Hokies' Many Tragedies Put Basketball in Perspective

Shawn Harris
Shawn Harris has left the team to attend the funeral of his grandmother, who died Tuesday. (Matt Gentry - AP)
By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

The list of the heartbreaks suffered by the Virginia Tech men's basketball team the past year goes on and on, so long that it becomes difficult to decide which setback warrants the greatest period of grief. A father near death? A mother with breast cancer? The death of the grandmother who raised you? A player with a rare form of cancer? Two devastating season-ending injuries become mere footnotes against the backdrop of such tragedy.

"It's been amazing," junior forward Coleman Collins said. "It's been one thing after the other, case after case."

Since the end of last season, when Virginia Tech was perhaps one or two victories away from playing in the NCAA tournament after finishing 8-8 in ACC play in its first season in the league, the team has been consumed by illness and death. When Virginia Tech plays No. 2 Duke tonight in its sold-out arena before a national TV audience, it will be without five players who started the season on its roster.

Collins, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, is expected to play even though his father, Jackson Collins, is being treated for lung cancer at a hospice center in suburban Atlanta. Doctors don't expect Jackson Collins, 56, to live through this weekend, Coach Seth Greenberg said, so Collins will return home to Stone Mountain, Ga., after tonight's game to be with his father.

"I've just been trying to focus on the positive things and the little victories and the things that have gone well for us this season," Collins said. "I'm trying not to get too low during the bad times. My dad is still alive and he's still kicking, so it's something to be thankful for."

Collins's father has been unable to attend any of the Hokies' games this season. Jackson Collins has watched his son play a few times on TV this season, and so for one more night, at least, Coleman Collins wants to give his father the opportunity to watch him play.

"I know he's watching the games on TV when he can," Collins said. "The few opportunities I have to let him see me play, I'm happy for those."

Forward Allen Calloway, a soft-spoken senior from Danville, Va., learned July 4 that he has alveolar soft part sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer, in his left calf muscle. The cancer, which isn't treated by chemotherapy or radiation, spread to one of Calloway's lungs during the summer. Calloway, 22, practiced with the team early in the season and has played only seven minutes in two games. He has been unable to play in recent months after losing more than 30 pounds.

Three times a week, Calloway gives himself shots of interferon, a protein that normally is produced in the body in very small amounts and is used to treat some forms of cancer. The protein injections have helped reduce the lesion in Calloway's lung, Greenberg said. Still, doctors aren't sure if the inoperable cancer can be cured.

"He's just fighting," Greenberg said. "He's such a great role model for all of us. He's an inspiring young man."

Sophomore forward Wynton Witherspoon also doesn't know what his family's future holds. His mother, Carolyn Witherspoon, learned she has breast cancer early last year and is still undergoing treatment. Witherspoon, one of the team's most promising players, broke his foot during the preseason and considered redshirting this season so he could be with his mother, who lives in Atlanta.

Witherspoon said his mother discovered she has breast cancer seven months before she told him of her illness, as she didn't want him distracted from school and basketball. Her long-term prognosis isn't known.

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