Two weeks after leading the Bishop Kelly High girls basketball team to the state championship game last year, Derek McCormick found himself on banks of the Boise River.
Bishop Kelly held a service learning day, and the U.S. government teacher volunteered his first class of the day to clean up the river. Before long, the then-37-year-old coach was exhausted and out of breath. He needed to sit down.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I can’t be this out of shape,’” McCormick said. “‘I know I’m out of shape, but there’s no way I’m this out of shape.’”
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McCormick — also an assistant baseball coach — wheezed for two more weeks walking out to first base before he finally saw a doctor. He figured he had walking pneumonia. Doctors checked out his heart.
Instead, four hours later, a blood test turned up the culprit — leukemia.
McCormick had just settled in to read an article about NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager’s battle with acute myeloid leukemia when doctors called and told him to rush to the emergency room.
McCormick received his leukemia diagnosis in the ER, then was transported via an ambulance to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Downtown Boise. He stayed there overnight, then began 24-hour-a-day chemotherapy for seven days and remained in the hospital for another three weeks to recover.
The whiplash of leading a team to the state championship game and starting chemotherapy a month later led to an outpouring of community support. A Bishop Kelly fundraiser raised nearly $30,000, rival Kuna hosted an “Orange Out” baseball and softball game that topped $8,000 and coaches throughout the Treasure Valley reached out to McCormick with letters and care packages.
Doctors later diagnosed McCormick with the same leukemia Sager battled, a type rarely found in younger adults. He said the coincidence spooked him at first, but it also allowed him to draw on Sager for inspiration.
If Sager could return to the NBA sideline, which he did before his death last month, McCormick could return to Bishop Kelly’s.
“That’s when I started thinking to myself like, ‘I can do this. I can try to get back,’" he said. "That’s when I set that as my goal."
This means a lot to me. Outside of my family, this is the thing that is the most important to me.”
Derek McCormick, Bishop Kelly girls basketball coach, on why he wanted to return to coaching.
A LONG SUMMER
Doctors knew chemotherapy wouldn’t be enough. They told McCormick his leukemia had an 80 percent chance of returning with chemotherapy alone. Add a bone marrow transplant, and it dropped to 20 percent.
So McCormick left the Knights and their offseason program in the hands of his assistant coach, Whitney Kenyon, as he headed to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in June for a transplant. He started a third round of chemotherapy, underwent radiation for 14 minutes and received a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother, Nick, on July 13. Nick, who was a 100 percent match, quit his job to serve as his brother’s primary caregiver.
McCormick spent 50 days in a hotel near the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, then moved in with his sister in Seattle until October. McCormick said he remained positive thanks to his family support and the work and care of his doctors, who always framed his treatment as, “This is how you’re going to get better.”
But like anyone, especially someone young and healthy, he battled dark moments.
“People say I’m not scared to die or whatever,” McCormick said. “Those people, I think, are just crazy because it goes through your mind. It’s part of your life every single day. I take medication every single day. You can’t not think about it.”
Even as McCormick fought through his recovery, he kept an eye on his team. When the Knights attended their summer camp at the University of Utah, McCormick burned up the phone line to Kenyon, looking for every update and morsel he could scrounge up.
How did the day go? How is this player performing? What does that player need?
“He was still a part of it,” Kenyon said. “He just wasn’t there.”
RETURN TO THE COURT
McCormick set a goal of returning for this season, but he and Kenyon never explicitly promised the team he’d come back. McCormick didn’t want to take over the team again if his treatment left him a different man, a different coach.
The Knights never had any doubt they’d see a whistle around his neck again, and McCormick proved them right. He returned to Boise on Oct. 11, showing up for his first open gym since a thin, bald version of himself watched one in June. He took over the team the first day of tryouts and has the Knights (11-5, 8-0 4A SIC) alone in first place in their league.
“That’s just the kind of guy that he is,” sophomore Olivia Kent said. “He was just going to keep pushing forward, and he wasn’t going to give up.”
To have him there and back to normal and coaching the way he’s always coached — if not with a bit more passion than before — it’s relieving. Everyone can just relax and rest and play basketball.”
Whitney Kenyon, Bishop Kelly assistant coach
McCormick’s leukemia is in remission. But, as with any cancer, he knows it could return, whether that’s four months, four years or four decades from now.
Until then, returning to coaching remained an important goal because it served as a symbol of purpose, of normalcy.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” McCormick said. “Otherwise, I’m just sitting there going, ‘What am I doing?’ Obviously, I’m getting healthy because I want to be around. But, what’s my focus in life?
“Craig Sager’s thing was the same way. He wanted to get back to doing what he did because he wanted to have a normal life. I want to have a normal life.”