NCAA tournament 2013: James Madison’s Devon Moore inspired by mother’s fight with cancer

March 19, 2013

Devon Moore will take the court at University of Dayton Arena on Wednesday night knowing that his biggest fan won’t be in attendance, even though she’s only an hour away. He’ll remind himself that this is all part of the fight, and then Moore and his James Madison teammates will square off against LIU Brooklyn in an NCAA tournament play-in game, the right to face No. 1-seeded Indiana on the line.

Seventy miles down the road, Carolyn Moore will be in a hospital bed in Columbus, Ohio. If she has enough energy, she’ll watch her son on television. This is part of the fight, too. It’s been a difficult few months for Carolyn and her son, the Dukes’ talented point guard. It’s doubtful that any player in the tournament has had a path to the tournament quite like Moore’s.

Just before the start of the season, on a Sunday morning, Carolyn called her son and woke him up. Devon is the youngest of four children, and he always shared a special bond with his mother. She tried to explain what was going on, but the words muddled together: a tumor . . . size of a golf ball . . . behind her left ear. Devon didn’t know what to say. He dropped the phone. As she always had, Carolyn provided comfort and told him everything would be okay.

What felt like an ear infection last fall prompted a doctor visit. The tumor, Carolyn was told, was a byproduct of the cancer — multiple myeloma — that had festered in her bone marrow and meddled with the production of blood cells.

On the brink of his senior season, the Dukes’ star guard was devastated. The next day, he stopped by the gym and told his coaches he couldn’t practice. He was alone in the parking lot when his phone rang.

The Post Sports Live crew gives their bold predictions for Final Four teams and overall winners in the NCAA Tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Carolyn had called to leave him a message and was surprised when her son answered. “I can’t do this,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. She assured him he could — for the both of them, he needed to — and instructed him to get out of the car and join his teammates. “She said she was going to call me back. ‘If you answer, I’m getting in a car and driving to Virginia, and then we’re going to have some serious problems,’ ” Devin said.

The pull of home

Carolyn always had been a part of Devon’s basketball career, encouraging him through the toughest times. He started for James Madison as a freshman and thrived despite a wrist injury. Before his sophomore year, he hurt his knee in a preseason scrimmage and had season-ending surgery. He battled injuries the next two years, too, and missed the first semester of his junior campaign because he was academically ineligible.

“One thing after another,” Devon said.

Adjusting to Harrisonburg wasn’t easy. He counts 15 close family members and friends who died and felt the constant pull of Columbus. As Dukes Coach Matt Brady says, “Home has always been a magnet for him.”

Carolyn would never let him quit, and Devon was determined to make the most of his final season of eligibility. “I wanted to go out with a bang,” he said.

As this basketball season started, Carolyn had surgery to have the tumor removed. Devon received constant health updates last semester but wasn’t able to return home until Christmas break. His mother had been feeling better but suddenly her breathing was labored and she was racked by headaches. The family took her to the hospital, where they were told the tumor had returned and another surgery was in order.

Devon extended his trip home, and his teammates in Harrisonburg practiced without him. Games were coming up but not knowing what would happen to his mother, he couldn’t leave.

She had surgery again on New Year’s Eve. Devon missed two games but knew he had to leave Columbus. He couldn’t say goodbye, though. “See you later” felt better.

While Carolyn recovered, Moore began to finally realize his potential as James Madison’s season heated up. He leaned on a pact he and his mother made early in the season. “Their motto for the year was ‘the fight’ — she was fighting to beat cancer, and he was fighting for his dream,” said Justin Moore, Devon’s brother.

Suddenly, Devon was doing things almost without thinking. Seventeen points at Miami. Nineteen against both Delaware and Richmond. Twelve assists vs. William & Mary and 10 against Towson. Twenty-five points against George Mason. Twenty-two points, nine rebounds and seven assists vs. UNC Greensboro.

“I don’t know how I focused,” Moore said. “I don’t know how I got through everything. . . . There’s times when I’m like: ‘What am I doing here? I need to be back home.’ But at the same time, this is where she wants me. I’m here. I have to make the most of it.”

Moore finished the season averaging 11.6 points and 4.9 assists per game, becoming the school’s all-time assists leader earlier this month. Brady says Moore will graduate as perhaps the best point guard the Dukes have ever had.

‘Such a strong person’

Facing such personal adversity, a lot of athletes might take refuge in their sport, a small space where they can momentarily forget everything else. Moore tried, but family and basketball were too intertwined. “It felt like a part of me was missing,” he said. His parents never missed a game in high school. They made the six-hour drive from Ohio more than a dozen times each season, even cheering on the Dukes when Moore wasn’t playing.

“We know her well,” Brady said. “She’s a wonderful person. That family, just salt-of-the-earth people. There’s a lot of love, obviously.”

Carolyn, a beautician by trade, never was able to visit Harrisonburg this season. Devon says he can still close his eyes, though, and see his dad, Leroy, near the scorer’s table, his mom cheering in the stands behind the bench, his brothers on the opposite side of the gym.

“You could see that it was hard at times to focus, both on the court and off the court,” said teammate A.J. Davis, a distant cousin who also grew up in Columbus. “So many ups and downs. Some days it’s joyful thinking everything is all right, but then one phone call can bring bad news.”

Before games, Carolyn would call her son and remind him that she was doing her part in the fight, a regular cycle of radiation and chemotherapy. She was never comfortable enough to follow the Dukes’ games on the computer, but her husband would watch in the next room and shout out pertinent updates. “It was driving her up a wall not being there,” said Justin, 26.

With his coach’s blessing, Devon was able to return to Columbus earlier this month for a surprise visit. Brady allowed his star senior to miss some important practices so Moore could spend some time with his mom before the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. For weeks, the nurses and doctors at Ohio State University Medical Center had been hearing about Carolyn’s tall, athletic son, so they recognized the handsome, 6-foot-4 basketball player immediately.

He came in with roses and, for the first time since the initial tumor was spotted more than five months earlier, Devon saw his mom shed a tear.

“I don’t know how she’s done it,” he said. “She’s just such a strong person.”

Last week, Carolyn finished up another chemo cycle. She was re-admitted to the hospital on Monday and will celebrate her 56th birthday Wednesday. On Thursday, she’ll undergo a bone marrow transplant.

“To see her in this situation is hard. It’s hard for everybody,” said Davis. “She wants us to stay positive. Like she tells us, when things aren’t going our way, just keep fighting, God has a plan. It’ll work itself out.”

Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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