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Benevolent bulldogs: Gonzaga men cheer up kids in pediatric cancer wing

Six-year-old Roman Smith and his mother, Zabrina, get fist bumps from Gonzaga basketball players during a visit to Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital on Monday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Six-year-old Roman Smith and his mother, Zabrina, get fist bumps from Gonzaga basketball players during a visit to Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital on Monday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

When Roman Smith, 6, shyly told five Gonzaga basketball players that his only sport so far is soccer, a Zags guard threw him a compliment.

“I want to learn soccer but I’m really big, so you’re probably better than me,” Julian Strawther told him.

He and his teammates also gave the boy a T-shirt and an autographed poster. They admired Roman’s “Star Wars” robe, just before he and his mom, Zabrina Smith, posed for photos with the Zags.

Roman, who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was among pediatric cancer patients visited Monday by Strawther, Rasir Bolton, Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis and Malachi Smith at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital.

Across a hallway, the teammates greeted Lucas Pearson, 3, all smiles as he bounced their gift of a toy-sized basketball in his lap. Pearson is being treated for leukemia.

Just before touring, the players said they were eager to spread some cheer among patients and, when back on court, to get more assists.

The two goals are more directly linked than one may realize.

The five of them have teamed up with Community Cancer Fund in a pledge drive launched this year. Each time one of the five guards makes an assist during games, the Community Cancer Fund Assists program’s community pledges add up. So far this season, the program has raised $28,000 toward supporting regional cancer patients and their families. The goal is to reach $50,000.

And for the rest of this season, both fans and businesses can pledge toward any future assists made by the five players at For February, Washington Trust Bank is matching every dollar. In March, Gee Automotive Companies will match pledges.

When asked who among them has the most assists so far this season, four Zags pointed with smiles to Hickman.

At least two of the players shared that cancer hits close to home. Strawther’s mother died of breast cancer when he was young.

“I was in the fourth grade, so I know how it feels when you’re young, it’s hard to wrap your head around,” he said. “You hear all these big words, and as a kid you’re so innocent. It’s hard being down in the dumps; it’s hard to smile sometimes.

“That’s why it’s super huge to be here and try to put a smile on someone’s face for a couple of hours.”

Smith said recently his beloved grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, so he also hoped to help lift spirits for people at the hospital. “My grandma, she’s like my best friend; I try to honor her as much as possible.”

The fund works with regional cancer organizations to help fund service gaps for cancer patients and donates to local programs that benefit those patients and their families.

The group has helped send kids with cancer to Camp Goodtimes at Camp Reed and helped pay for families’ lodging when children are at the hospital, said Jon Neill, Community Cancer Fund executive director.

“At CCF, we have been fortunate to have an extraordinary relationship with coach Mark Few and the Gonzaga basketball team since the very beginning of our organization,” Neill said. “The CCF Assists program is one more way to help local cancer patients and also bring cheer to deserving kids battling the disease.”

Community Cancer Fund has named Feb. 20-25 as “Assists Week,” while the team gets ready for its home court showdown with the rival Saint Mary’s Gaels on Saturday.

During nearly two hours at the hospital, the players also made rounds in other pediatric units.

Bella Schaum, 16, was there for outpatient care. She made sure to walk down a hallway to greet the Zags.

“I’m a big fan; I try to watch their games when I can,” Schaum said. “They’re really nice, and it’s really great that they came here. Go Zags.”

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