That the nightmare was back for his family again hit Jason Stephens on the sidelines of a basketball court.
His son Brody, a 7-year-old basketball phenom — who was playing on travel teams as a kindergartner, who stole the show most games as a first-grader, who never, ever in a million years would want to come out of a game — walked up to his dad on the sidelines of the court.
The game wasn’t even two minutes in and Brody was asking to come out.
“He said, ‘Dad, I just can’t,'” Stephens said. “That’s when I knew.”
Round 2 of the Stephens’ family nightmare was back.
It’s been seven months since that game. A Steph Curry pillowcase and blanket drape Brody’s hospital bed at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. His new, size 2Y Curry shoes, Golden State Warriors blue with yellow accents, sit unworn in a box.
Brody still can’t play basketball. Little red slippers cover his feet.
If cancer is a monster, Brody has had to fight the beast twice. If cancer isn’t fair, Brody got two terrible lots in his short life.
This isn’t his first battle with leukemia. And this time around, the monster came back with a vengeance.
July Fourth weekend 2010, a baby Brody was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
The Stephens family — including Jason, mom, Celia, and Brody’s three older brothers — practically lived at the hospital for nine months.
This first round of cancer went as well as cancer in a 1-year-old can go. No complications. The chemotherapy worked.
“Only kid on the floor that didn’t see an ICU or anything like that,” said Jason Stephens, who lives on Indy’s east side. Brody, his brothers and mom live in New Palestine.
So, the Stephens family went home, counted their blessings, fell to their knees in relief as each test and checkup — weekly, monthly, every six months for the next five years — came back clean.
Then in December, the intense fatigue made Brody walk off the court.
A bone marrow test revealed not that Brody’s AML had come back, but that a new form of leukemia had attacked Brody altogether: acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
It is extremely rare to have one boy get two different types of leukemia. A veteran doctor told Stephens he had only seen that happen twice in his career.
This time, the battle has been much tougher. Brody has gone into septic shock, lost half his colon, had to wear an ostomy bag for months. Death has come knocking twice on his hospital door, his dad said. Riley saved his life both times.
The only option now is a bone marrow transplant. Brody has a match, a cord blood match. But he has to get his leukemia cell counts low enough to go into transplant. After each round of chemo, the doctors test to see if he’s hit the mark. Brody’s last round of chemo dropped his cell count from 10 percent to 0.5 percent. Good, but not good enough. He needs 0.1 percent to go into transplant. That’s why he is at Riley again, waiting to see if this round of chemo did the trick.
And as Brody waits in the hospital, the goal each day is to make him smile, Stephens said. And nothing makes Brody smile more than basketball and Legos.
Which is where a very important basketball tournament happening this weekend on the Indianapolis’ east side comes in.
Brody already used the wish trip kids with cancer get. He went to Walt Disney World as a 2-year-old. So Bob Gavaghan, a dear friend of the Stephens’ family has stepped up.
It just so happens Gavaghan and his son, Daniel, put on a blind-draw, three-on-three basketball tournament each year. In fact, this year is the 40th Gav’s Classic, which started in 1976 just for fun.
But now every year, the tournament that started with just 18 players — it will likely have more than 50 on Saturday — raises money to give to a person or organization in need. Last year, $3,300 was split between four students going to Scecina High School.
This year, the money will go to making Brody smile. He is in need of a trip to look forward to, so the Gavaghans want to make that happen.
BobbyG, as Brody calls Gavaghan, is in Brody’s hospital room Wednesday. Brody says BobbyG is “awesome” for doing this for him. So are Daniel and Gavaghan’s daughter, Shannon, and his wife, Susie, who will make sure Brody gets to see the tournament through FaceTime and Skype since he can’t leave the hospital.
Brody is excited to watch it from his room. He loves basketball and to have a tournament in his honor is a dream come true.
“Happy to do it, bud,” Bob Gavaghan says to Brody, a boy he calls “the bravest person he knows.”
For his trip, Brody has chosen Disney World — again — old enough this time to remember it. Plus, he can visit nearby Legoland Florida Resort. Legos have become his new love, since basketball can’t be.
His favorite way to pass time in the hospital is to build Legos. He’s mastered even the expert level kits. Brody also collects sports cards, plays Xbox, and “FaceTimes” his brothers, Eli, 14, Ian, 11, and Aidan, 10. He watches “Cake Wars” and ESPN, but said he gets sick of watching TV.
One day, not long ago, while on chemo, he set up a lemonade stand and raised $250 selling the drink from outside his hospital room. He worked it for nine hours, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., not feeling good at all.
And when the work was done, Brody didn’t want that money for himself. He bought Legos with it to donate to Riley, so the other sick kids could play with them.
Brody’s cancer fight has led to some pretty cool friendships. Indianapolis Colts backup tight end Jack Doyle visits Brody once or twice a week and will be at the tournament this weekend.
LeBron James wrote Brody a letter.
“Ummmm. Dear Brody, I’m sorry that you didn’t get to go to the Pacers game,” Brody says, reciting the letter by memory.
Brody was going to go to a game to see James but his counts were too low. That was OK. Brody likes James but not like he likes Curry. That’s his one big wish, to meet Curry.
He’s getting closer. Golden State coach Steve Kerr sent him a bunch of good stuff.
“He sent me a letter, hat, shirt and warmup pants and then the socks that the NBA players wear,” Brody rattles off. “Championship shirt from last year …”
And an autographed hat from when Kerr played for the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan. The girlfriend of Steve Kerr’s son, Nick, recently visited Brody and got some of his sports cards to take back to be autographed.
Of course, Brody’s biggest wish isn’t about basketball superstars or even the game. He really just wants to leave the hospital and go to his school this fall at Sugar Creek Elementary in New Palestine.
But that’s not likely going to happen. Even if he gets a transplant, he’ll have more months in the hospital.
Brody has become a pro at cancer, something no kid wants to be. But in his second battle, Brody said he knows exactly what he would tell other kids who have the disease or, perhaps, just found out they have cancer.
“To fight,” Brody said.
That’s what he does.
Help send Brody Stephens to Walt Disney World
• All donations can be sent to: Bob Gavaghan, 1321 Roseway Drive, Indianapolis, IN 46219.
• To play in the Gav’s Classic basketball tournament Saturday, email Bob at email@example.com.
• Follow Brody’s fight on his Facebook page Bubbles for Brody.