Here is a girl. She sits at her home with a pillow across her lap, her beaded necklace resting on top of it.
Morgan Catchings sifts through the beads — each one a reminder of a different milestone — and pauses on a single brown one among the dozens of others. She holds it between her fingers.
“This is the one I remember most,” she says.
For the first time in months, Lanier High senior Morgan Catchings is back on a basketball court, her home away from home. She steps to the free-throw line during a summer workout.
As a junior, Catchings was the team’s second-leading scorer. She’s missed her time away. The sour smell of sweat. The sounds of sneakers dancing across the floor.
She goes through her old routine — three dribbles with her right hand before spinning the ball to her left and placing it on her hip. She shoots, trying to re-establish the arc from her shot.
She misses, barely grazing the net.
“If there’s one thing Morgan was great at,” said Cinda Catchings, Morgan’s mom, “it was free throws.”
Morgan Catchings steps to the line and tries again.
“It made everything feel impossible,” she said.
Morgan Catchings is 17. She’s a star basketball player.
She has leukemia.
Here is a girl, a little girl. She’s only 5 or maybe 6.
Cinda Catchings coaches her kids — Morgan and three brothers, Cory, Jaemon and Aaren — to do something outside of school.
“I always told them they needed academics and …,” Catchings said. “I didn’t care what that ‘and’ was, but they needed to do something.”
They tried swimming, and other sports, too. Cinda was a dancer. But that wasn’t Morgan.
Together, Morgan and her mother watch Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee All-American and WNBA star, who happens to be a distant cousin.
“See mom, she’s pretty and she plays basketball,” Morgan says often.
Morgan is too, with her clear, brown complexion and dark hair. She has no idea yet, but that color — brown — will haunt her on many restless nights. But now, in front of the TV, her hope is to be just like Tamika, the beautiful Division I basketball star.
Cinda sends her daughter to a basketball skills camp at Pearl High School. Maybe this is Morgan’s niche. Her “and.”
Her first attempt misses.
“That first day, Morgan cried the whole time running through the gym chasing her basketball,” Cinda Catchings said. “She said, ‘I don’t want to do this no more.'”
But Morgan doesn’t quit. Her mom won’t let her. She goes back the following day. Then again the next.
“I fell in love with it,” Morgan said.
By the end of the eight-week camp, she’s on fire.
Here is a girl, outworking the rest.
“Whatever ‘it’ is, even when I first met her, she had it,” said Darrin Griffin, who coached Catchings from age 8 to 13. “When she was 12 or 13, she had developed so much as far as being a leader and her fundamentals.
“She was so determined.”
She had to be. When she first started playing, Griffin said some AAU coaches didn’t think Catchings had the skills to compete at a high level.
But not Griffin, or Coach Gripp as he’s known to his Jackson Fever squad.
“Everything I taught her she learned. Left hand, right hand,” Griffin said. “She wanted to play college ball.”
At age 12, she’s recommended for the Jr. WNBA National team through the Jackson State Kids Kollege Program.
She survives the first round of cuts and impresses the selection committee with her three-minute video, showcasing her skills through a set of mandated drills. It’s enough to make her one of five youth players nationally selected to the team in 2008-09.
It’s one of the highlights of her young life. She starts high school two years later at Callaway, but trades in her Charger orange for Lanier maroon a year later.
But the color orange doesn’t stop following her. It chases her down, rallying against her body. Soon, it will become part of her.
During her junior year in 2013, her cell counts are low, and her spleen is under attack. How could this happen? She rarely even gets sick.
But sure enough her body is making more blast cells, an immature precursor to her disease, than good cells. It overpowers her. She becomes fatigued in practices near the end of basketball season. Then bruises start appearing, followed by severe back pains.
On Feb. 7, 2013, she goes to the doctor.
“We ran your daughter’s lab work twice,” Cinda Catchings recalls the physician saying. “All of her counts are off. We think she has leukemia.
“I immediately started to pray.”
Hours later, Morgan Catchings is admitted to Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children.
“I just wanted to run away,” Catchings said.
Here is a girl, who wonders why it happened to her.
Why her bed at home has been replaced with one in a hospital — where she’ll rest for a month straight — or why weekly lumbar punctures — where doctors extract spinal fluid, fill it with chemo and inject it back into her — have taken the place of basketball practice.
Why she’s given this necklace by her hospital to document everything — each bead serving as a reminder of the chasm between her and basketball.
Lanier was among the favorites to win Class 5A in 2013, even without Catchings, who averaged close to 10 points per game. The Lady Bulldogs fell a game short of playing for a state championship last season.
“It was the worst thing I went through,” said Catchings, her eyes welling with tears. “It was so unexpected.”
Lanier coach Jonas James stops by periodically during the playoffs to watch game film with Catchings. It’s not the same, but James has given her something to hold on to. Her team launches its ‘Do it for Morgan’ campaign, dedicating its season to her by wearing T-shirts and orange shoe strings, the color associated with Morgan’s disease.
“She talked all the time about wanting to get back,” James said. “I kept telling her it’s a process.”
The aggressive treatments take a toll on Morgan’s body, even after she leaves the hospital. There are two forms of lymphocytic leukemia — chronic and acute. Catchings has the latter, which is the easiest to treat. Her disease accounts for more than 5,000 new cases of leukemia each year and is most commonly found in young children.
Even so, she has a team of doctors working to save her life, but it comes with a price.
A girl, who wanted to defy tomboyish tendencies and mix beauty and basketball, is losing one of the biggest markers of her femininity — her hair.
It’s wasting away in handfuls.
It’s replaced by a brown bead.
“I’m watching her go from so active to inactive. It was hard,” Cinda Catchings said. “I used to tell my sister all the time. ‘I feel like I’m watching Morgan waste away in the bed.’ We couldn’t get her out the bed.”
A small group of friends make visiting Morgan part of their routine. They go to movies and stay up late. With them, Morgan is a teenager again instead of a sick child. At least in those moments, she starts to feel like her old self.
“They just don’t know how they helped keep her going. When she was with her friends,” Cinda Catchings said, “she didn’t want to be sick.”
But the 22 orange beads — one for each spinal tap — remind her she is. She’s been given more beads; she just has to add them. Three of the beads are red, flashing her back to each blood transfusion.
There’s nothing to remind her of the 45 pills she takes the week of her lumbar punctures, except the taste the medicine leaves after going down her throat.
It’s tough, but the treatments are working. On Feb. 17, 2013, nearly two weeks after being admitted, Morgan Catchings is in remission.
Here is a girl, determined to make a comeback.
She’s going through drills at practice, her hands finding her knees every few minutes as she gasps for air. She wipes the sweat from her brow. Her hand grazes her do-rag, which has long, brown hair sewn into it.
“Stay in there, Morgan,” James barks out as his team lunges across the court.
She’s much better now than she was that first day in the gym at the beginning of the summer.
“I had to learn how to run again,” Catchings said. “My first step when I started back felt like my knees were going to give out. I felt like I was going to fall to the ground.”
She commits herself to getting back to full strength. She pushes herself with the help of a physical trainer, but not too much to disturb her chemoport, which remains attached under her right breast.
Now in the maintenance phase of her treatments, her lumbar punctures happen less frequently: Two months on, one month off. Eventually, they’ll stop, and she’ll have home medications to take until the process is finished.
Morgan is cautious on the court because she knows any sign of infection will send her back to the hospital.
“When I really got back to basketball,” the 17-year-old said, “everything got easier.”
She can’t miss her senior year. It’s her last chance to be with her teammates, her last opportunity to be recruited. Catchings works her way back into school and onto the court by the start of the season, playing sparingly at first as her speed struggles to find its old form.
“Getting my movements back to how I used to, especially on defense (was tough),” Catchings said.
But flashes of her old self re-appear, including in the Lady Bulldogs’ fourth game of the year against Williams Sullivan on Nov. 21.
Catchings catches a pass in the corner, and her instincts take over. She fakes a shot, side dribbles a defender and launches her 3-point attempt.
She nails it.
“For the first time in a long time,” Catchings said, “I actually felt good.”
Her hope is she’ll get a chance to showcase her talent to a college recruiter.
“If she gets her speed back, she’d like to walk on somewhere,” Cinda Catchings said.
If that doesn’t happen, the younger Catchings still has this season and an inspiring story to share. That story exists on the beads of her necklace. But she still has one more bead to add, for June 16, 2015, the last scheduled day of her treatment.
“It’s not as bad as it seems anymore,” Catchings said. “I can handle it.”