In addition to achieving 700 wins at UNC, Sylvia Hatchell is the winningest active coach in women’s basketball (908-321), a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and a three-time national coach of the year. Under her direction, the Tar Heels have won a national championship and eight ACC titles and compiled six 30-win seasons. Now entering her 28th season at Carolina, the current one might mean the most, given that Coach Hatchell is back, having missed last year after a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia in October 2013. (Up until then, she had only missed two games ever – immediately following the birth of her son.) Now finished with chemotherapy and in remission, she has returned to her regular schedule. Hatchell is married to Sammy, who is currently the associate head coach of the Shaw University women’s basketball team that won the 2012 Division II national title. They have a 24-year-old son, Van, a former all-state and Carolina men’s basketball player who is a recent graduate of UNC.
For many years, Coach Hatchell has been a friend of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Proceeds from her pick-your-own blueberry patch in the N.C. mountains go to Lineberger. This year, the tables were turned when the longtime supporter leaned on the center and its staff as she battled AML.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Without a doubt. It was Labor Day; I had a regular physical. I felt great. I was working out like crazy. 2013 had been a great year for me – I had my 900th win. We had the number-one recruiting class in the country. I was being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. [The physical revealed that] my white blood count was low. They said, ‘We think you have a viral infection or an autoimmune thing going on.’ … I went to see infectious disease specialists and internal medicine [specialists] – they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I said, ‘I want a bone marrow biopsy.’ I went in for it and had practice that afternoon. I got home that night – it was a Friday in October – and was cleaning out a closet. The phone rang at about 8. Dr. [Peter] Voorhees told me I had acute myeloid leukemia. He said, ‘Coach, it’s curable and treatable. But we’ve got to get our arms wrapped around this.’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow.’
I had all kinds of things going on. We were getting ready to start our season. I had to call my husband – he was at ECU doing a coaching clinic. I had to get my son and talk to him. About 2:30 on Saturday, I checked into the hospital. That was a hard day because I had all these great things happening in my life. It was like a tsunami hitting me. A nightmare. But they started doing tests on me and checking my heart and my lungs and everything.
They put a double port in my chest. I told the girls on my team on Sunday afternoon. That was really hard. Right after that, they started chemo. I was on that for a solid week. Nonstop. It was rough. From that day – the 11th of October until April 17th – I didn’t spend one second by myself. My girlfriends got together; they did a calendar. One of them didn’t leave until the other one got there. I was on a special diet. I was high maintenance. I was in the hospital a total of two months. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I had to get platelets or blood transfusions every 48 hours. It was just absolutely unbelievable.
We don’t realize how blessed we are to have Lineberger in Chapel Hill. They are so good at what they do. The care they gave me was just absolutely incredible. Some of the testing they did on me was less than six months old.
It’s so mental. Coaching helped me so much because with coaching you have to be mentally tough. You lose a game, and then you analyze why you lost it, and you prepare for the next battle. You just have battle after battle after battle. That’s what I had to do. I just had to take each step – the side effects, how the chemo affected me, the tests. The toughness that I had as a coach helped me so much. When you go through what I went through, you learn real quick who’s in charge and it ain’t you. I could feel the power of prayer daily. People all over the world were praying for me. Not many people survive AML. It’s brutal.
I worked out almost every day. I never – through the whole process – put on a hospital gown. I was in a warm-up suit or a T-shirt and shorts. I never stayed in the bed if I wasn’t sleeping. I’d walk – do laps around the hallway. The exercise is major. That’s one thing that’s a big thing with me. I want to create a workout room at Lineberger. There is not one time that I exercised that I did not feel better after I exercised. They’d unhook me from chemo and less than 10 minutes later I’d be out there walking. You don’t realize how strong you can be until strong is all you have. You can do it.
I didn’t always have a great attitude – most of the time I did. Once in awhile, I’d feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can make it.’ I’d take myself off to the side and say, ‘This is not how you do things. This is not how you think or win games.’ I’d cry a little bit, and I’d get my mind back on my game plan and what I needed to do. Sometimes I felt like a Mack truck had run over me. There were nights when I’d think, ‘I just hope I wake up in the morning,’ because I was so weak.
I’m in complete molecular remission. I’ve been out recruiting. I was in Canada last night. I’m not 100%, but I’m close to it. I work out almost every day. I get tired. I have to rest, eat properly and exercise. I’m doing probably more than most normal people do. The last 20 days, I’ve been on the road. I’ve done over 10 home visits. They keep telling me to take it easy. But I know my body. I know when to stop. I’m getting eight to nine hours of sleep every night. They say that I will just continue to get stronger and stronger.
One of the hardest things was being away from the team. You don’t realize how much something is a part of you until it’s taken away. I was looking forward to a great season with the number-one recruiting class. And then just overnight, I’m told I’m out for the season. I was watching practice on the iPad every day. I was probably still working three to five hours every day. I was talking to the staff nonstop. They did a tremendous job. We got to the Elite 8 last season.
I want to win some more championships. I’m as passionate about it now as I’ve ever been. I want to give so much back to my players, to the sport, to UNC and to Lineberger. I want to help them be the number-one public cancer center in the country. There’s still a whole lot of things I want to do.
Every day when I open my eyes, I say, ‘God, just put the opportunities in front of me. Show them to me and I will take advantage.’ I’ve always believed that givers gain.”
-as told to Andrea Griffith Cash