Teen among top freshmen in Memphis battles cancer

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — They came walking into the lobby at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, two towering figures with the size of many of the professional basketball players who sometimes visit.

The 35-year old, 6-foot-8 with a powerful build, may have looked familiar, and for those who know their Memphis hoops, the large blue backpack Paris London carried offered a clue, with an embroidered "HAMILTON" and "14."

The 14-year-old boy with him was thin as a rail at 6-foot-6, but with broad shoulders suggesting he'd fill out nicely.

But on his face, Nicholas London wore a surgical mask, and he followed his mother Tangela London to the nurse's triage station they now visit on their daily appointments to treat Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer.

Behind them, Paris London spotted someone he'd known since he was 15 and flashed the photogenic smile that in the mid-1990s had helped make him one of the most well-known recruits in the long history of his hoops-obsessed city.

"We're good," Paris said. "As good as can be expected, considering."

The doctors had told the Londons that Thursday would be a long, important day — possibly 10-12 hours filled with treatments, blood work and waiting.

Inside a small room decorated with walls like an elementary school, nurse Jo Ann Powell organized various concoctions she would inject, via a long needle, into the plastic port Nicholas wears permanently on the left side of his chest. Nicholas patiently followed her instructions, keeping most of his thoughts to himself save for one, "Mom, am I fasting?"

"Unh-uh, Honey," Tangela said, chuckling. "You ate breakfast."

The summer had started with much promise, with Nicholas in pickup dunk contests with Chandler Lawson, younger brother of the University of Memphis recruits K.J. and Dedric Lawson.

The progression Paris saw from Nicholas, the second-oldest of his five sons and two daughters, forced on him a decision he hoped to delay one more summer — whether to allow Nicholas to join summer programs and elite basketball camps recruiting him.

Paris resisted, in part because he preferred focusing on process and fundamentals with his homegrown program, the Memphis Bearcats. But more than that, Paris believes one reason he did not live up to expectations at the University of Memphis (and later Arkansas State) is related to how the early adulation he received warped his connection to the game.

"I know better than anyone how it can become a job early in your life," Paris said. "I just want for my kids to be kids as long as they can. I didn't want to stand in their way, but I want it to stay fun."

So he had relented and, at the urging of Nicholas, accompanied him to the last of the summer events, a camp at Wake Forest affiliated with NBA all-star point guard Chris Paul, for the top players in the nation in the freshman and eighth-grade classes.

What Paris saw startled him — Nicholas would finish last in sprints and his usual hustle was nonexistent.

Even before the camp, something hadn't been right — Nicholas would complain about his stomach hurting, would abandon lawn mowing because he had no energy, would barely eat.

"He had had four plane trips in a matter of three weeks, and, really, even before the Chris Paul camp, he didn't have anything," Paris said. "Honestly, I thought I had made a mistake, allowing him to play for other folks and I was kicking myself."

But Nicholas insisted he wanted to be there.

"He could still shoot but he's trained to do everything — but his hustling is down, rebounding is down, he's complaining about his stomach," Paris said. "So, finally, we just had to shut it down. I told him, 'We're not touching another ball until we figure this out.' "

The first day of high school was Aug. 4. His mother, Tangela, can tell you the day and exact time — Tuesday, Aug. 19, 11:41 a.m. — that the pediatrician explained how various numbers for Nicholas were extremely off.

St. Jude would be expecting them within the hour.

"I think about it now, how you know you thank God for each moment, you wake up and said thank you for this day," Tangela said. "But you never know what this day will bring."

They spent a full week at St. Jude, took one day at home and checked back in for another week. Only after Labor Day did they move to an outpatient regime, and by Thursday, Nicholas had grown completely accustomed to the routine.

Tangela is taking unpaid leave from her job as a teller operations specialist at Bank of America. Paris juggles his responsibilities as an educational assistant and assistant basketball coach at Hamilton High as best he can.

On his lunch tray, Nicholas carried two large slices of pizza and a deli sandwich. His appetite has returned, and the numbers indicating his immunity are back up.

But these are the early days. According to St. Jude, about 3,000 children each year are found to have ALL, and about 98 percent of children with ALL go into remission within weeks of starting treatment.

Of those children, about 90 percent can be cured, meaning cancer has been in remission for 10 years.

Doctors say Nicholas likely won't be able to return to training until sometime next year, best-case scenario. The family is well-acquainted with the story of Shon Coleman, the Olive Branch football player now playing at Auburn who St. Jude treated for ALL.

As for his education, the family hopes Nicholas can complete basic freshman-year coursework through home-study programs supported by St. Jude.

Although Nicholas only got in two weeks of his freshman year at Hamilton, his mother cherishes one assignment he completed.

"We had to write an essay on what you would do if you had a million dollars," Nicholas said. "I wrote that I would donate most of it to St. Jude and give some to my mom."

Said Tangela: "I just think about how he wrote that, and one week later he was diagnosed."

Ask Nicholas about his future, and he lights up with an answer that may be audacious but seems realistic to him. He's tight with people like the Lawsons, whose boys are on the radar of NBA teams and who have made visits to St. Jude to see Nicholas.

"I want to win a state title at least once," he said. "I want to go to college with the Florida Gators and win two national championships. And then I want to be drafted as a lottery pick for the Memphis Grizzlies."

Before they left St. Jude's large, modern cafeteria, two employees of ALSAC, the hospital's fundraising organization, came by and introduced themselves.

Joel Alsup and Lindsey Wilkerson had both been patients at St. Jude as children.

Alsup had lost his right arm — his dominant arm — but told Nicholas how he had actually become better at sports even with just one arm. He plays golf and basketball, has completed triathlons and run marathons.

"If you ever need anybody to talk to, let us know" Lindsey said.

If basketball doesn't work out, Nicholas is asked, what does he plan to do?

Last year at Hamilton Middle, in addition to the basketball awards he received, Nicholas was recognized as the school's top science student, Tangela said.

"I think," Nicholas sad, "that I would like to be a doctor."

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