SALEM — The high school basketball team knew Jalen Pigg, the whiz at the 3-point shot in Special Olympics, the guy with a bashful smile and a penchant for reminding them of his 6-point career-high game. The upbeat Michael Jordan fan who belted out Alan Jackson and Bruno Mars songs using his fist as a microphone. The 19-year-old who loved pork chops and his grandma’s chili.
The Salem High (Ind.) team knew Jalen, Jumpshot Ja, because they helped with Special Olympics.
Then a year ago, Feb. 1, they heard the awful news. Jalen had leukemia. They were devastated.
But life went on, as the lives of teenage boys buried in school work and sports, enamored with Fortnite and pretty girls, has to go on.
Another basketball season rolled around with a new coach. The players were excited to have Mike Brown, one of the state’s all-time winningest coaches — No. 11 on the active list, with 484 victories.
One day at practice, in the midst of drills and running plays, Brown told the team he’d be bringing his son to practice. He loved basketball and needed some cheering up.
Brown’s son walked into the gym.
The players’ mouths dropped. It was Jalen. Worlds collided.
And now, this team isn’t just hoping the best for their Special Olympics buddy in his cancer fight.
They are watching it all firsthand through the eyes of their coach.
‘You don’t know how to take it’
“It took my breath away,” said Brandon Pepmeier, a senior forward.
When he saw that Jalen was coach Brown’s son (technically his stepson, but Brown calls him son). When he heard that Jalen had leukemia.
“Such a big life, such a big-spirited kid with a disease like that,” he said. “You just don’t know how to take it.”
Jalen had been battling what the family thought was the flu around Christmas of 2017, but it hung on for days and then weeks. He had a nose bleed. He had pain in his knee and shoulder. His hemoglobin count was low and he was having trouble breathing.
In late January, his mom, Marni Brown, received a call from Bedford North Lawrence, where Jalen was a senior.
He had fallen asleep in class. He couldn’t make it up the stairs and was screaming in pain. Marni Brown knew. Children with Down syndrome have a 20 times higher risk than a typical child of developing leukemia.
“I had been watching for it his whole life,” said Brown, who is a nurse. Within an hour of arriving at the local hospital, Jalen was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
On Feb. 1, the results from a spinal tap confirmed Jalen had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects white blood cells.
“I was nervous,” Jalen said of hearing the word cancer. He’s fought like a trouper.
For the past year, Jalen has battled for his life. It’s been a treacherous 12 months with chemotherapy, nausea and unbearable sores in his mouth. He’s lost more than 70 pounds, down to 130 pounds from 204 when he was diagnosed.
He’s spent weeks at a time — one stint was more than 100 days — in the hospital, battling infection.
There was a time at Riley when Jalen looked at his mom and told her he was done fighting. He was tired. He was sick of being sick. He stopped eating and was put on a feeding tube.
“I didn’t know,” she said, “if I was going to bring him home with me.”
There’s a water break riding on the three shots Jalen is about to take. Make one and the team gets hydration, Coach Brown tells Jalen at the team’s practice last week.
Players surround Jalen, who stands halfway between the free throw line and the basket. He shoots the first shot. It goes just a couple feet in the air. So does the second shot. On the third, it looks like the ball has more momentum, but stops shy of even hitting the rim.
Jalen walks away defeated, his shoulders drooping, his head hanging. He used to be the 3-point guy.
Brown forgets about his team and walks up to Jalen, puts his hands on his shoulders and looks him in the eyes.
“It’s OK, Jalen. You’re stronger than you’ve been in a long time. Remember when you were in the ICU and didn’t even have the strength to hold a basketball, let alone try to shoot? That just shows you where you are and where you need to get. In a month, I want you to be able to hit that shot again.”
Jalen nods and smiles. He rests his head on his stepdad’s shoulder.
“I love coming to practice to see him,” said Jalen, who has helped Brown coach on the bench for years. He was just 7 years old when his mom and Brown got together.
It didn’t take long for Brown to fall in love with Jalen. It doesn’t take anybody long, said Marni Brown.
“He’s a trouper, a light. Every community loves him,” she said. “He’s a joy. He truly doesn’t meet a stranger.”
The players have all fallen for Jalen, too. When he walks into the gym, “it’s like a celebrity is here,” Brown said.
“Our kids are inspired by him. They don’t love him as much as I do,” Brown said, fighting back tears, “but they’re close.”
‘He is darling’
Jalen came a month early in August of 1999. Marni Brown didn’t know he was a boy until he was born, named after Jalen Rose, and she didn’t know he would have Down syndrome.
Most children born with the syndrome, three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two, have health struggles their entire lives.
“Jalen had never been sick except the couple times he had pneumonia,” Marni Brown said. “Never had a heart problem, no eye problems, ears, stomach, nothing.”
That, along with Jalen’s independence and deep thinking, prompted the family to joke that “he has half the extra chromosome,” Marni Brown said. “He didn’t get the whole chromosome.”
Jalen’s doctor at Riley, Sandeep Batra, medical director of the leukemia program at the hospital, said Jalen’s attitude has been incredible.
“Even though he’s had a lot of challenges along the way, he still is upbeat, compared to what he’s going through,” Batra said. “He is darling.”
And Jalen still has a fight in front of him. His treatment will take two more years of outpatient chemo. He has fewer than 5 percent of the leukemia cells left in his body, and is considered in remission. But it’s those final few that are the toughest to eliminate, Batra said.
“I’m hoping he stays out of the hospital and has few complications going forward,” he said “So he can be doing the things he wants, be with the basketball team.”
Yes. The basketball team, the gym, is what Jalen loves.