On Sunday, Patrick McSweeney didn’t seem worried about tomorrow.
The 15-year-old St. Xavier High School student, in a decade-long battle against life-threatening leukemia, warmed up with his Bellarmine (Louisville, Ky.) teammates for the day, a moment months in the works by coach Scott Davenport. McSweeney hit shots consistently, hoping “one, giant 3-pointer” would drop to open an exhibition against the University of Louisville.
Mostly, though, McSweeney smiled, whether that was while joking around with the Knights or posing for fans’ pictures at the KFC Yum! Center.
And yes, he had plenty of fans with an announced 20,432 on hand, including one of his best friends, St. X student Jack Harty, who scored courtside seats and brought with him a handful of poster-sized pictures of McSweeney’s face to hand out.
“I heard they were going to have him shoot a layup,” Harty said, “but he thought, ‘Oh, well a 3-pointer is my better shot, and people won’t be as mad at me if I miss a 3 instead of a layup.'”
Introduced to a standing ovation as “The Fighting Irishman,” McSweeney wore No. 25, and indeed started Sunday’s game. He air-balled that 3-pointer on the Knights’ first trip down the court and, on the second, rimmed out a layup.
But McSweeney brought the Yum! Center to its collective feet when he followed with a 2-footer from the baseline, marking Bellarmine’s first points. Later, he was announced as player of the game, tallying two points, a rebound and a steal on Cards guard Terry Rozier.
“My heart was just pounding,” McSweeney said. “Thoughts were rushing and rushing through my head. To me, it was just crazy how everything was going on.
“It really gives a little extra boost that a person going through a severe illness usually needs.”
McSweeney’s leukemia, which has recurred three times and resulted in chemotherapy, bone marrow and T-cell transplants, needs more treatment. He’s due Monday in Philadelphia to continue a clinical trial where his cells are removed, genetically altered and inserted back in to fight the cancer.
“It’s always been hard for him,” Harty said. “He’s been thrown so many monkey wrenches in his life. He finally gets back to school, and he figures out his cancer is back and they have a another treatment lined up. This time it’s less grueling than the last one he had. He was out of school for a whole year.”
Still, though, Harty said McSweeney is “optimistic and energetic and funny — always cracking jokes when he’s at my house.”
McSweeney’s presence has been welcomed by Bellarmine’s program dating back to last season, when Boston-based nonprofit Team IMPACT reached out to the coach Davenport about giving the cancer patient a boost. He has a spot in the Knights’ locker room and a seat behind the bench at every game.
Sunday, though, McSweeney earned a seat on the bench itself.
“What that young man did out there in front of 20,432 took a lot of courage,” Davenport said. “He’s an amazing young man. He’s all that’s good about young people. Trust me.
“It’s amazing — young people that have opportunities in front of them and mess them up. What that guy would do to have an opportunity like a lot of people have and don’t take advantage of it.”
McSweeney’s chance came a week after Lauren Hill, a freshman at Division III Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, scored four points in front of a packed crowd despite her battled with an inoperable brain cancer. The performance made more national waves than McSweeney’s, though he was most pleased to hear from a local celebrity — former U of L football coach Charlie Strong.
“He visited me a lot, and we got to become pretty good friends,” McSwinney said. “When he moved to Texas, it was disappointing seeing him go from Louisville. But we still keep in contact. He still wishes me luck and checks up on me. He sent me a text just this morning, and it was probably one of the best I received today.”
The opening script of Sunday’s exhibition didn’t go exactly as Davenport had planned. When he went to the McSweeny home on Wednesday evening with son Doug, a video coordinator on the Cards’ staff, Bellarmine’s coach envisioned his team winning the tip and scoring the game’s first points. Instead, U of L took it, and guard Chris Jones hit a 3-pointer.
“I was counting on us being up 3-0,” Davenport joked after his Division II team’s 82-57 defeat. “…The city of Louisville and this community won today. The University of Louisville won on the basketball court, but this whole community won — if we’ll just keep putting young people first and making them better.”