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Grizzlies take time to form bond with St. Jude patients

Gasol, Allen among those touched by kids with cancer

POSTED: Dec 27, 2014 5:05 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Marc Gasol has built a special relationship with Adam, who has been battling cancer while at St. Jude.

— The two players were talking about their daily habits.

"Everybody has a different routine before the game," Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies was saying. "I'll leave my room at 4. I look for a coffee shop, a Whole Foods or an organic type of place, and I sit there with my coffee and listen to the radio. Most guys take naps, but I don't. I always feel like I'm losing my day, like I'm wasting my time."

"I don't take naps either," the other basketball player was saying.

Gasol nodded. "My brother, he likes to read," he said of Pau Gasol, the power forward of the Chicago Bulls. "To me, reading pulls me in a different mode. It's not a pregame mode."

The other player explained his own routine. "I started out two weeks ago," he said, and he looked up into Gasol's eyes. He had Gasol's full attention. "I've done five doses, and I have 55 to go," he went on. "It's no fun, I can tell you."

"Makes you tired," Gasol said, nodding sympathetically.

"And everything," said Adam Cruthirds.

There was little in common between the two players. The NBA star stood 13 inches taller than his new friend. Gasol, 29, was an MVP candidate having his best season with the Grizzlies; Adam was a 17-year-old defensive-minded guard who had been forced into retirement from basketball last summer because a subcutaneous port had been implanted beneath the skin of his chest, feeding a large vein that flows directly to the heart. "That was a bad day," remembered Adam. When the doctor had told him he could no longer play basketball or go mountain biking, the tears had brimmed over the corners of his eyes. That was how most of Adam's crying has happened over these last few months, quietly, proudly, like a peak of mountain snow giving way to the gentle creeks of spring.

They were sitting in the Teen Room at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital downtown in Memphis. White Christmas was playing softly in the background. In the soothing quiet of the music they would glance at one another in recognition of those few things they did share in common. They both lived in Memphis, for starters, and they both loved basketball so much that their values mirrored and enriched the way they played; and now, just now, they both were preoccupied with the cancer that was threatening Adam's young life. It was the cancer, strangely, that drew them together.

The trouble first appeared last summer when Adam's knuckles became inflamed. "It started with this right knuckle, two weeks before," said Adam's mother Connie Cruthirds, "and then moved to the left knuckle, and then it moved to his whole hands so they were throbbing." The cancer in Adam's bone marrow was seeking places to expand, she would come to be told; which would inspire her to dwell on the things she used to think. "I'm like this emotional basket case," she said, "like, oh my God -- what if he's got arthritis." And she laughed at the less important fears that used to be life-and-death.

She stayed up with her son all night, praying. The next morning, miraculously, the pain in his hands was gone. They moved forward with the tests anyway. "Hugh Holt, the rheumatologist, calls me," Connie Cruthirds said. "He's known Adam since he was three, and he said, 'You know what just occurred to me, can he run by and do his blood work now? And then I'll have it on Wednesday."'

They didn't need the two extra days. Adam's blood count was high, and Dr. Holt had been able to see the blasts of Adam's blood cells through the microscope. "He was so upset that he called his wife and he was in tears," Connie Cruthirds said. The news spread fast among the elders in Adam's life. Everyone knew but him. "We couldn't find them," Connie Cruthirds said. "He took Annie (Parker, his girlfriend) out on a date at the river with his truck. They were sitting in the back, watching the sunset, eating a pizza."

On that evening of July 28, Adam met his parents and older sister Skyler at the home of Dr. Holt. The first response from Adam was to say, "I'm not afraid." Then he said, "What is leukemia?"

"For some reason, with some kids you just click," said Gasol, sweaty and still in uniform after a morning practice at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. He was speaking of Adam and the other young patients he has met over the years at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "It may be you relate to them for something that has happened to them, or maybe they get really close to you in that time you spent in the hospital. And then you go visit them again. And then you go visit them again, and you're going there for a half-year or a year, and then all of a sudden they're not there anymore."

I'm praying for them now, even now.

– Tony Allen

He could not make eye contact as he went on.

"And of course there are good stories, the kids are home and happy and they are back to their schools and they have their happy life," Gasol was saying. "And then there are stories where they tell you they're not there anymore. They passed. Most of the time what happens is they beat the cancer once or twice, and then it comes back and that's just brutal. The body is just not strong enough to take it anymore, and the cancer just takes over. Now, probably, there are 15 or 20 tumors everywhere. It is just too much for the kid." He was quiet. "There are countless stories of success, though, that we have to keep in mind."

He and Adam had met for the first time a few days earlier at the hospital. They had spent a good hour together, and that was all it took. In the days thereafter, Gasol would bring up Adam's name in a variety of conversations. The boy in need was always in his thoughts.

Connie Cruthirds has been amazed by how quickly her perspective has shifted. Her worst fears have given way to an overwhelming sense of gratitude. "He was the fastest in the door here," she said, as she sat in the Teen Room of St. Jude with Adam and Annie, "and the fastest to start chemo because he was the sickest. It just kept happening, one thing after the other, and then you start to think, wasn't it supposed to happen that way? Because it's unfolding just the right way."

The day after Adam discovered the meaning of leukemia, he was at St. Jude for an 8 a.m. appointment.

"It's like he is alive today because Danny Thomas needed 70 bucks," Connie Cruthirds said. "You know that story, right?"

The Cruthirds had been vaguely aware of the story which they now recite as gospel. Danny Thomas, a struggling 25-year-old comedian, had donated his last $7 to the collection plate while attending Mass in Detroit in 1937. He and his wife were expecting their first child, Marlo Thomas, and his prayers for help with the hospital bills were answered the next day by a gig worth 10 times his donation. Two years later, he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, for an end to his career struggles. "Help me find my way in life," he recalled praying, "and I will build you a shrine."

While his family comedy Make Room For Daddy (renamed later as The Danny Thomas Show) was in the midst of a 13-year run on television, Thomas made good on his end of the deal by meeting with a small group of acquaintances and strangers who were born of immigrants if not immigrants themselves.

"My father was one of those who met with Danny Thomas in the 1950s before there was a St. Jude," said Richard Shadyac Jr. "My father was a Department of Justice lawyer. And he didn't know Danny Thomas. We share the same heritage: We're Lebanese, and Danny Thomas is Lebanese. My dad was told to bring a couple of friends and meet Danny Thomas at a bowling alley in Washington DC. My father told me that Danny Thomas said four things: We're going to build a hospital, we're going to treat catastrophically ill kids, we're going to treat them without regard to race, creed, religion or ability to pay, and we're going to build it in Memphis, Tennessee, or somewhere in the South where they don't have access to modern medicine. And the cool thing is that these people listened to this guy, who was so convincing, and they made that view become a reality. And they did it to say thank you to God, and thank you to the United States of America for giving my grandparents and their parents the opportunity to come this country to make a living."

They formed the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, or ALSAC. As soon as they began to work with the children and their families, the need to build and grow the hospital became less theoretical and more personal. The children, innocent and suffering, needed to be saved. The single hospital building that was opened in 1962 has given birth to a sprawling campus: of hospitals, research centers, dormitory housing for the patients and their families, and offices that exist to raise the $2 million per day necessary to run this urgent sprawling community that grew out of seven dollars from one man's empty pocket.

marc gasol and mike conley
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol spend time with St. Jude patients.

The first time he underwent chemotherapy, Adam grew tortuously sick. "It was like I had the flu, but times 100," he said. His mother could see the hope flickering in him. "I'm just holding him in my arms, he was bawling his eyes out," she said. "Then he said, `I love you, Mom, and I love life. But I cannot do this. I cannot do 59 more doses.' And there was a horrible moment. It was just terrible."

The doctor in charge of Adam's treatment, Ching-Hon Pui, has a well-worn habit of pacing the room back and forth as considers Adam's options. One day he broke stride to turn and face Adam's mother. He said, "I will never let this guy down. Ever." And then he strode out of the room.

Adam had been allergic to the original chemotherapy. And so Dr. Pui put him on a more expensive course of treatment. The price of the 60 doses rose instantly from $500,000 to $1.5 million. "One point five million dollars for one medicine," Adam's mother was saying. There was never any doubt that Adam was going to receive the help he needed. "And we will never see the bill," she said. "And all of a sudden I'm thinking, Danny Thomas didn't dream this big."

"The first day away -- when they first let you take him home -- is scary as can be," Connie Cruthirds was saying. "When you're here, between six and eight people are checking the chemo before they give it to him. But when we're at home at night, my husband Art and I are the ones cutting Adam's chemo. I put on a mask and gloves and I go, 'Here, son, swallow this.' I'm thinking, oh my God, I hope I get this right."

On the typical day, Adam and Connie will leave their suburban home at 6 a.m. to arrive at St. Jude by 10 minutes to 7. "When you walk in here, it's like going to the airport -- you've got to get your ticket, you check in, you join your flight," Connie Cruthirds said. At the registration desk, Adam is asked for his medical records number, and he is given his itinerary for the day. It might be three pages long. "He sticks out his arm, they double-check the wristband and put it on him," his mother said. "These are very familiar faces who are doing that. Then we go and wait. The first appointment typically is assessment triage, and today they accessed the port to get it ready for the blood draws. Then we're waiting an hour and a half for the blood results to come back, and in that time we'll go to breakfast or go to school."

There is a fully accredited school at St. Jude, which has enabled Adam to remain on track for college even while he is missing his junior year at St. George's Independent School. There is a cafeteria of myriad food stations and choices and chefs who are equipped to feed Adam to his exacting standards, because his body cannot accept the usual intakes of bacteria, sugar, sodium and fat. There are also counselors to help him and his family, including Skyler, Adam's sister, who had been hesitant about flying to London for a semester abroad. "The counselors here met with her and told her the best gift you can give your brother is to get on the plane and go," said Connie Cruthirds. "So he knows that you have faith."

Then there is the meeting with Dr. Pui. "Which includes a physical exam and a review of medicine," Connie Cruthirds went on. "You don't always know you're going to get the chemo. Nothing happens until Dr. Pui puts in the order right there and moves forward based on the counts. From there it's two more hours, because the medicine is made to order for each kid, each time. There's Benadryl for 20 minutes and then -- depending on the day -- different meds, with one hour of observation to make sure he's OK. It is 8 to 15 hours a day, three days a week here."

In one form or another, Adam is receiving chemotherapy daily. Seven days per week. "There was one last week they call the `Devil Drug' -- it goes in red and comes out of him red too," Connie Cruthirds said. "There's one he'd taken before that hurts so bad, his nerve endings are hurting terribly -- lots of pain in his jaw, his shoulders and arms and legs. So they vary."

As he has settled into his routine of visits to the hospital every other day or two, Adam has found himself feeling envy for the patients from far away who travel to Memphis for the assistance of St. Jude. At the end of the day those families return to the dormitories and spend time together in support of one another. "So it's kind of a good thing," Adam said of having St. Jude in his hometown, "but it's kind of a bad thing, because you don't really have the community."

That was why Connie Cruthirds reached out to the family of Nicholas London as soon as she read his story in the local newspaper. As a life coach who specialized in helping victims of posttraumatic stress disorder, a career she has set aside in order to support Adam, she recognized what her family needed. "We need community," she said. "We need each other."

Nicholas London was a skinny 6-foot-6 incoming freshman at Hamilton High School in Memphis when he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the same as Adam. ALL, the most common cancer among children, killed all but 4 percent of its victims in 1962. The survival rate today at St. Jude is 94 percent. (But it is a long road. Adam won't know that he is cancer-free until he is 26 at the earliest.) Nicholas' father is 6-foot-8 Paris London, who played basketball at the University of Memphis, and who knew something was wrong as his son complained of stomach pain and struggled to run the court last summer while attending the camp that Chris Paul puts on at Wake Forest each year for the top eighth and ninth-graders in the country.

For some reason, with some kids you just click.

– Marc Gasol

Earlier this month, Nicholas and Adam were greeted at St. Jude by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies point guard who happens to be Nicholas' favorite player. Nicholas was respectful and cool as they played an NBA video game while his treatment drained down from a tall metal stand into Nicholas's bandaged wrist. "Nick's like, 'Dad, Dad -- I beat Mike Conley while playing (as) Mike Conley!"' said his mother Tangela London. "It's one of those things that I'm pretty sure Connie can tell you. Basketball is our life. He was taken away from all of his friends in basketball, the camaraderie of basketball."

To use a term of basketball, Adam and Nicholas are 'tweeners. Not children anymore, and not quite adult, they have been able to express themselves in ways that leave their elders in awe, as if the threat has brought out a prodigious maturity in them. "We talk about fears, and he said it best," Tangelo London said of Nicholas. "He said, `What is the worst that can happen?' Of course you don't want to tell your kid death is the worst that can happen in this process."

But she had no choice. He was 14 years old.

"He said, 'Is that really the worst that can happen? Don't we all die?"' recalled Tangelo London with a shaking of her head.

"`We do,"' she said to her son.

"And he said, 'So is that really the worst that can happen?'

"These kids," she said, "they show strength that I could never imagine. Never imagine."

One day Connie Cruthirds was driving Adam home after his day of chemotherapy when he became sick. Quickly she emptied a recycling bag of bottles and held it in front of him. "So what are we going to do with this?" she said. "Because the truth is, it's hot. His vomit has got chemo in it. It's hot."

The horrible stories that she cites as proof of the greatest good are amazing to her. They form the irony that outlines and deepens every grateful day.

"So we turn off North Parkway, get out," said Connie Cruthirds, "and this woman in the backyard -- of course there is a woman in the backyard -- she says, 'Honey, do you need help?' I said, 'My son's at St. Jude, he's a patient, he's just throwing up -- can I put this up back in the alley?' She's out there with this little bitty golden retriever puppy, he comes over to us, sharing love. That was a bad day. And then you move on. The thing is, we're one story. We're just one story here.

"It is a story of faith."

This is the kind of player Adam was -- sorry, is. Adam is able to see players as people, to see the game as an expression of life. The most intimidating basketball players were the ones he wanted to guard. "Some people are just like bruisers, and you know when they're mad," he said, his lips curling up into a smile. "I kind of like get into their head. Make them mad. I'll draw a foul or something like that." His father was his coach growing up, and when Adam would see the anger brimming over in an opposing player, he would say to his father, "I'll take that guy. I got him." Adam was not the scorer so much as he was the teammate who found joy in enabling others to score, and his father would laugh to himself, watching his competitive little boy applying psychology in the most selfless way for the good of the team. "He'd just get so mad," said Adam of whichever opponent he was riling up. "It's fun."

Adam was 135 pounds back then with a thick wave of hair. His weight plummeted to 100, as he dealt with pancreatitis. Thirty of the pounds have returned, though it is not the same kind of weight, and his hair has been replaced by a soft layer of peach fuzz. He wears a tiny round drug patch behind his right ear, and an array of diamond-shaped scars, black and permanent, are tattooed across his back like the beads of an abacus. So vulnerable is his platelet count that he earned those scars by sitting on the couch.

It is not a large city. Word gets around Memphis about who everyone is and what he or she stands for. It so happened that a friend of a friend knew Debby Wallace, the wife of Chris Wallace, the general manager of the Grizzlies. Last September 18, which was Adam's 17th birthday, his doorbell rang and he was called downstairs to find Chris Wallace and Tony Allen, the antagonizing defensive guard of the Grizzlies, who had come to celebrate Adam's birthday after hearing that he was Adam's favorite player. Connie Cruthirds was so excited for her son that she forgot to sanitize her visitors' hands.

"He didn't really believe what was going on," Tony Allen said. "So I was kind of in shock then, that I was actually over there; that somebody who was in that kind of pain could still admire me. I'm like, yo, take away all the fame and all the hoopla, I want to be over there just to let him know that it's genuine."

He wanted Adam to know that the feeling was mutual. It wasn't only that he wanted Adam to draw strength from him; there was a strength to be drawn from Adam, too.

marc gasol
Marc Gasol has always been about helping others, especially patients at St. Jude.

Allen and Wallace were shown the birthday card that had been delivered to the house that day. It had been signed by the junior class at Adam's school. It was a banner 40 feet long. "Tony Allen walked over and spread it out across the dining room table, and he got teary-eyed," Connie Cruthirds said. "And he said, 'You know, Adam, that's love. That is love. Can I love you, too?' he said. Then he got a Sharpie and he signed it."

"That was one of the best things I can remember doing," Tony Allen said as he sat in the Grizzlies locker room with his feet in a bucket of ice. "I'm praying for them now, even now."

"The kids see these players as heroes," Richard Shadyac Jr. was saying. "So when they meet them, and it makes them forget that they're sick, and they get to act like a normal kid. Then the athletes, especially, they realize how fortunate they are, that it's a blessed life that they get to live. They come to places like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and it puts their life in perspective. They really do realize how fortunate they are. The troubles that they may have may pale in comparison to what some of these kids and these families are going through."

The original meeting of Shadyac's father and Danny Thomas has evolved dramatically. Richard Shadyac joined the board of St. Jude in 1963, served as chairman in the 1980s and was chief executive of ALSAC as recently as a decade ago. He died in 2009, which was the same year that his namesake, his son, became the new chief executive of ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude. It costs $2 million per day to operate St. Jude, and much more to grow its mission capitally. St. Jude shares the gains of its research on cancer and other childhood diseases openly around the world.

"This has changed me as a man, as a father," Richard Shadyac Jr. said. "It makes me appreciate my wife and my two healthy kids. It puts my life in perspective. When I think I have these little, small problems, I walk across the street, I walk into the cafeteria of the hospital, I see those mothers and dads and those kids. I say I don't have a problem in the world. And if I can make a small difference in the lives of those families, and if I can help raise the money that's necessary, I feel like I'm contributing a little bit to this blessed mission."

He understands the fear. He can see why people are reticent to be exposed to the worst kind of suffering by the most vulnerable.

"At first, people think it's going to be a frightening place," he said. "But this actually, I think, is a place that's relatively happy. It's a place filled with joy. It's a place filled with hope. That's one thing that's important for us, because families come to us after hearing some of the worst news that any family could ever hear. We do everything in our power to help give their family and that child the help they need. Not every child makes it. Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease for U.S. kids today, despite all the progress we've made at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. One in five families who find out that their child has been diagnosed with cancer will lose that child. That's what inspires me and our amazing team. It's unacceptable."

Marc Gasol, who recently became a father, plays in a world that defines his work in terms of courage and toughness. There is truth to those attributes. And then there are greater truths.

"That is real toughness," Gasol was saying of the two boys he had met at St. Jude, Adam and Nicholas.

One day, Adam wriggled off the rubber band he had been wearing around his wrist and shot it across the room. The band read:

CANCER SUCKS

"He hated the word sucks," Connie Cruthirds said. "Because it's such a negative thing. He said, 'Cancer is part of my life now.' So we sat there and talked. This was like two or three weeks in. That was the day he got deep with me. And so we started talking, and he just kind of came up with this idea that cancer came to teach. 'Instead of cancer sucks,' he said, `what if cancer came to teach?"'

This was how Adam decided, on his own, not yet 17 years old, to deal with his enemy.

Cancer came to teach.

His voice is soft, his body frail, but everyone speaks of the strength they see in him. He is the leader of Adam's Army, a social media following that walks and runs and sells to raise funds for St. Jude. Make Every Day Count is their motto, handed down by him.

"People say, 'Things will be normal soon,"' Adam's mother was saying to him one day at the hospital. "What is your response to that?"

"That this is normal," Adam said.

"This is his normal," Connie Cruthirds said. "It's not their normal. They are saying that his life would be better today if it was their normal. But that's gone. That's not there."

Normal, in this new world of Adam, is a most ironic place where the world actually makes sense -- where money is not the end but the means, where health and happiness and family are the fruits of the battle, where nothing else much matters when a child is in need.

For the rest of this month and into the New Year, the dosage of Adam's chemotherapy was going to be increased. He was going to have a hard time. What he was looking forward to was the day after Christmas, when the Houston Rockets will be visiting Memphis. Adam, with thanks to the relationship between the Grizzlies and St. Jude, has been promised tickets to the game. He will be sitting courtside, where he surely will be oblivious to the impact he is making on stars like Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley. They will be pushing themselves because that is the least you can do when you look over and see a boy like him, suffering even as he cheers you on. Adam, in his retirement from basketball, has become a game changer.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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