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Hoopfest ‘just wasn’t the same without Joey’

Stage 4 brain cancer kept Anderson on sidelines last year, but he refuses to let it keep him down

After playing in 10 consecutive Hoopfests, Joey Anderson turned into a spectator last spring.

But not by choice.

Instead of joining his longtime teammates in the world’s largest 3-on-3 street basketball tournament, the Cheney High School graduate – with his face bloated and most of his hair gone – watched from the curb, shivering in the 80-degree temperatures, even while huddled under a heavy jacket.

“There was no way he wasn’t going to be there,” Cindy Anderson, a single mother of three, said of her now 21-year-old son, who was undergoing massive radiation treatments at the time after having been diagnosed just two months earlier with Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive and deadly Stage 4 brain cancer.

“So we set up a reclining chair for him to lie back in, covered it with a canopy to protect him from the sun and let him watch. His teammates gave him a t-shirt that said ‘Honorary Coach.’”

At the time of his diagnosis back on April 29 of 2010, doctors gave Anderson’s mother “the worst news a you can hear,” when they informed her that her son probably had only a year to live, at best, considering the size and aggressiveness of his cancer.

But today, almost 14 months after receiving such a dire prognosis, Joey Anderson has been cleared to rejoin his teammates as a competitor in Hoopfest 2011, which starts its two-day run on the downtown streets of Spokane on Saturday.

“It’s amazing,” said Nathan Lewis, Anderson’s former high school classmate and Hoopfest teammate. “They we’re even talking, at one point, about maybe only six months (to live), and that was a scary week or two for all of us. But then, for whatever reason, Joey kind of took a leap forward and just kept going from there.

“I honestly didn’t know if he’d be around for another Hoopfest. But I knew if he was, I was going to be the guy who wheeled him out of the hospital, gave him and ball and said, ‘Here, throw it toward the hoop.’”

It turns out the wheelchair won’t be needed when Anderson reunites with Lewis and fellow Cheney graduates Andrew Peterson and David Sigley on the team, Zoltan, and makes his Hoopfest return.

“I feel perfectly fine now,” said Anderson, who first went to the doctor after he started having severe headaches that he thought were caused by a sinus infection. “And I feel blessed, and happy, to be back in the game.”

Which is where he has wanted to be ever since learning of his cancer.

“I remember the doctor calling my mom and my two younger brothers (Johnny and Jessiah) into my room and telling us,” explained Anderson, who was in his freshman year at Spokane Falls Community College preparing to play on the Sasquatch soccer team that spring. “My mom, right away, started crying, and I was just, like, speechless. My first thought was, “How am I going to play soccer with this, and will I be able to play in Hoopfest?’

“I had no idea what I would have to go through.”

At the recommendation of his doctor, Anderson underwent surgery the same day his cancer was diagnosed.

And by the time he had been prepped, the waiting room at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center started to fill with friends who had heard of his tumor and pending operation. By the time Anderson was taken to the operating room, over 50 people had gathered.

But once the surgery was over, they were informed that doctors had been able to remove only about half of the tumor. And the wait to talk to their ailing friend ended up seeming like an eternity.

“He was supposed to wake up soon after surgery,” Cindy Anderson said of her son, “but he didn’t wake up for four days.”

When he finally did, it set off a wave of emotions among those – including Peterson and Thang Nguyen, who would go on to take Anderson’s place at Hoopfest 2010 – who had opted to camp out at the hospital.

Those two had left the waiting room for the first time since the operation to rustle up something other than hospital grub, when a nephew peering into the recovery room saw his uncle open his eyes and wave.

“We called Andrew and Thang right away and told them Joey was waking up,” Cindy Anderson recalled. “A couple of minutes later, my sister, who was standing outside saw them running from their car they had parked across the street yelling, ‘Go, Joey! Go, Joey!’

“And once they got back in the hospital, you could see the relief on their faces.”

Unfortunately, the surgery and his initial seven-day hospital stay was only the beginning of Anderson’s ordeal.

Two weeks later he started six weeks of radiation treatments, which sapped his strength and ended his 10-year Hoopfest run.

“It killed me,” Anderson said of his absence. “I was, like, ‘Why am I not out there?’ ”

And his teammates were wondering much the same thing.

“It just wasn’t the same without Joey,” Lewis said. “We had played together since grade school, and even though he was able to hype it up for us from the sidelines, without him on the court, the chemistry just wasn’t the same.”

Lewis admits to confronting the unsettling reality that his friend my never play in another Hoopfest.

“But I was sure praying he would,” he added.

Lewis’ prayers – and those of many others, including his mother – we’re answered when Anderson went back for an MRI following his initial radiation and chemotherapy treatments and learned that his tumor had shrunk to just 20 percent of its original size.

And everyone involved in Anderson’s battle were further elated by the result of his latest MRI, which indicated the blood supply to what is left of the tumor has been cut off completely.

Still, Cindy Anderson knows this is not the end of the battle.

Doctors are currently considering taking her son off the chemotherapy pills he takes once a month and ending his bi-weekly IV treatment because of some side effects they are causing.

“That’s a little scary,” she said. “The fear now is, ‘When are we going to see the next tumor?’ It’s absolutely a day-to-day thing. Joey still has a long way to go, and his cancer will never completely go away.

“But I know he has made the most of every minute, and I am grateful for every extra minute I have been given with him.”

As for her son’s take on the uncertainty of his future, his mother adds:

“It’s hard to believe, but he’s never had a moment of fear throughout this whole thing. He just says, ‘I’m going to be okay – even if they take me off the drugs and the cancer comes back. We’ll just fight that, too.’ ”