Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Jackie Freeman, 59, recently took part in a small slice of hoops history. Outside the AT&T Center, she got on her knees, took a roller brush and helped paint a basketball court pink.

The surface will be used for Saturday’s Breast Health Awareness game between the Silver Stars and Phoenix Mercury -- the first time a WNBA game will be played on a pink court.

A season ticket holder since Day 1 in 2003, Freeman will take her usual seat in section 24, row 13, cheer on the Stars and, perhaps, blink back some tears. She is a retired school teacher and breast cancer survivor with grit and courage and a heart that knows pain.

Before Freeman was diagnosed with the disease, she lost a teaching colleague to breast cancer. She also lost an air traffic controller friend who worked with her husband. Several fellow season ticket holders are survivors, including four who helped paint the court pink.

“The game is going to be pretty emotional,” Freeman says.

The Silver Stars will wear pink uniforms, the internationally known color for breast cancer awareness. Following the game, players will auction their jerseys to fans in attendance.

Breast Health Awareness Night will stir memories for survivors. For Freeman, it will take her back five years to a routine exam and a phone call that upset her equilibrium.

She was supposed to take her annual mammogram in the summer of 2007. She got busy. Things came up. She decided to wait. Freeman secured an appointment in late December, and the delay, she says, proved fortuitous. She took her exam with equipment -- a digital mammogram machine -- that wasn’t available months earlier.

The exam led to a second test, a biopsy, and then a call from her doctor, who delivered the news. She remembers the date, Jan. 17, 2008, and the horror that followed.

“I felt I was being sucked into a black hole,” Freeman says. “You know how the tornado sucked up Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and everything was twirling around her? That’s how I felt. Time stood still and all kinds of things went through my head and the poor doctor was trying to calm me down. It was a horrible feeling.”

Freeman and her husband met with the doctor to discuss options. But she already knew what she would do. Years earlier, a fourth grade teaching colleague at Miller’s Point Elementary, Dena Press, learned she had breast cancer. Press underwent treatment. The disease went into remission. They celebrated at the school -- six years after the diagnosis -- only to discover the cancer had returned. After losing Press, Freeman decided: If I ever get breast cancer, I will have a double mastectomy.

The doctor called the decision “radical.” The digital mammogram had detected the disease early. So small was the cancerous growth, the doctor explained, it would have gone undetected by a traditional mammogram. That didn’t matter to Freeman.

“I told him I want a double,” she says. “I don’t want to have to worry about it coming back in the other breast, I want both gone.”

She had major surgery in February followed by two phases of reconstructive surgery in July and October. “Then I was done,” she says. “There were no signs of cancer in my body at that point. I did not have to undergo radiation or chemo.”

Recovery came with sudden, jarring reminders. Oh, I had cancer. Days elapsed. Weeks. Then she would remember and contend with disturbances in her head. “I’m a five year survivor,” she says. “You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep moving and fight through it.”

Basketball helps. Freeman loses herself in the action, in the thrill of victory, in the pain of defeat, in the camaraderie of good friends and fans. She played the game in middle school and never lost her love for it, even after scoliosis forced her into a back brace and ended her ability to play.

The Silver Stars remain one passion, fighting breast cancer another. Saturday’s game brings them together. Money raised will help fund breast screenings for women who can’t afford them. More than one third of the screenings provided by the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Mobile Mammography Unit must be funded through donations.

“It’s so important to make mammograms affordable and available to every woman, regardless of what their income may be,” Freeman says. “We have got to be advocates for women’s health. Get a mammogram. Early detection can save lives. It’s important to remember those that didn’t survive. Our goal is to find a cure. And it is to celebrate those of us who have been on the journey for a while so others can see: You can survive.”

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