Twelve-year-old Kevin Buck had plenty of distractions the night of March 7. Behind him were screaming college basketball fans, and in front of him was a shining court that he, as ball boy, was tasked with keeping clean.
The distractions are needed and welcome, a way for the Catonsville boy and his family to step away from an ordeal that sent them spinning five years ago when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer-like disease called Langerhans cell histiocytosis. Though his treatment is over and he is in good health, the stress continues as Kevin is monitored to make sure the illness doesn't return.
About once a month, Kevin and his family go out to an event set up by the Arbutus-based Casey Cares Foundation, which has the mission of providing "uplifting programs with a special touch." The outings are as simple as a movie night, or as involved as a vacation. On March 7, Kevin was ball boy at the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association Men's Basketball Championship in Baltimore.
Talking about Casey Cares, Kevin's face lights up.
"It helps me not think about the scar I still have," he said.
Since its founding in 2000, the foundation has done the same for 11,000 other kids and their families throughout the Mid-Atlantic, tailoring the programs to a child's interests — in Kevin's case, sports.
Casey Cares has partnered with the CAA for the past three years, giving more than 30 kids like Kevin the chance to watch, or be involved in, games.
The final, broadcast nationally on NBC Sports Network, pitted the University of North Carolina Wilmington against Hofstra at Royal Farms Arena.
At timeouts and breaks in play, Kevin and another boy wiped down the floor with circular mops. They were also responsible for getting water for the referees.
The job offered floor seats, for free, and interactions with officials.
"I like interacting with the referees," Kevin said. "I've learned be nice to the fans."
Kevin, who sat right in front of the cheering section for the UNCW Seahawks, watched as senior Craig Ponder sank a 3-point shot to bring the Seahawks' lead to 68-64 with three minutes left in the game.
Hofstra senior Juan'ya Green made a layup and, with 32 seconds left, he hit two free throws to tie the score and send the game into overtime. North Carolina Wilmington scored the final seven points of the extra period to win, 80-73.
One day in April 2011, Kevin woke up with a bump on the back of his head.
"He thought it was caused by something at gym," said his father, David. "Over the course of the next few days it started to change shape and size, so we knew something was wrong."
Kevin's family took him to a pediatrician, who directed them to a specialist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis. The disease, which affects one in 200,000 people, occurs when the body accumulates too many immature Langerhans cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infection, according to the nonprofit Histiocytosis Association.
The cells build up and form tumors — like the one that was found near Kevin's pituitary gland.
"Within 48 hours he was having the lump cut out, and then we started chemo," his father said.
Kevin's illness is a blood disease that manifests itself like a cancer, his father said. Kevin went through about two dozen chemotherapy treatments, spanning 13 months. Those doses were accompanied by steroids, a treatment course recommended by the National Cancer Institute for his condition.
"Because of where it was on the back of his head, if it grew inward toward his pituitary, he would have had a whole range of other [problems]," his father said.
The chemotherapy treatments didn't just involve the day the drug was administered. The day before, there was the dread of going in for a dose. The day after brought sickness.
"As a 7-year-old, there's a lot of whys. Because he never experienced symptoms. He had a bump on his head. Period," David Buck said. "And it didn't make him dizzy; it didn't make him anything."
Another side effect was weight gain from the steroids, which led to teasing at school from students who weren't aware of Kevin's condition, his father said.
Kevin also underwent a second surgery to install a port in his chest to deliver the chemotherapy.
"He still has a huge scar," David Buck said.
Kevin's treatment took place at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. The family was connected with Casey Cares through social workers there.
Their first outing with the group was in the early stages of Kevin's treatment. He went sailing at the Inner Harbor, but the day was hot, and after a little while Kevin got tired and asked to go back in, said his mother, Lynda Buck.
"It's probably the second year, to tell you the truth, that it becomes most valuable," David Buck said, "because the first year you're doing everything you can just to hang on, because your whole world's upside down."
The treatment was successful, and today Kevin is physically fine, his father said. Kevin goes in for checkups every six months, and every year he has a magnetic resonance imaging test.
There is still the threat that the disease will return, and because of that, every bump and bruise becomes suspicious.
"If he has any trauma or anything that most parents could blow off as another bump or another bruise or another scrape, we have to make sure Sinai is aware of anything," David Buck said. "There have been a few times Sinai has told us to come in."
When Kevin started feeling healthy again, the family began experiencing the Casey Cares trips in a different way, Lynda Buck said. The family was able to truly enjoy the events, which included trips to Baltimore Ravens games, Washington Capitals games and even a tour of Camden Yards led by Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz. The events were a chance for the family to recover as well.
Next month marks the five-year anniversary of Kevin's diagnosis.
"I give them an incredible amount of credit for staying involved with kids for so long," David Buck said of Casey Cares.
When asked what trips and events he liked best, Kevin Buck jumped at the chance to praise Casey Cares.
His favorite part about being a ball boy at the CAA Championship was that he got to promote the organization, he said. He has set up car washes to raise funds for the charity in the past, and the family is involved with fundraising.
"Kevin is a good kid," Casey Cares founder Casey Baynes said. "He talks to other kids or other parents, and you can see that he gives them hope. Look at him. He looks happy, he looks healthy."
Kevin would tell kids going through what he went through that they're just like everybody else, he said.
Baynes remembers when she first met Kevin.
"He could barely eke out a smile," she said.
Ongoing support is important for patients like Kevin, she said, who have recovered but are still at risk.
"They're living from scan to scan," she said.
Casey Cares also supports and provides activities for families who have lost a child, Baynes said.
"In Kevin's case he beat his illness, but that's not the case with everybody," she said. "We have some families who don't win, who lose a child, and Casey Cares stays with that family."
Baynes said the charity is based in Arbutus because of the convenience of the location, but she has also enjoyed to support of the Baltimore community.
"Because of the support of the community, we've never had to say no to a family's request," Baynes said.