limits his talking the rest of the time.
“When you watch him, you clearly see that he relies on his staff to help communicate with the players,” said KU coach Bonnie Henrickson, whose 12-2 Jayhawks will play host to Fennelly’s 9-4 Cyclones at 7 tonight at Allen Fieldhouse. “They’ve always had hand signals for everything. They have a million hand signals. But you can tell that volume, for him, is an issue.”
Henrickson and Fennelly have known each other for years. In fact, the eighth-year KU coach remembers being on the same flight with Fennelly and his wife en route to the Big 12 Meetings in 2005, shortly after he first was diagnosed with cancer. When Henrickson heard recently that Fennelly was going through it all again, naturally, she reached out.
“I’ve text with him,” Henrickson said. “And him and I don’t routinely text. I’ve kind of tried to let him have his privacy about that. I’ve asked him, obviously, and he’s said, ‘Yes, I’m fine. I’m doing OK.’ That kind of stuff. I’m anxious to talk to him a little bit and wish him well and just kind of catch up.”
In between tonight’s reunion, Henrickson’s and Fennelly’s teams will do battle on the floor. The Jayhawks enter tonight’s game on the heels of a difficult, 63-57, home loss to Kansas State on Saturday. The loss, KU’s first at home this season, erased much of the excitement that followed KU’s road victory at No. 23 Texas a week ago. However, with both games now behind them, the Jayhawks are determined to move forward and not let the past dictate the future.
“I think it helps that we’re playing at home again, and we still have a chance to kind of get that momentum going,” junior forward Carolyn Davis said. “It would be tougher if it was an away game, so we have to use that to our advantage.”
The play of Davis, along with that of senior Aishah Sutherland and sophomore Tania Jackson, will take on extra meaning against ISU, which features three strong post players in Hallie Christofferson, Chelsea Poppens and Anna Prins.
“Those are three really, really good post players. Really physical,” Henrickson said.
Added Davis: “Their post players are a lot for them this year, much more than last year. They (usually have) had a lot of good guards, and this year they’re more post-oriented, and I think we have to take that as a challenge.”