Hoops for Hope fights cancer on the court

ASHLAND, Kan. -- The word "peaceful" inevitably is mentioned when visitors talk about coming to rural western Kansas. For some, it's a reminder of their own homes in very small towns. For others, it's a window into a life where everything seems impossibly quiet and spatially surreal.

Just how far does that horizon go? How many miles of farmland and cattle country are we viewing here? Can we really see into the next county?

"You get here, and you're saying, 'Where is everybody? Where's the Starbucks?'" joked longtime WNBA guard Ticha Penicheiro, who grew up near the beach in Portugal and came here to play in the WEPAC Hoops for Hope charity basketball game Friday. "But it's very refreshing. The people are genuinely nice and welcoming. They're so happy to have us here."

This is a place where the locals still invite strangers to stay at their houses, fix them meals, and give them homemade jars of jelly and relish to say goodbye. These are folks who don't just know every person they went to high school with, but also their classmates' entire families and life stories.

And while there truly is an inherent amount of peacefulness out here -- in large part simply because there are fewer things around to disturb it -- the peace can be severely disrupted. Most typically by the weather, in the form of storms ranging from EF-5 tornadoes to blizzards.

"As I went through Greensburg, they were showing me where the tornado hit," said Chamique Holdsclaw, a New York City native and WNBA veteran who took this past season off to help heal an Achilles' injury. "They were talking to me about the impact it had there. My eyes were wide-open."

Indeed, that May 2007 killer storm nearly erased tiny Greensburg from the map. That is not an exaggeration: 95 percent of the structures there were essentially destroyed. But its regrowth as a truly "green" town -- with wind-powered energy and construction being to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards -- is an example of the spirit of this part of the nation.

As is the WEPAC game. Because weather is not the only monster people here face. They have another sadly familiar foe, just like everywhere else: Cancer.

But here, in the southwest part of the Sunflower State, the fight against cancer is more difficult because of the area's remoteness. Getting a digital mammogram used to mean taking a day off from work and making a round trip drive of 4-5 hours to a city such as Wichita.

That's where the WEPAC "Hoops for Hope" game -- now in its third year -- changed things. First, an explanation of the acronym WEPAC: It stands for five rural communities here in Kansas: Wilmore, Englewood, Protection, Ashland and Coldwater. The combined population of the towns is around 2,500.

Here's how Hoops for Hope came about: Benjamin Anderson, sort of a force of nature himself, is CEO of the Ashland Health Center. A few years back, he was moved by the story of a hospital worker named Joe Labelle who said his grandmother had died of cancer and had never had any preventative health care. Labelle wondered if a charity basketball game might raise funds for cancer research.

Anderson took that idea and led the charge to turn it into something even more impactful on the local level. The fight against cancer has many fronts, and research is a crucial one. But so is the more "hand-to-hand" combat, if you will, of trying to catch the disease in its earliest stages. That's what the WEPAC game has been dedicated to.

The "pink" and "white" teams -- both of which have a mix of WNBA players, former college players from the Midwest and local high school girls -- competed on Friday night at Ashland High's gym. The game is a fun exhibition, of course. For the record, "white" beat "pink" 90-69. But the bottom line is that "white" and "pink" were actually on the same side: raising funds and sharing in fellowship.

"I am not from this small of a town," said Seattle Storm guard Katie Smith, who grew up in Logan, Ohio. "But being here isn't a shock to my system. I can relate to this. It's a lot of fun to have events in small towns like this because everyone gets involved. You see signs in all the store windows; people decorate their houses and lawns. Everybody has a hand in it."

Part of the proceeds go to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. But the majority of the funds raised allows things such as a mobile digital mammogram machine to come to the WEPAC area once a month. Locals are given vouchers to redeem for screening and "well-woman" exams.

"What we found is that women in rural areas tend to look after everyone else in their family but short-change their own health care," Anderson said. "We have two major barriers to care here: affordability and access. This project removes both those barriers."

He started on the path to "Hoops for Hope" by networking with another regional health-care facility, Comanche County Hospital, plus local law-enforcement agencies, banks, stores, restaurants, civic groups and a legendary figure in Kansas sports history: Jackie Stiles.

A native of Claflin, Kan., -- which is in the exact center of the state -- Stiles had her WNBA career cut short because of injuries but is still revered as the all-time scoring leader in Division I women's basketball during the NCAA era. She spent her college career at Missouri State and continues to live in Springfield, Mo., but is very tied to her rural Kansas roots.

Stiles agreed to be a coach in the first WEPAC game in 2009, and has helped contact other current and former WNBA players. Two-time WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper, who lost her mother to breast cancer, came and coached along with Stiles that first year. Sheryl Swoopes, who has won three WNBA MVP awards, played in the game last year. Anderson was even able to swing a deal to have it televised all three years by Fox Sports Network.

This year, the game had some new superstar names participating, such as Holdsclaw as an honorary coach, and Smith and Penicheiro as players. Edna Campbell, a former WNBA player who is a 10-year survivor after battling breast cancer, played in the game and spoke to the crowd at halftime.

"Throughout the year," Campbell told the fans packed into Ashland High School's gym, "these few days spent here end up being among the most important in my life."

Penicheiro got involved with the WEPAC game because of Campbell; they both played for the former Sacramento Monarchs WNBA franchise. Also competing Friday was Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, who played the last two seasons in the WNBA with Tulsa, although she is no longer with the Shock.

Jones spoke to WEPAC-area youths about the message she delivers now of the importance of making good choices in life.

"It would be nice to just talk about accomplishments; isn't that what we all want to do?" said Jones, who was stripped of her five Olympic medals from 2000 after admitting to using performance-enhancing substances. "But I travel around talking about my mistakes. I wake up and have to think about them. Not a day goes by that I don't. But that's because of the poor choices I made. I have to own up to those.

"And I tell kids, 'When you're faced with choices, slow down. Arm yourself with knowledge. Be careful of who you are hanging out with. Think about the consequences.' "

Jones, like all the other players, was totally embraced by the fans here. She loved the chance to give her young children horseback rides and a look at real farm life.

It is not easy for her or any of the players to get to the WEPAC communities. There are no short-cuts. So if you're here, it's because you really wanted to be here.

"At first, we did have to plead with people to come, because they didn't know what it was or why it was happening," Anderson said. "Now, we're getting calls from players saying, 'We'd like to come.' They are recruiting each other based on their experience here.

"To date, this project has paid for 433 screenings. These are for local women in our communities; people we know and work with. They are finding cancer early that otherwise they may not have found until it was too late."

The "Hoops for Hope" game has come at a time when the nation is in economic recession, and preventative health care unfortunately may be seen as a "luxury" to many families. In other words, the funds raised have been needed more than ever.

"Being as remote as we are, it would be easy for us to find excuses why we can't do this," Anderson said. "But these are five towns that are coming up with solutions instead of excuses. What resources do we have, and what can we pool together?

"We're starting to get more requests on the blueprint we put together for this, and we're giving it to anyone who asks. We want to make a national impact while taking care of our local women."

Additional reporting was done before the game in Coldwater, Kan.

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