Towson's Will Adams beating worst enemy yet

Will Adams, a freshman shooting guard at Towson, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in as a senior in high school.
Will Adams, a freshman shooting guard at Towson, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in as a senior in high school. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Will Adams, freshman basketball player at Towson University, could be mad at the world about all the misfortune life dumped at his Philadelphia doorstep.

There was the woman, his birth mother, who abandoned him to a series of foster homes at 3. There was the hit-and-run driver, racing through a yellow light, who dragged him and his bike a full city block, leaving Adams with compound fractures in both legs at 9. There was the cancer that ate away at his athlete's body for months before anyone knew, devouring his basketball dream when he was 18.

It was as if he had a personal curse writing the storyline of his life. It would have been easy to be bitter, and lots of people are over less. But Adams, 21, who has been in remission since last winter, is not.

Instead, he is eager to embrace his second chance. He wants to play basketball at Towson and earn a college degree and already is contemplating ways to repay the support his inner-city community gave him through the bad times.

Seated on a couch in the office of Tigers basketball coach Pat Skerry during a break from summer school, Adams looked like any healthy, well-adjusted college freshman — older, perhaps, and certainly more muscular. He laughed, joked and smiled frequently. No scars were visible except those that curled wickedly below both knees, the reminder of being run over by the car.

More than two years after he was first diagnosed with an advanced stage of Hodgkin's lymphoma and told he was lucky to get the diagnosis when he did, Adams can speak to the unrelenting ordeal he faced growing up in North Philadelphia as if it were a basketball game.

"I can't buy a bucket, I can't win," is how he remembers staring down the prospect of cancer. "That's what I thought: I can't win."

But the difference with Adams is, he handled it beautifully, with a grace that was amazing for a young man left to fend for himself at a young age.

How did he get through his trial by fire? With a keen sense of perspective, and by listening to words of encouragement from coaches and doctors, teachers and counselors.

"Somebody out there is in a worse situation than me," Adams said about his mindset. "I thought about that. 'People have worse situations than me. I can get through this.' Kids in the hospital motivated me, too. So many kids in the hospital were walking around and didn't even know what was going on."

It was nine months after the shooting guard signed to play for Pat Kennedy at Towson that his body began to break down. He was coming off his junior season at Imhotep Charter School in Philadelphia, where his team won the All City and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 2A boys championships. He was a shooter and scorer with range that started just inside the gym. He was tall (6feet4) and athletic.

He was a major recruit for downtrodden Towson. He liked the idea of playing in a mid-major conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, for a team that hadn't won before. He liked the distance, too, from Philadelphia.

'Seemed like he had the flu'

At an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Las Vegas in late July 2008, his vision started to blur. By September, he was getting chills regularly, even when it was 90 degrees in the gym. He would wear a hoodie and still be cold.

Then the fainting started. Adams said he would "blink out," or fall to the ground and be out for 10 to 15 minutes. It happened about five times. He went to a clinic in October, but nothing came of it. He thought he had the flu. With his senior season approaching, he launched his own 5a.m. workouts. Except he was exhausted before he started and couldn't finish.

The night sweats came next. He would wake up in the middle of the night and his sheets were dripping wet. Weight loss followed. Pounds melted off. A sculpted, 207-pound body became a skinny, 163-pound walking ghost by the end of the basketball season. But still, he kept playing.

When Imhotep reached the playoffs a second straight season — the Panthers went 59-5 those two years — he pulled himself out of the starting lineup and came off the bench. One Philadelphia newspaper reported that Adams played with "flulike symptoms."

No one suspected a more insidious cause. Not his Imhotep coach, Andre Noble, or the neighborhood friend who helped get him into the school, Rasool Hajj. They were two of the most influential men in Adams' life. Adams describes Hajj as his mentor, and to this day when he goes home, he sleeps on Noble's couch.

"It seemed like he had the flu," said Hajj, a youth counselor at the Juvenile Justice Center in Phillip. "He'd go to the clinic and they'd say he's got the flu. They didn't pick up on it. Will was hiding it, too. He didn't know what he had, but he was hiding it because he wanted to play basketball. He went through the whole season without anybody knowing. … Nothing was going to stop him from playing basketball."

Noble saw an energetic "gym rat" become a lethargic senior who couldn't finish workouts. For a while, Noble thought Adams was satisfied with the success he had had as a junior. He did not consider drugs because that wasn't Adams' nature. Noble said he took Adams to the clinic three times that season, without resolution.

Adams knew he was sick, but rationalized it away. "Where I'm from, if you don't have insurance, you don't even go to the clinic," he said. "It's like a waste of time."

He also thought Towson would address the problem eventually, give him something to take and he'd be as good as new. Only he couldn't wait that long.

In the spring, a school counselor, appalled at his condition, made an appointment for him at a free clinic on Germantown Avenue. When he arrived, Adams carried a fever of about 104, and doctors, recognizing the symptoms, rushed him to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children for a battery of tests.

On May 8, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a disease of the lymph nodes. But he was at stage 4B, which "is as bad as Hodgkin's gets," according to Dr. Greg Halligan, the chief of oncology at St. Christopher's who treated Adams.

Halligan said Adams' treatment was aggressive both in chemotherapy and radiation. When Adams' body responded well to the heavy early doses, Halligan was able to back off with the radiation. "He tolerated his chemotherapy as well as anyone I've ever seen," Halligan said.

But Halligan couldn't help but be impressed and moved by Adams for another reason, the same one that kept Adams from becoming embittered.

"He has an incredibly optimistic personality," Halligan said. "He never complained. And he is a very warmhearted kid. He had an incredibly gentle spirit with our little guys. Will was a pied piper here in the oncology unit."

By last February, with only a few treatments left, Adams knew he was going to beat the cancer. His thoughts returned to basketball, and that led to still more adversity.

The first time he worked out, he tried to jump — and couldn't get off the ground. Then he tried to grab the net and couldn't touch it. He left the court in a funk, thinking, "I'm done."

But he didn't give up. He started to run and shoot, and gradually he saw progress. At one point, he came to Towson to play with would-be teammates. Once before, he had dominated in this setting. Now, he was getting dominated. "It was a rude awakening," Adams said. "I got killed."

Adams, uncertain and confused, went back to Noble, who recommended prep school. Next stop: Queen City Preparatory Academy in Charlotte, N.C. Again, he struggled. Again, he persevered.

'A great ambassador'

Kennedy had held the door open for Adams at Towson and even visited him in the hospital. But after going 4-26 in 2011, Kennedy was removed as coach.

Adams still wanted to come to Towson. And Skerry wanted to be the guy who believed in his improbable ascension as a Division I player. As an assistant at Providence, Skerry had recruited Adams — although there was no scholarship offer. He knew Adams could shoot (he is Imhotep's all-time leading scorer) and that he had been ill.

When Skerry learned the full story of what Adams had gone through, he knew he had found a leader as well.

"He's as good a kid as you'll find," Skerry said. "He's excited about just being a student-athlete here. He's not an enabler or a guy with a sense of entitlement. I want him to be an unbelievable player here. He can be a role model, not just for other kids, but a lot of people. He's going to be a great ambassador for Towson."

Adams, who gets checkups once a month now, knows he is not all the way back. But he believes that with more hard work he can get there.

"Right now I'm just happy to be able to play basketball again," he said. "I want to be the best I can be and get my degree. … Nobody in my family has a degree right now, nobody in my foster family or anybody else. I want my degree."

Noble said Adams needs that degree for himself and for all the people who supported him. People like Tammy Layne, a former English teacher at Imhotep whom Adams calls "Mom"; Sam Smith, a father figure who let Adams stay at his home when Will's foster home was overrun with foster kids; Hajj, who first lured Adams off the street and onto the basketball court; and Halligan, who went the extra mile to provide Adams with much-needed financial assistance.

"From his social environment, Will could very easily be a kid on the corner peddling something," Noble said. "That's not who he is. I told him, 'Your story could be remarkable … [but] the only way it's remarkable is if you do something special, like getting your college degree.'

"He's a real positive person. I'm really happy for this moment for him. I'm happy he gets to have this opportunity because he's fought through a lot to get where he is."