Wyoming Cowboys forward Larry Nance Jr. enters an infusion center and takes a seat. He is able to walk right in without an appointment – one of the perks of living in Wyoming – and receive his Crohn’s Disease medication. A nurse comes over with a needle, starting an IV in his arm. As she prepares the IV bag containing the medicine, which is called Remicade, he must take Benadryl and Tylenol to ensure that he doesn’t have an allergic reaction to the biologic. After 30 minutes, the nurse attaches the bag of Remicade to his IV and he will remain sitting in his chair for approximately three hours as the medication enters his vein.
A college basketball player must keep his or her body in excellent shape so that they can perform at a high level. For most players, this means doing conditioning drills, lifting weights and eating healthy foods. On top of doing those things, Nance Jr. must also get this IV treatment every seven weeks. Initially, he received the medicine every two weeks, but he’s been able to space out his IV doses lately since his body has responded well to the Remicade.
The 6’8 forward has been extremely productive this season. He has put Wyoming on his back, helping the Cowboys win the Mountain West Tournament to earn the conference’s automatic berth in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. This season, Nance Jr. has led the team in points (16.1), rebounds (7.2) and blocks (1.2), and he’s second in steals (1.2) and field goal percentage (51.3 percent).
But he wasn’t always a dominant, physical specimen. Not too long ago, he was sick, undersized and constantly fatigued. He had no desire to play basketball, because he was in pain and even getting off the couch was exhausting. Then, Nance Jr. was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which changed his life.
For a long time, Nance Jr. wondered what was wrong with him.
He was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school, and had no energy. Not to mention, all of his family members towered over him. He stood at just 6’0 tall and weighed less than 120 lbs. This isn’t short by most standards, but it is in the Nance household. His father, Larry Sr., was 6’10 and played 13 years in the NBA. His sister, Casey, was 6’4 as a freshman in high school.
“I was just really confused,” Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I was confused why I wasn’t growing more. I just didn’t have any energy, no appetite, no urge to play basketball.”
Later that year, he would be diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which is a chronic illness that is described by doctors as “a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.” It’s estimated that 700,000 Americans have Crohn’s Disease, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, and it most often affects individuals who are between 15 and 35 years old. It can affect patients in a number of ways, with the most common symptoms being abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, weight loss, fever, internal bleeding and bowel issues. There is no known cure, but patients can go into remission. Sometimes, serious treatment such as a biologic (like Remicade) or surgery is required. Crohn’s Disease isn’t life-threatening, but it can cause issues that are life-threatening if it goes untreated (such as blockages in the intestines).
The best way to describe Crohn’s is that it turns a person’s immune system against their own body. A healthy person’s immune system fights off harmful bacteria such as viruses, while working alongside the beneficial bacteria. A Crohn’s patient’s immune system attacks the good bacteria, meaning the person’s body is essentially fighting itself. This produces inflammation and ulcers that must be treated.
Still, Nance Jr. was relieved to have a diagnosis. Even though he had a chronic illness he’d have to deal with for the rest of his life, at least he finally knew what he was fighting and could put a plan in place.
“When I figured out why I was feeling like this, it was a relief for me because I knew I could start getting treatment,” Nance Jr. said. “I just wanted to start feeling better. My entire sophomore year was just a lot of pain. I mean, my two favorite foods are peanuts and popcorn and, at that time, I didn’t know that was making my stomach hurt. I was eating it, eating it, eating it and they just rocked my world that entire year.”
His doctor prescribed Remicade, and the medication started working almost immediately. With his body no longer having to fight the disease on its own, he quickly caught up to his relatives.
“From my sophomore year to my junior year, I grew about six and a half inches,” Nance Jr. said. “When I first got the Remicade, it was like it kicked my body into overdrive and I just started to catch up on all the growing and stuff that I had missed the past couple years.”
With a growth spurt and renewed energy, he was able to pursue his dream of playing college basketball, which is something he thought he’d never be able to do when he was undersized and fatigued.
“I mean obviously everybody who’s playing basketball growing up has the dream of playing [at a high level], but I dropped that dream really quick around eighth grade because I thought there was just no way,” Nance Jr. said. “I just didn’t have the urge to play it, practice it, nothing. Then, once I got that treatment, it was eye opening and really exciting because I could get my old dream back.
“I started realizing that maybe [the dream was realistic] at the end of my senior year. That’s when I started getting recruited and some guys were starting to talk to me, telling me they were interested. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I think I might be able to do this. I feel pretty good, so let’s go ahead and give it a shot.’”
As a senior at Revere High School in Ohio, Nance Jr. averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.6 steals and 2.3 assists. He was named Second Team All-Ohio, First Team All-Suburban League and First Team All-District, and led his team to two straight Suburban League Championships. In addition to Wyoming, he was recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan and Ohio. But he decided on the Cowboys and it has worked out for him, as evidenced by his impressive statistics and the team’s success.
Despite his medical issues, he has been able to follow in his father’s large footsteps. Larry Sr. was a three-time All-Star and won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984. Now, Larry Jr. is looking like a star as well and a pro career seems inevitable. He feels his success is so much sweeter given all of the obstacles he’s had to overcome.
“I enjoy it a whole lot more just because I know the other sides of things,” Nance Jr. said. “It’s like you can’t truly appreciate success until you fail, and that’s kind of where I’m at right now. I truly appreciate playing basketball at such a high level because I know what it’s like to struggle and really have a hard time, trying to figure out what is going on.”
Ironically, Nance Jr. describes himself as an energy guy on the court. He studies Chicago Bulls power forward Taj Gibson and, like Gibson, he tries to provide defense and hustle plays when he’s on the court. When asked what it’s like to be an energy guy just years after having zero energy, he can’t help but laugh.
“Wow, that’s even a new one for me,” Larry said. “I’ve never heard that, wow. It really is crazy because that’s what lost me my starting job in high school on a freshman team: lack of energy. Now, that’s my role.”
Larry knows what it’s like to feel horrible and hopeless due to Crohn’s Disease, which is why he wants to be a role model for children with the disease. He recently received some fan mail from a child with Crohn’s and he was ecstatic.
“Honestly, I just called my mom and dad right when I got out of practice because I got a letter from a kid in Pennsylvania who said, ‘I love sports and I keep reading your stories. You’re a huge inspiration to me to keep trying, keep doing my best to play.’ I usually don’t get really excited about fan mail anymore, but that was just really unique and I would take a letter like that over a letter like, ‘I admire your basketball skills’ any day,” Larry said. “That’s just on a different level.
“It’s like how [former NFL player] David Garrard affected me. I looked at him and thought to myself, ‘It’s possible.’ So I kept doing my best and here I am. For me to kind of flip that script and me being that person now is really a dream come true. I want to do a foundation, a charity. To be in that position, it is pretty incredible.”
I was drawn to Larry’s story because I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 12 years old. I had surgery to remove a large portion of my intestines several years later, and have been in that same chair at an infusion center waiting for a Remicade bag to empty.
Nance Jr. and I bonded immediately when discussing our experiences with the disease. We also found out we had the same childhood hero in Garrard. Like many children with Crohn’s Disease, we looked up to the former NFL quarterback, who played nine seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and was diagnosed with the disease.
Garrard has been an inspiration to many Crohn’s patients. Over the course of his career, he passed for 16,003 yards and 89 touchdowns. In June of 2004, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease after experiencing stomach and chest pain. He had to undergo surgery to remove 12 inches of his intestines and then started Remicade, but he still managed to play in the 2004 NFL season and continue his football career for many years.
Garrard has been a speaker at camps for children with Crohn’s Disease and he runs the David Garrard Foundation, which holds events and raises money for Crohn’s Disease research among other causes. When told that Nance Jr. looked up to him as a child, Garrard was blown away.
“Well, you know what, that’s really cool,” Garrard said of Nance Jr. looking up to him and following in his footsteps. “Actually, when I got diagnosed and realized what the disease is all about and how many people it affected and how many kids are affected, I just knew right then that God blessed me with this disease so that I could try to be an inspiration to people, and I wasn’t afraid to speak out on it. It’s not a very comfortable disease and not something you want to bring up around the dinner table, even though that’s the exact time I would bring it up sometimes. My mission was basically trying to reach the youth and encourage them.
“I would get a lot of letters from kids around the country, saying how much I’ve helped them and that kind of stuff, but to actually see Larry go from being a kid to getting into college to making a name for himself in college and then hearing him say that I was a direct inspiration to him is really what it was all about. If there was just one kid who I could help do that – and maybe it wasn’t sports, maybe it was just being a productive person in their community – those are the stories that make it worth it. To finally have a kid grow up from being a young kid to a college athlete and say that I helped inspire him to continue on, there’s really a special place in my heart for that kind of stuff.”
Returning to action shortly after his surgery was important to Garrard, not only because he wanted to resume his NFL career but because he wanted to send a message to children with Crohn’s Disease.
“I was trying to get myself healthy enough so I could continue to play and just show them that you can beat this disease,” Garrard said. “You don’t have to let this disease keep you down, keep you locked in the house, not wanting to go outside, not wanting to play with your friends. I didn’t want them letting this disease have that kind of power over them.
“I was just not going to stay down very long – I’ve been that way my whole life. I’ve always been an athlete, so there’s nothing that can keep me down and that was just my mindset the whole time. I listened to the doctors, I said, ‘What do I have to do? What’s the best way? The surgery? Okay, let’s go ahead and do it now so I could have time to recover.’ Honestly, I lost a lot of weight, about 40 pounds total, and once I got healthy enough after surgery I just started eating anything and everything, and that’s pretty easy for me to do. I put most of the weight back on plus a little more because I did not stop eating, and I just knew I couldn’t be too skinny out there, trying to run around and getting hit and that kind of stuff. My teammates were encouraging me the whole time. I just stayed focused on what I had to do. I let my body heal in the abdominal area, and once the doctors gave me the okay, I was good to go. … I believe my positive attitude, my faith in God and my teammates and family members around me helped me fight my way back because there was a good culture around me. Then, once I felt like I was strong enough, I wasn’t even thinking about the disease; I was thinking about that 200-pound linebacker that was trying to blitz me.”
When Garrard speaks to children with Crohn’s Disease at places like the Painted Turtle Camp and Camp Oasis, he tries to motivate them. The fact that he played in the NFL – and has been very open about his disease – inspires many children. But still, there’s only so much he can do.
“The kids do love that I play sports, that I play football, but when I get there they honestly don’t care about that; they want someone to help them get a cure for this disease,” Garrard said. “They love that I played sports and all of that, but they are like, ‘Hey that’s pretty cool and everything, but let’s find somebody that can cure us. We don’t want to be sick at home and not able to go to school. We want to be outside running around with our friends. We want to be able to play normal.’ You hear that from all of them and that’s what motivates me, that’s what drives me. It’s that there are 10-year-old kids that have been dealing with this their whole life and they don’t know any different. There’s kids having a hard enough time just being a kid, but then they have to deal with something as serious as this as well.”
Garrard has spent years trying to raise money and awareness for Crohn’s Disease research. As far as his own health goes, though, he’s actually doing very well lately. His doctor recently told him that rather than getting a colonoscopy every year to monitor his Crohn’s Disease as he had been doing, he can start getting them once every three years since he has been doing fine for quite some time.
“I feel great,” Garrard said. “I just want my story to be the same kind of story that everyone else can have, and I hope that I can inspire people. Hopefully Mr. Nance Jr. can do the same and even more.”
Nance Jr. looks up to Garrard and has dreamed of working alongside the quarterback on a Crohn’s charity or foundation. Shortly after being interviewed for this story, Garrard asked for Nance Jr.’s phone number and the two connected. Garrard would love to be a mentor for Nance Jr., who was thrilled to speak to the athlete he looked up to as a kid.
“When I was younger, I looked to see what famous people had Crohn’s and there really wasn’t a whole lot who did at that time,” Nance Jr. said. “Once I found David Garrard, it kind of opened my eyes around my junior and senior year when I was getting pretty good at basketball. I started thinking, ‘This might be possible. I mean, he’s playing a much tougher game than I am and he could still do it.’ So I figured I’d keep pursuing [my dream] and give it a shot.”
The main message that Nance Jr. wants to deliver to children is that Crohn’s Disease shouldn’t control their life or limit them in any way.
“I want them to know there is nothing that you can’t do because of Crohn’s,” Nance Jr. said. “As bad as it might be at one point, your body is going to learn how to live with it, learn how to adapt to it. It’s not going to prevent you from living a happy life.”
Because Nance Jr. is a senior, these NCAA Tournament games will be his final contests as a college basketball player. He hopes that his strong play can lead to him getting drafted by an NBA team, not only so he can live out a dream but also because so he can reach even more people and become a face of Crohn’s Disease, just as Garrard did.
“[Getting drafted] would be a dream come true, and at the same time it would also be, for me, a tremendous victory,” Nance Jr. said. “There were a lot of times when I first got the disease when I was like, ‘Uh oh, can I still play even? Is that possible?’ There were questions and concerns there and to be able to answer those by getting drafted would be a tremendous victory for myself and the entire Crohn’s community.”
On Friday, Nance Jr. will be on college basketball’s biggest stage as Wyoming takes on Northern Iowa in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Regardless of what happens in the Big Dance, Nance Jr. has already won the most important battle of his life and inspired Crohn’s patients everywhere.
For more information on Crohn’s Disease and how you can get involved, visit CCFA.com.
UPDATE: Larry Nance Jr. was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 27 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He just completed is rookie year with the Lakers, appearing in 63 contests and averaging 5.5 points and five rebounds in 20.1 minutes per game.
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