Commentary

The miracle that is Jessica Breland

Five years after Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis, former UNC star back at her best

Originally Published: June 18, 2014
By Melissa Isaacson | espnW.com

BrelandGary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesChicago's Jessica Breland ranks second in the WNBA in blocks and seventh in rebounds.

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Sylvia Hatchell walked into Carmichael Arena and saw a runaway Jessica Breland charging toward her.

Stopping just short of running over her former coach, Breland, who had not seen Hatchell since the previous summer, asked, "Can I touch you?" Given the go-ahead, she picked up Hatchell and swung her around.

The fact that Breland, a starter for the Chicago Sky, could sprint across a gym last April and lift a grown woman was not lost on Hatchell. The fact that Hatchell needed a lift and got one from the one person who knew implicitly just how much, hit her square in the heart.

"You have to understand," Hatchell said. "Jessica is my inspiration."

The North Carolina women's basketball coach still beats herself up about Breland. The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 10.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over her career in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from 2006 to 2011 -- and took about as much motivational urging from Hatchell as the coach says she has ever dished out.

"For two years, I was on her case nonstop, telling her how great she could be," Hatchell said. "I'd say, 'Jessica, you have to be more dedicated. Jessica, you have to be more committed. You can be an All-American. You just have to want it more.' ... I was on that kid like you can't imagine.

[+] EnlargeBreland & Catchings
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty ImagesJessica Breland, right, said Tamika Catchings was "so helpful on court in the sense of teaching you new things and to believe in your abilities."

"I had no idea she was so sick."

After being treated for symptoms that suggested everything from allergies to pneumonia, Breland, who was just 21 that spring of 2009, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.

Four years later, in the fall of 2013, Hatchell -- who had pushed doctors to find out what was wrong with Breland -- learned she had acute myeloid leukemia.

"No one can tell you how it feels until you walk in those shoes," said the 61-year-old Hatchell, whose doctors have said she is now in remission. "Many times I'd be in the hospital taking [chemotherapy] treatments or in between when I'd take a dive and my immune system was flat and I couldn't be around people, and I'd think of Jessica and what she has been through.

"I see her now and think, 'This is what you have to look forward to.'"

Closing in on the five-year marker when doctors tell her she can be called cancer-free, Breland is finding a new life in basketball. She ranks second in the WNBA in blocks (2.0), seventh in rebounds (9.0) and is averaging 11.9 points for the Sky in her first professional starting role.

But after being selected 13th overall by Minnesota in the 2011 WNBA draft and traded to New York on draft day, Breland was off on a ride that defined journeyman. Joining Connecticut as a free agent that first July after being waived by New York, she was then signed by Washington, waived in training camp in 2012, took a year off to regroup, then signed with Indiana the following winter. During WNBA offseasons, there were stops in Turkey and Israel.

"

She has been in the league a few years, she didn't stick on any one team, she was a backup in Indiana and had a more defined, smaller role. I had to make her understand -- your role is a lot bigger here.

" -- Sky coach Pokey Chatman on Jessica Breland

Finally, however, Breland looks to be closing in on the promise Hatchell saw. She signed with the Sky as a free agent in March.

"I think all of those coaches saw the potential in me," Breland said. "It was just whether or not I would get into great shape and get stronger, because when I was getting released from these teams, they weren't saying, 'You didn't have the talent. You didn't have the skills or abilities.' It was more, 'You need to get stronger and healthier.'"

That would simply take time, which Breland did not have enough of after leaving North Carolina. The year before, a redshirt season in 2009-10, had been taken up by chemotherapy. And her senior year, though solid enough to get her drafted, saw her playing limited minutes because of lung capacity diminished by chemo. "There's no telling how good she could have been in college if she was 100 percent physically," Hatchell said.

Breland acknowledges she simply wasn't ready to compete at the pro level.

"Just to be drafted, period, coming out of the situation I was coming out of, I couldn't even see basketball at that time," she said. "It was more so getting my life back. Getting on the court was just a plus, a blessing."

Each step was also a lesson, especially against players who were bigger, better, stronger and quicker.

"I just ran out of gas," Breland said. "I didn't have it in me."

After getting waived prior to the 2012 season, Breland put in a call to her agent.

"I said, 'Hey, don't look for a team for me right now. I just really have to work on myself,'" she recalled. "I was able to do that in 2012 and get in a better space mentally."

[+] EnlargeJessica Breland
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireJessica Breland redshirted the 2009-10 season at North Carolina after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

She returned to Chapel Hill, which she says she does every chance she gets and where she eventually purchased a home nearby. There she gets to work in the one place she had always found the most support, and to continue to establish the Jessica Breland Comeback Kids Fund to support cancer research and treatment at UNC's pediatric oncology program.

"I see the same doctors there, who are like family," Breland said. "And it's nice to work out with trainers who know your body and know you, who have been there for you and are a support system. Coach Hatchell is great, everybody is. I can't imagine not being around there."

Jason Beaulieu, director of strength and conditioning for UNC's women's basketball team, worked with Breland right after she completed chemotherapy and continues to train her when she's in Chapel Hill.

"I haven't trained a lot of people coming off chemo, and I thought, 'I don't know if she's going to come back,'" Beaulieu said. "She didn't have any muscle mass, she lost a ton of weight, 20 to 25 pounds. We just started general body weight exercises and in 15 to 20 minutes, she was done, it was all she could do."

Calling Breland "one of the most mentally tough people I have ever trained," he characterized Breland's strength now as "off the charts."

"It really takes a couple of years to come back from chemo, so this is really the first year where her body is back to where it was before she had cancer," he said. "Now we're seeing the real Jessica Breland come out and playing with confidence, and it's great to see."

The decision between returning to Indiana to play behind three-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings or heeding coach Pokey Chatman's call to join the Sky was not an easy one. Breland credits Fever coach Lin Dunn for her development and knows she benefited from working with Catchings.

The feeling is mutual. As a replacement player, Breland had been released, per league rules, to make room for the return of Fever star Katie Douglas. But Indiana wanted Breland back this season.

"She has a great body, [is] quick, agile, can shoot the elbow jump shot from pretty much anywhere on court, has great post moves and can create shots from anywhere," Catching said. "She's a coach's dream player because she is willing to learn."

This is really the first year where her body is back to where it was before she had cancer. Now we're seeing the real Jessica Breland come out and playing with confidence, and it's great to see.

-- Jason Beaulieu, UNC director of strength and conditioning

Breland's will to work her way back to a high level impressed Chatman.

"That right there said a lot to me about the person," Chicago's fourth-year coach said. "That athletic ability and skill set is the easiest thing to see, but also I just felt the way she played the game was something I had been looking for since I got to Chicago."

Breland found her offensive game in Israel this past WNBA offseason, averaging 22.9 points and 10.9 rebounds. Still, she had to be convinced she was a full-time player.

"It was hard for her to comprehend because she has been in the league a few years, she didn't stick on any one team, she was a backup in Indiana and had a more defined, smaller role," Chatman said. "I had to make her understand -- your role is a lot bigger here."

Breland says Chicago -- even with early illness and injuries to [Elena] Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles, and Breland missing two games with a pre-stress fracture in her shin -- is already a good fit.

"What Pokey is building here is going to be phenomenal," she said. "Pokey saw things in me I was just not seeing, but I'm seeing the big picture now.

"I definitely have a stronger inner strength in me since I was sick. You never know how powerful you can be or how much you can go through until you go through it, until we have to push ourselves to the limit."

Hatchell calls it not knowing how strong you can be "until strong is all you have."

When Hatchell was sick, she said Breland would call and text, "just to tell me she was thinking about me and tell me, 'If I did it, you can.'"

"I'm just so proud of her," Hatchell said. "[A few] years ago, the kid could barely walk across the room and now she's tearing up the WNBA."

Chatman and Sky teammates say it is impossible to tell that Breland carried such a physical burden not so long ago.

"If you ask her, she'll tell you all about it," said Sasha Goodlett, who played with Breland last season in Indiana. "But everyone else is like, 'Oh my God, she had cancer,' and it's such a small speck of the person she is. ... And as a basketball player, she's ready to step into the [spot]light."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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