• This is the second in a four-part series. If you missed the first part, click here.
It’s 7 a.m. on a rainy November morning and the halls of Chilliwack secondary school are quiet.
In an hour those same halls will be bustling with activity as students and teachers filter in — the slamming of locker doors, the echo of footsteps and the ceaseless conversations will fill the air until the school empties again around 4 p.m.
But now, the only sound to be heard comes from the gymnasium, where Kyle Lorteau has already started his day.
He is there every day because practice makes perfect and he’s got a dream.
Basketball is going to take him places.
It’s going to pay for an education, and God willing maybe some day someone will actually pay him to play a game.
• • •
Every plan Kyle ever had seemed to vanish in a puff of smoke one morning in May as he sat in a room in the oncology section of BC Children’s Hospital.
A team of medical professionals delivered the worst possible news.
You have a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is growing at an alarming rate.
You have two treatment options.
We can operate and try to remove the cancer, or we can blast your body with the maximum dose of radiation to try and kill it off.
Either way, you’re going to have to go through chemotherapy. And by the way, you’ll almost certainly be rendered sterile.
For most 17-year-old boys, the big questions in life are hamburger versus pizza, Call of Duty versus Halo, or Megan Fox versus Keira Knightley.
Kyle sat in that chair with a million thoughts swirling through his head, none involving hamburgers.
The quaint teenage notion of invincibility forever dashed, Kyle was suddenly confronted by his own mortality and possibility that he wouldn’t live to see 18.
If he somehow beat the odds, the price paid for survival could be horribly steep.
For many boys his age, the idea of a future without kids may have been an abstract thought easily pushed to the side.
Kyle was freaked out.
“I couldn’t imagine going through life alone, going home to an empty house,” he said. “I definitely wanted kids, and I was like ‘Oh my goodness’ when they told me I might not be able to.”
The solution was a trip to a sperm bank, another in a series of situations Kyle never pictured himself in.
“That was really awkward,” he laughed. “And it was even worse when we had to go back a second time.”
Balding for Dollars, a charitable organization that raises money to help cancer patients at the B.C. Children’s Hospital, generously paid both deposits at $400 apiece plus the yearly storage fees ($200 for the first year, $125 every year afterwards).
With that taken care of, Kyle next had to consider his education.
He would miss tons of time going back and forth to Children’s Hospital, and there would be many days when the chemo would leave him too drained to sit through a full day of classes.
Another heavy decision.
Heads, take time off to deal with the cancer, come back next year and graduate with a group of relative strangers.
Tails, work around dozens of appointments, fight through the hell of chemo and try to graduate with his friends.
And then there was the basketball.
All of those early mornings had been geared towards a singular goal, securing a scholarship that would pay for his post-secondary education.
By his own admission, Kyle was an academic underachiever. While many of his classmates had to study late into the night to pass tests, Kyle was blessed with the ability to hear something once, absorb it and implement it. Where books and tests were concerned, he was capable of much, much more.
But Kyle was secure in the belief that his hoops ability would take him where he wanted to go, certain that no-look passes and 20 foot jump-shots would get him a scholarship.
Chemotherapy meant the end of that.
Drained by weekly treatments, there was absolutely no way he was going to play at a high enough level to impress a university coach. There was enough doubt about whether he could play at all.
But still, Kyle wanted to play.
He needed to play.
“In my mind I was trying to prove a point. If I listened to my doctor and didn’t do school and basketball for a year, it would pretty much be like cancer beating me,” Kyle explained. “I could either accept this and let it take over my life, or I could continue with my life and not let it win. Basketball made me forget about it too. I felt it, but I was playing basketball.”
Though it was far more difficult than before, though his body was ravaged by chemotherapy treatments, Kyle continued to drag his butt out of bed every morning. He continued to show up at the gym at 7 a.m., and when CSS coach Joe Mauro held the first practice of the 2011 season, his star guard was there.
“I saw a kid who was going to be struggling and I turned to my assistant and said, ‘Wow,’” Mauro recalled. “You could see he was only half of what he was. His shot was weak. His stamina was down. At that first practice, we’re pushing the boys hard to see what we have, but with Kyle we backed right off. We told him, ‘You do what you can and don’t worry about the coaches or the team. You have a spot and we’ll work with you.’”
What Mauro didn’t know at that first practice was that this was the start of a long and frustrating season.
Kyle’s mom, Flora, didn’t want him to play.
During a game against G.W. Graham at an early tournament at Sardis secondary school, Kyle took a hard charge and dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. Mauro can still see Flora storming out of the stands and crossing the court.
As Kyle watched, horrified, she delivered a few unkind words to the referee.
Then, she tore into Mauro for putting him into the game.
“As a parent she had every right to do what she did, and I really took that to heart. But I also told her that she needed to let me know if she wasn’t going to be able to handle him being part of the team,” the coach said. “In that moment she was concerned about whether he could handle it, and truthfully we weren’t even sure yet. There were a couple times during games and practices where he went down and we were super concerned. One time in our gym I went over and said, ‘Kyle, just lay there and don’t make a move until you’re ready to get up.’”
From that game on, Kyle made sure he popped back to his feet as quick as possible when he knew Flora was watching.
Even Mauro’s wife had issues with Kyle playing, and she let him know about it after watching a CSS game.
“She asked me, ‘Why are you playing him? Why can’t he sit there and watch the game?’ And my answer was because that’s not Kyle,” Mauro said. “For him that would be giving up on life. I’ve been around long enough to know you’re going to get criticized no matter what you do, and I wasn’t oblivious to people talking in the stands and on the road. But everyone knew my intentions and the loyalty that played a huge part in it. Did I want to squash his dreams? No.”
The Storm struggled.
They missed the playoffs and secretly Mauro might have breathed a sigh of relief knowing the season was over.
Through a long and distinguished career he had learned a lot of lessons. This season, difficult as it was, had reinforced the most important lesson of all.
“What does the game mean in the scope of life?’” he mused. “Absolutely nothing. There’s bigger problems.”
This is the second in a four part series that continues in the Tuesday, June 28 issue of the Chilliwack Progress.