Mason Motley: From chemo to the court

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FARRAGUT, Tenn. (WATE) – The shrill squeak of basketball shoes pierced through the Lynn Sexton Gym as the anticipation began to fill the crowd like a balloon on the verge of popping. Three-ball, short, a small painful exhale but there was time with a minute-thirty remaining on the clock and the balloon still in form. The ball returned to the same shooter’s hands this time he drove inside and released a jumper.

Pop.

The crowd emphatically roared, Farragut’s coach jumped nearly three feet high as the ball sunk through the hoop putting the Admirals up 31 points. Mason Motley had just scored his first points since 2017.

Diagnosis

It was strange, a feeling he hadn’t had to deal with before. Mason Motley was not particularly injury prone but the soreness he felt in his left leg just wouldn’t quit.

“I had played a few games through it,” Motley recalled the end of his eighth-grade basketball season. “It was just sore and then we went to the doctors. I thought it was probably just a sprain or something.”

The doctors recommended he ice it, they also wanted to take a precautionary x-ray. The latter showed a bone cyst had developed on his left leg requiring surgery. Mason was out for the summer, but back in time for his freshman season.

“As a freshman came in (and) he was probably the best player in his class,” Farragut head coach Jon Higgins said.

The pain returned near the end of his freshman year, requiring a second surgery the cyst appeared to have somehow returned. Doctors once again went in removed the cyst and replaced it with a bone graph. This time his pathology was sent to Emory.

Months had gone by and Mason’s life had returned to normal, playing basketball and hanging out with friends, when his Dad showed up out-of-the-blue to a Drive for Life event he was at.

“He said the doctors called us in and they have to tell us something,” Mason recalled. “I had a weird feeling.”

Mason along with his mother Kristin and father Tim sat together in the doctor’s office as the word, “Cancer” pierced through the room like the shrill squeak of a basketball shoe on hardwood floors. It wasn’t a bone cyst, it was osteosarcoma and it was in his left tibia. Mason had been misdiagnosed, twice.

“He was pretty devastated,” his mother Kristin recalled. “For him, he was fifteen years old looking forward to playing basketball all summer with his friends. He was going into his sophomore year and hopefully playing Varsity. It was hard.”

Mason didn’t believe it. Why would he? He was a healthy 15-year-old kid who’d never even dealt with a significant injury before. Surely he couldn’t have cancer, the doctors had to have gotten it wrong again.

“I was like, there’s no way and even after they first told me we had to wait for like two months for the test results,” Mason said. “The whole time I was like ‘there’s no way. I’ll be fine.’” 

The test results confirmed it. Mason did the one thing he’d always done, he went to basketball practice.

“He wanted to come in and tell his teammates,” his father Tim said. “He didn’t want anybody else to tell the team but him. He felt that was important.”

Mason told them he’d been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors weren’t sure at the time how big the growth was or if Mason would be able to keep his leg, playing high school basketball was all but out of the question, but Mason promised his teammates he’d be back on the court with the again.

“That was a special moment I’ll always remember because they got around me,” Mason said. “One of the players took me and we prayed with our whole team right after.”

Treatment

Mason split the next eight months between Boston and Knoxville. His initial round of treatments began in July of 2017 under the care of oncologist Dr. Dana Farber, he returned to Boston for surgery to rebuild his leg in September of that year. He spent three months in Boston secluded from his team but never far from the game.

“As soon as I got home I was out shooting the basketball,” he said. “I got a port surgery and the day I got released from the surgery I was out shooting. I couldn’t fully extend my arm because of it but I was shooting as much as I could.”

There were days when shooting a basketball seemed an impossible feat. The chemotherapy left him worn and sick, but basketball found its way to those days too.

“When I was in the hospital bed or something and I’d be out of it from the medicine or something and I’d hear the squeak from the shoes or running up the court and I’d look up and the TV would be on basketball,” he said. “It was nice to see.”

The rest of his treatments were done at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, which allowed Mason to schedule his chemotherapy around the Admirals Basketball schedule. His goal was simple: Every week, go through chemo early and feel well enough to be able to go to practice or games.

“He has no hair, he’s real frail, he’s really thin and he’s coming,” Coach Higgins recalled. “He doesn’t feel good and still coming. He’s gotta leave early because he doesn’t feel good. You see that every day, every day. But you see him come back every day. Every day.”

Recovery

Chemotherapy lasted eight months, ending in February of 2018 but recovering from multiple leg surgeries took much longer.

“He was none weight barring for about 6 months,” Kristin said. “He was on crutches for about a year. He built up his arm strength that’s for sure.”

Healing his leg an expectedly slow process. Currently, a work-in-progress as Mason, now a high-school senior, has spent the last five months working to rehabilitate his leg.

“He’s put in a lot of work over the summer to be strong enough,” Tim said.

His rehab sessions, much like his chemo sessions, done with basketball on the brain. Coach Higgins had promised him Senior Night would be his night and Mason wasn’t going to let the opportunity to defy the odds and return to the court pass him by.

“I’ve just been waiting for this night (Senior Night) and preparing for this night by doing things like workouts here and trying to run a little bit as much as I can,” Mason said.

 Senior Night arrived three months earlier than it would have in a normal year, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Mason was ready and when the Admirals tipped off against Heritage on Dec. 8 — he was in the starting five.

“It was a strange feeling like being back,” Mason said. “The memory of the sound and just the atmosphere. It was a weird experience just to be like ‘I’m here’ because I didn’t know if I would be back or not.”

He hit a pair of attempted three’s off the rim much to the disappointment of the crowd who jumped in the air waiting to celebrate each attempt. Early jitters Mason called it, after all, it had been nearly three years. He began to settled in, feel the game more, hitting a pair of mid-range shots.

His parents’ pre-game predictions were right — there was not a dry eye in Lynn Sexton Gym.

“To see him make shots, take shots, get rebound (it was) all the things I remember him doing as a freshman,” Coach Higgins said. “Things he can do well. It was a joy to see.” 

“Dribbling through and feel the game, it felt normal,” Mason said. “It felt like back when I played freshman year.”

Mason could be bitter, he’s not. He could be angry that his high school career was taken away from him for nothing that he did, but he’s not that either. He admitted that it’s weird, but he’s grateful for what he’s gone through and the perspective it’s given him.

“I know it’s weird to say but when I went to Boston Children’s Hospital there were a lot of less fortunate people that were in worse scenarios than me,” Mason said. “It made me feel lucky to be alive.”

He’s not the only one who’s gained perspective.

“The way that he’s fought through it and bounced back and come back it’s allowed me to look at life totally different in terms of what I’m capable of,” Higgins said. “Things that as an adult you never really thought you could learn from a teenager, but Mason has taught us all that we’re all much more capable of anything that we could imagine. It’s given me the strength to go every day even when I’m tired just to know that Mason is pushing through every day. He’s coming every day.”

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