Ivory Latta, following cancer scare, is grateful for time with Washington Mystics


“Basketball always takes a backseat to real-life stuff,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The pain was so excruciating that Ivory Latta nearly tumbled off the examination table when her physician began pressing an area outside her left breast. What the Washington Mystics point guard assumed would be a routine checkup at the beginning of the season became the start of the most harrowing weeks of her life.

Don’t let it be cancer, the 29-year-old recalled telling herself when she recounted those traumatic moments publicly for the first time several weeks ago between practices at Verizon Center. The two-time all-star has been reflecting even more these days as the Mystics enter Sunday afternoon’s breast cancer awareness game against the visiting Atlanta Dream.

Latta figured the lump in her body was the result of a practice collision with a teammate that must have left a tender contusion. Or it could have come from diving for a loose ball or competing for a rebound against bigger and taller players because that’s how Latta has thrived, even at 5 feet 6.

Then her physician continued to apply pressure to the lump.

“I said, ‘No, it hurts so bad. Don’t push on it anymore.’ That was emotional,” Latta said.

One in eight women will have breast cancer diagnosed in their lifetime, according to statistics from the National Breast Cancer Foundation, but Latta had no family history with it and had a clean bill of health throughout her career.

After Latta’s initial exam, an ultrasound indicated the mass appeared benign, but a biopsy was required to be certain. The next step was for Latta to inform Mystics Coach Mike Thibault.

“He came and put his arm around me, and I just started crying,” Latta said. “It’s like, ‘Coach, why does it have to happen to me?’ He’s like, ‘You’re okay. I’m with you 100 percent.’ ”

Thibault had a special understanding of Latta’s unsettling circumstances and told her to take as much time as she needed if the test results revealed the worst. Thibault’s wife, Nanci, not only is a nurse but also had gone through a similar scare.

Nanci Thibault told Latta what to expect during the biopsy and offered to accompany her to the exam.

“Basketball always takes a back seat to real-life stuff,” said Mike Thibault, who made acquiring Latta a top priority when he became coach and general manager in December 2012. “I learned in this business a long time ago this is our profession and it’s a nice game, but real life still comes first. I just worry about her.”

Normally Latta has been first to provide comfort for others in need. When Sylvia Hatchell, Latta’s college coach at North Carolina, disclosed before last season she would be receiving treatment for leukemia, Latta offered support not just in words but also by serving as an assistant coach for the Tar Heels. Hatchell’s cancer is in remission, and the longtime coach has said she expects to be back on the bench next season.

Latta played her entire college career without knowing her father, Charles, had begun to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease — her parents didn’t tell her until Charles couldn’t stop shaking during a family dinner in Chapel Hill — but following the revelation, Latta joined the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation as an ambassador for awareness and fundraising.

“It’s scary because I think a lot of times as professional athletes you kind of think you’re invincible to certain things,” said small forward Monique Currie, the Mystics’ longest-tenured player. “I think we all were supportive as she sat out and was going through what she was going through. Just being positive and trying to reassure her that things would be okay.”

Latta’s mother, Chenna, flew up from South Carolina to be with the youngest of her seven children. In the days before the biopsy, Chenna would use humor to allay Latta’s fears, much in the same manner her daughter’s frequent smiles help to calm teammates during chaotic stretches in games.

Chenna also was in the room when Latta was being prepped for the biopsy and during the entire procedure. Her mother’s comforting presence was most heartening, Latta said, when she saw the long needle that was to be used to extract the tissue sample.

“I just closed my eyes, and I was like, ‘Lord, please don’t let anything happen,’ ” Latta said. “Honestly, it hurt. I didn’t think I was numb enough. Why was I going through this? I’m too young. Just so much going through my head.”

After three pinches, it was over. Latta slept only sporadically and all but lost her appetite while awaiting the results.

As for basketball, Latta began wearing a specially constructed sports bra with extra padding to protect her left side. She played her first game since the biopsy May 23 on the road against the Indiana Fever. It was the only time Latta has not started in nearly two full seasons with the Mystics.

The following week, Latta received confirmation she was cancer free. As a precaution, the Mystics’ leading scorer and lone representative in last weekend’s All-Star Game has scheduled surgery after the season to remove the mass.

“I could easily not be here,” she said. “I could easily be going through chemo or whatever the process is. It makes you value life so much, but it also makes you realize the people around you who really care and love you and have your back in a time of need.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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