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Zags fans of cancer survivor

LAHAINA, Maui – Some victories deserve a bigger celebration than others.

Take Abby Grant’s, for instance.

The 10-year-old daughter of Gonzaga University alumni Dale and Joanie Grant beat cancer earlier this spring. And she decided to celebrate by spending Thanksgiving with her favorite basketball team – the Zags – here at the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

When the Grants, who live in Rogers, Ark., learned in June of 2004 that their daughter had contracted Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, they decided to hang a label on the ordeal they were about to face.

“We called it ‘Our Family Journey,’ ” explained Dale, who works as a business manager for NCR. “And we told Abby we were going to go wherever she wanted to go when it was over.”

The Grants’ “family journey” ended on April 10, when Abby was declared cancer-free after enduring two surgeries and 11 months of chemotherapy.

When Abby returned from the hospital that day, following the last of her 14 chemo treatments, several hundred community members and close friends were waiting outside the Grant home to welcome her back.

“That was really special,” her father recalled.

So with one journey complete, the Grants figured it was time to plan the next.

“We asked Abby where she wanted to go, and she said, ‘What about Hawaii?’ ” recalled Dale. “So we decided to come over here to the Maui tournament, because we’re so close to the Zags.”

Dale Grant is a 1985 graduate of Gonzaga and a former Bulldogs baseball player. His wife, the former Joanie Forsberg, graduated in 1986. But the family’s connection with GU runs much deeper than a varsity baseball letter and a couple of diplomas.

According to Dale, he has been taking his 13-year-old son, Nick, back to Spokane the past several summers to attend the Bulldogs’ parent-child basketball camp. Two summers ago, he took Abby as well.

“That was right before she was diagnosed with cancer,” Dale explained. “And what was really neat was that I took her back again this summer – as a cancer survivor.”

After learning of Abby’s diagnosis following her first trip to camp, the Bulldogs basketball team adopted her. When the Zags went to Oklahoma City last December to play in the All-College Classic, the Grants were there to watch their 78-75 win over Oklahoma State.

Abby spent the day hanging out with some of the Gonzaga players she had met while checking into the hotel. Her mom recalled how Ronny Turiaf walked out to their car, opened the door and gave Abby a big hug.

The family was invited to the team’s shoot-around and got seats right behind the Zags’ bench. They were invited into the team’s locker room after the game, and Bulldogs coach Mark Few introduced Abby to the media during his post-game press conference.

Later last season, the Grants attended a GU game in the McCarthey Athletic Center, where Abby was introduced to a sellout crowd of 6,000 that immediately began chanting, “We love Abby.”

“We just think the world of the Zags,” Dale Grant said. “With my wife and I being alumni, they’ve always been special to us. But the way they’ve extended their arms to Abby has been so uplifting.”

Dale explained, however, that his daughter has also done her part in helping keep the rest of her family positive.

“She’s a strong kid,” her father said. “Sure, you have your ups and downs, but she never felt sorry for herself. It was amazing. It helped the rest of us, the way she dealt with this thing. She made us stronger.”

Abby even went so far as to have blue plastic “Grant Me Strength” bracelets made to sell in an effort to raise money and focus attention on her dreaded disease.

According to her father, she raised more than $30,000 from her bracelet sales.

The Grants gave $22,000 to the hospital that treated Abby and asked that it set up a fund for other cancer patients. They also brought presents for children in the hospital, and then gave the rest to needy families in their community.

Since arriving in Maui, the Grants have spent their time watching basketball and lying around on the beach outside the ocean-side, high-rise hotel they are sharing with the Bulldogs coaches and players.

“We got to hang out with the Zag guys again,” Dale said. “And, as usual, they’ve been just awesome. They all remember Abby, and they always have a big smile and hug for her. They’ve been like that from Day One of our journey.”

Abby, who must still return to the hospital for checkups every three months, and her family were in attendance at Wednesday’s championship game against Connecticut, and hope to make it back to Spokane in February to watch the Bulldogs play Stanford – this time with Abby sporting a full head of thick brown hair.

“When we first learned about Abby’s disease we were really down,” Dale Grant said, “but the Zags have helped make this a special time in our lives and something we’re always going to remember.

“To have them along and be a part of this whole recovery and successful journey has been great for all of us.”

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