LUCAS Walford wore the broadest of smiles as he led the celebrations following Drogheda Wolves’ thrilling victory over IT Carlow which has earned them a place in next week’s President’s National Cup Final.
The 6ft 8in American centre had just bagged 18 points to finish the game as his team’s top scorer, but the real story behind his man-of-the-match performance wasn’t the impressive stats but rather the long and arduous journey he went through to get back playing competitive basketball at all.
Remarkably this was his first match in almost two years, and not just because the pandemic caused the entire 2020/21 season - Wolves’ first in the National League - to be cancelled shortly after he’d arrived in Drogheda all the way from Minnesota.
You see, this strapping young man’s life was turned upside down last spring when he got the dreaded ‘C’. Not Covid-19, but cancer - at the tender age of 22.
With the season in limbo at Christmas time in 2020, Lucas and Wolves’ other American player at the time - Josh Bradanese - had gone home to the States for a few weeks, and in early February last year Lucas returned to Ireland alone as Josh decided it wasn’t worth coming back because his college classes - both were studying in DkIT - were all online.
“I decided I’d had a decent break and I may as well be back because classes were starting at 9am Irish time, so they would have started at 3am my time. I thought I really don’t want to do a nocturnal schedule, so that was one of the big things and I also just wanted to be back and see some people again.”
It was just a few weeks later that Lucas’ shock diagnosis rocked him to the core.
“I’m happy that I came back (to Ireland) and I was here for two or three months before I found out that I had it,” he recalled.
“It was testicular cancer, which is common in young men. I pretty much found a lump just randomly and I said it’s probably nothing, it’ll probably go away.
“I waited a week and then I thought I might as well get a check to be sure. I went to a GP and they were, like, well we don’t think it’s anything but we’ll check and give you an ultrasound. I had the ultrasound and that’s when they told me.
“Obviously when you hear the ‘C’ word it’s pretty shocking, especially at my age. I was 22 and I thought I was a pretty healthy person.
“I went back (to the States) and dealt with all the medical stuff over the summer just because you want to be home for that obviously.
“I had surgery and then I did chemotherapy from the beginning of May until the middle of July.
“The chemo was tough. It comes at you in much different ways. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Some days were better than others.
“I had three cycles, each cycle three weeks. The first was definitely the toughest because it was every day, Monday to Friday. I had to drive down to Rochester, which is an hour and a half away, and drive back, so (together with the treatment) nine or 10 hours each day altogether.
“You’re losing all your hair. You don’t recognise yourself, you lose weight, you lose strength.
“I deferred my course (in marketing and entrepreneurship at DkIT) during chemo, but I was hopeful.
“Thankfully my prognosis was pretty good from the outset. I wasn’t scared for my life. I knew it was going to suck, but at the end of it I’d hopefully be done with it for ever.
“I had another surgery in August (Lucas shows me a scar on his stomach) to get out some lymph nodes in my back because that’s where the cancer spreads to next.
“I’ve just recovered from that now. It takes a while, but all things considered I feel pretty good and feel as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger.”
If all that wasn’t enough, Lucas did eventually catch Covid-19 just a few weeks after completing chemotherapy and that set him back again for a while.
So it was against that backdrop that he made his long-awaited return to competitive basketball last Saturday, belatedly making his first appearance for Wolves well over a year after joining them.
What was it like to be back?
“It was my first official game since before Covid - I think March 8th 2020 was my last time I played a game,” he recalled.
“I was a little bit apprehensive, but definitely more excited than nervous. I knew that my body was ready because I came back here the week before and got a full week of practice in. You can tell from practice how your body’s doing and I felt great.
“When the ball went up (for the tip-off) I jumped and it was definitely a surreal feeling. I was, like, wow, I’m really doing this again.
“When you’re going through it, everything else seems so far away. Getting back to healthy and getting to that point took so long and it was a mental barrier broken down too, that I can do this again. I can be what I used to be, and even better hopefully.
“So it was exciting, and then to play well and to come out on top against a good team was a great experience.
“I think it was 18 points and I’m guessing over 10 rebounds and my stamina was a lot better than I thought it would be. That’s probably the biggest positive I took away from it, just how I felt, that I wasn’t too gassed.
“Obviously Jubie Alade, my college teammate and our other American, we were splitting time, so that helps - it’s not like I’m out there for the entire game.”
Lucas and his team are now preparing to face UCC Demons in the President’s National Cup decider in Tallaght Basketball Arena on Saturday of next week (1.30pm).
“Playing in Dublin in the arena will be a lot of fun and I know the team we’re playing are the top team in our league right now. I don’t think they’ve lost a game - maybe one - and they’re a pretty dominant team.
“They’ll be a good match-up for us and to win the Cup in our first year would be something truly special. Hopefully we can get it done.”
While he’s been dealing with his own personal battle, everyone associated with the Wolves has been like an extended family to Lucas - all the more important for a player living his life so far from home.
“My teammates have been great and I’ve made some really good friends,” he said.
“They were immediately welcoming. They pretty much all visited me within the first week when I came over here, which is great.
“When you come into a foreign country there’s a lot of unknowns and you don’t know how you’ll gel with the guys, but they’ve taken me in as one of their own and they’ve been supportive.
“Initially I kind of kept it a secret until I knew I had to do chemotherapy, but once I did that I let everyone know and they were checking in with me every week.
“People that you care about, knowing they care about you too going through something like that, is huge. It lifts your spirits on some of the worst days. That sounds cheesy, but it seriously does. It can change your entire mood for the day, just someone saying ‘how are you doing?’. It’s been great.
“(Coach) Gavin Garland as well. Them willing to bring me back for another year and basically take a risk on me when they didn’t even know if I was going to play again, when they are a new club is really testament to their character and I’m very grateful for it. So that kept me going and people visiting me a lot really helped.
“It sucked, but the silver lining to it is that it’s made me thankful to just be healthy and be on the court. It’s something I never thought would be taken away from me, so to have that again has been great.”
All the medical signs have been encouraging too and he’s tentatively thinking about what he might do after graduating from college next summer. Perhaps play another season in Ireland, or Spain or Italy - or return home and start work, maybe in sales.
In the meantime he’s loving the DkIT course, part of which involves working with local companies on their marketing plans.
“I had a check-up back in the US over the break which was good - they gave me the all-clear - and as you get further and further out you can wait more and more between check-ups,” he said.
“I did my chemo and surgeries over there, but I go down to St James Hospital in Dublin for my scans and stuff and they’re on top of it. They’re really welcoming and get me in on time, so I’ve no complaints at all about the medical system here.
“It was every three months, but now I don’t need another CT scan until June, which is obviously great. It’s once every six months now for the next couple of years probably and after that it’ll be once a year because the percentage chance of it coming back drops.
“I still have to have my bloods checked every two months, but it’s not too bad. You just have to stay on top of the schedule, which is very much worth it because the alternative is not good.
“When something like this happens it makes you ponder some big questions in your life, for sure. It really made me grow up, whether I wanted to or not.
“Even though my prognosis was good, it makes you think about some pretty harrowing things, so it made me just be thankful for every day that I have.
“I don’t want to waste any more days, because you really don’t know how many you have left. It’s made me live in the moment and be thankful for where I’m at and not think about the past or the future.”
And one final message Lucas is particularly keen to get across is the importance of men checking themselves regularly - because it just might save their life.
“I think the standard is to check yourself once a month, just in the shower or whatever, for lumps or irregularities. When I found it, it could have been months and months before I would have discovered it and then my outlook would have been a lot different.
“Young men especially think they are immune from that, but this is the type of cancer that young men get. I think it’s the most common form of cancer for young men and it’s something I never thought I’d have to go through.
“I’m just thankful that I caught it early and was able to get on top of it.”