At Duke, basketball provides the perfect backdrop to salute ‘kid captains’ facing medical battles

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DURHAM, N.C. — The action had stopped in Duke’s rowdy Cameron Indoor Stadium for a timeout. For 10-year-old Samantha DiMartino, the most exciting part of the night had arrived.

She smiled while walking to midcourt alongside Marcelle Scheyer, wife of Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer, as the arena announcer told her story. Samantha has been a patient of Duke Children’s Hospital since 2017 with an inoperable brain tumor, previously completing 15 months of chemotherapy and last summer becoming the pediatric neuro-oncology department’s first patient to complete a new clinical trial.

Cheers grew louder from the blue-painted and costumed “Cameron Crazies.” Fans in upstairs sections stood to join the rising volume. As Samantha waved, the noise approached in-game levels to salute a courageous fourth-grader who loves dance, running 5Ks and, oh yes, Duke basketball.

This was a snapshot of a gameday tradition in its infancy here, tied to two of the biggest brands in major college sports: the storied program with five national championships on the court and the famous student section known for its antics off it. The moment is one of encouragement and tribute, acknowledgement and hope — and it stands out amid Cameron’s constant chaos.

“I’m just so proud of her for everything that she’s gone through,” said Lauren Brill, Samantha’s mother, after Wednesday’s ceremony during the Louisville-Duke game. “And just to see this crowd celebrate these accomplishments with her — it means the world to see everyone behind her and encouraging her.”

That’s all Marcelle Scheyer could have hoped for in launching the Scheyer Family Kid Captain Program last season, her husband’s first as successor to retired Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski. The aim was bolstering existing ties with the renowned hospital to give patients an up-close look at the program; Saturday’s game against Virginia marks the sixth kid captain this season and 11th overall.

Kid captains attend the gameday shootaround, followed by getting the chance to dribble around or shoot on the Cameron court as a photographer documents everything so the families can just enjoy the moment instead of trying to capture it.

The highlight comes during a first-half media timeout, reminiscent of “ The Wave” at Iowa in which players and fans wave at patients watching from the windows of the nearby children’s hospital after the first quarter.

In-game stoppages typically feature distracted fans chatting amongst themselves or scrolling through their cellphone. Not this one. Fans watch closely as they do during game action, with the Crazies sometimes chanting the kid captain’s name and fans of the opposing team joining the cheers.

Scheyer hopes it creates a brief escape for kids and families in need of one.

“The players may be inspiring to these kids and giving them strength and something to look forward to,” Scheyer told The Associated Press. “But I always say, they’re just as inspiring to us and to our team, seeing the strength that they have and their fight and their joy. The way they look at the world is inspiring.”

Scheyer has generally preferred a behind-the-scenes profile. But the chance to “celebrate and honor” kid captains and their families is a natural pull for the nurse practitioner and mother of three, all 6 or younger.

“I definitely get teary-eyed and choked up, but I also cry all the time,” she said of joining them at midcourt. “I’m such an emotional (person), especially when it comes to kids. I have three kids of my own, and thinking about what these parents and families are going through, it’s just unthinkable. I feel so honored to be able to be a part and to lead this program. I wish we could do it a million times over.”

The impact from the thus-far limited sample size resonates all the same.

There was 10-year-old Harper Harrell from Durham triumphantly ringing a bell to signify the end of more than 800 days of chemotherapy for leukemia. That early-February scene moved some fans to tears amid rousing cheers, while also raising awareness of Harper’s own nonprofit (Harper’s Home) to provide affordable housing for families with a child being treated at the hospital.

There was the feeling Caroline Giguere from Greenville, South Carolina, had as her 5-year-old son Row was honored during a January game against Clemson. Row is blind due to a rare genetic disorder called KIF11 and underwent multiple eye surgeries.

“He was like, ‘Everyone cheered for me,’” said Giguere, co-founder of the KIND of the Upstate nonprofit advocating inclusiveness for those with disabilities. “I don’t think he really understands how many people are in there. He just understands it’s loud. But I think he moreso was just in love with the fact he was being celebrated.”

He still proudly shows off his autographed basketball from that day, too.

“The second you say, ‘Hey Row, what’s on your ball?’” Giguere said, “he’s like, ‘Dream biggest. Coach Scheyer wrote it.’”

Dr. Ann M. Reed cherishes those stories as physician-in-chief of Duke Children’s Hospital and chair of the university’s Department of Pediatrics. Reed said kids and families often feel isolated while facing endless treatments and tests as the world goes on without them outside the hospital.

The program offers an uplifting confirmation: the world still sees them.

“It allows this child and family to not just focus on the illness,” Reed said. “Often, if you’ve ever had a child that’s ill, families can get so focused on the illness they forget about everything else. It’s all-consuming. … But it allows them to get away from the illness side and be able to have another experience that’s not around their illness.”

For Samantha, that meant joining her family from nearby Apex in second-row seats underneath the basket. She soon joined Scheyer at the end of the press-row tables as her moment drew near, with Scheyer attentively leaning in to talk to her and join cheers.

“She’s beautiful with it,” Reed said of Scheyer, adding: “She really needs to get credit, I think, for what she’s been doing.”

Scheyer prefers naming numerous people with the hospital and Duke athletics that turn plans to reality.

“Behind everything,” she said, “there’s a loving, caring person.”

Samantha clearly felt that. She ended her captaincy duties by walking to the front row of Crazies and giving a line of high-fives on her way off the court. Some press-row media members joined the mass of outstretched arms, while game referee Keith Kimble walked over to join what amounted to a big virtual hug.

Amid an uncertain future, moments like this are reminders that there can be plenty of good days ahead, too.

“I love how everyone was so supportive of me for having a disease like this,” Samantha said with a smile. “Because sometimes people think of it as an insecurity, and I love how they just support everything and that they tried to make you embrace it. So it’s really cool.”

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