Bigger than a game

March 22, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Men’s basketball supports Blake Nicols in his father’s battle with cancer

Sports | MacKenzie Newman for The Clarion

Bigger than a game

After senior guard Blake Nicols shaved his head in support of his dad's battle with bone cancer, the rest of the team followed suit. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Blake Nicols

A team’s record can’t represent the unselfish nature of its players, nor can it represent the love and encouragement found among its members. In the same way, the men’s basketball team’s 11-9 MIAC finish could never convey the incredible support senior guard Blake Nicols received from his teammates as the season drew to a close.

On Dec. 27, Nicols received the news that his dad, Robert, had been diagnosed with bone cancer. What had begun as intense back pain a few days earlier evolved into the frightening diagnosis that changed Blake's perspective.

The news made everything else in Nicols’ life, including basketball, pale in comparison. Two days after his dad’s diagnosis, Nicols was supposed to return to Bethel for basketball practice, but he still wanted to be at home with his family.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Nicols said. “Basketball was still important, but my family became more important, and I felt that I should be at home.”

Even though Robert was optimistic about his battle with cancer and insisted that his son returned to Bethel, it was hard for Nicols to focus on basketball while his dad was struggling at home with chemo.

“When I came up here [after I found out], I had the worst practice of my career,” Nicols said. “Once I told the team about my dad, everybody was extremely understanding and supportive. Basketball made me block out what my dad was going through and focus on something else extremely important to me.”

Robert knew he was going to lose his hair as a byproduct of chemo, and in the ultimate show of support, Nicols told him, “When you lose it all, I’m losing all mine.”

Robert lost all of his hair on Feb. 3. The following day, Nicols arrived at the game against St. Thomas with his head completely shaved. After the game, assistant coach Justin DeGrood initiated the idea of every player shaving his head in support of the family.

“Whenever a member of your family is suffering, physically or emotionally, you do everything in your power to support them,” DeGrood said. “Organizing the haircuts is minuscule compared to what [Nicols] and his family have done for our basketball program.”

Nicols didn't want his teammates to feel obligated to shave their heads, but by the time the Royals made it to their Saturday game against Saint Mary’s, every player and coach had shaved their heads in support of Nicols. That evening, the Royals posted a 94-46 victory, but it was more than just the win that mattered – it was the love and support Nicols received from his team.

“Before the game was even over, I was tearing up a bit,” he said. “The completely unselfish gesture they made for my dad shows how unified we are as a team.”

Although the Royals’ season ended earlier than they had hoped, it was a special season for Nicols because of the people he was able to play with and what they were playing for.

“When you play with people that you love, it becomes more than just a game,” Nicols said. “We played for something bigger than ourselves, and that’s the unique thing about playing for Bethel: we play to honor the Lord.”

Basketball is certainly more than a game for Nicols and his dad. In fact, Nicols believes it has become a special kind of therapy. “I think going to school here and playing basketball here was in itself a treatment for my dad, because he gets to watch me and know that I am being taken care of,” he said.

In Robert’s battle with cancer there are good days and bad days, but both Nicols and his dad approach the journey with determination and optimism. Finding joy in sharing life’s moments together on and off the court has been essential for a father and son facing something much bigger than a game.

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