CM hoops junkie passes test of will

WEST ROXBURY, Mass. -- It's difficult to even begin to describe the gait of Mike Slonina as he paced around the Catholic Memorial School gymnasium some 15 minutes after he had completed a marathon to end all marathons.

“I can’t even [expletive] walk right now,” the Watertown resident said as he dragged his swollen left foot to a seat at the bench, where he was about to go on camera with an ESPNBoston.com crew to talk about this amazing feat -- shooting a basketball for 24 hours straight, heaving up 8,101 attempts, all in the name of brain cancer research.

“Hope you guys have a bleep button,” the CM senior and basketball team manager said jokingly to the reporters gathered before pouring his heart out into the ESPN-flagged microphone.

Originally inspired by his mother’s brain cancer scare a year ago, as profiled on ESPNBoston.com last week, Slonina branded this event as “A Shot For Life” and pushed himself to extreme limits in training for it with the help of a team of his friends. At one point in training, a nutritionist upped his calorie count to 3,000 a day.

For a kid who was never able to suit up for even a minute for the Knights, due to a debilitating foot injury, Slonina trained for this as if he was preparing for the Boston Marathon.

Off the court, he was busy canvassing for donations (all proceeds from the event are going to Mass. General Hospital’s Brain Tumor Center, or more specifically Dr. William Curry’s research lab). Totals of up to $40,000 have been rumored, surpassing his goal of $30,000, though official numbers won't be in until next week at the earliest.

Slonina pushed through the first 12 hours with good pace, stopping briefly for a quick visit from Mayor Tom Menino. After three hours he was on track to reach over 12,000 shots; he nailed his 5,000th, a free throw, at 12:20 a.m., which was 12 hours after he started. That was all before he hit the wall -- hard -- in the wee hours of the morning.

His ailments heading into this event -- tendonitis in the right elbow, lower back pains, toes that keep dislocating, and permanent nerve damage to his left foot that has prevented him from playing organized hoops since the seventh grade -- were troubling enough. And from the fourth hour on, Slonina endured pain in his right wrist that had him alternating between ice packs, heating pads, rub-downs and cream application. Further complicating things was a cut on his middle finger that surfaced in the third hour, which required taping of the finger.

Give him credit. He could have sat under the hoop for the next 20 hours, rolling the ball off the backboard. Instead, he kept to his textbook shooting form, polished during endless hours spent by himself at the school’s gymnasium (where he sometimes puts up 1,000 shots in a day) or at local YMCAs.

“I worked really hard to prepare myself for this,” Slonina said after the event was over. “The rest of my body was prepared. My legs are good, my shoulders, I worked really hard. But, my wrist... starting in hour four, I could barely flick it. I mean, that was all heart, to keep flicking it. And I kept shooting pretty good, so...”

What started as simple 5- or 10-minute breaks near the bottom of the hour, to re-fuel and chow down some calories, turned into 25-minute sessions sprawled on a mattress, feet elevated, doing anything he could to make the swelling on his wrist going down; changing socks and sneakers; taking down an ibuprofen tablet every few hours.

At one point, he pulled out a letter that he wrote to himself “a long time ago” that is “very personal, probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

The dozens of students who stayed with him overnight kept themselves entertained by pulling pranks on each other and organizing games of “knockout,” or took naps on the bleachers.

“It was a battle,” Slonina said. “My body was in a heavyweight battle with my soul, and that’s what it really came down to. And I wasn’t going to lose.”

When the sun rose up on Baker Street, Slonina caught a second wind, though he admits the last three hours he was functioning on pure fumes. His loyal stat guy, Christian Mowles, had been keeping track of every make and miss, calculating his cumulative percentage at around 72 percent. He disappeared somewhere around 4 a.m. and resurfaced from the bleachers at 7, so the calculations are fuzzy, but all accounts suggest Slonina made 5930 baskets out of 8101 shots.

His final shot was from behind the 3-point line: naturally, a swish.

“I let a lot of frustration go with that final shot in particular,” he said. “That was a great moment in my life.”

So where does it go from here? Slonina says he’s going to take a month “or three” to recover, and then move on to another adventure. What? He’s not sure yet.

“I mean, I don’t think I’ll do this again,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know why anyone would put themselves through this twice. But I want to turn ‘A Shot For Life’ into something national. I think other kids across the country will take this challenge. I’m a very competitive person, and there are kids like me out there that would want to do this, that would want to prove something. And I feel like I proved something today.”

As he tossed and turned with each night leading up to this event, Slonina had visions of a packed house screaming his name, and a throng of people waiting to put him on television. But in reality, the crowd at his final shot barely took up a quarter of the gym, and just three reporters greeted him at the proverbial finish line.

But it didn't matter. Slonina was focused on the ball leaving his grip and swishing through nylon, and when he finished he mused, “Heaven’s gotta be a lot like this.”

The crowd on hand gave him a standing ovation lasting several minutes. Slonina hugged each member of his team, grabbed the back of his shirt, tugged it over his eyes and paced around the floor, letting the applause sink in before posing for group photos. All the while, he couldn’t stop grinning.

It was a genuine grin, part overwhelmed, part overjoyed. From ear to ear, it was a culmination of relief, solace and peace of mind. Of six years of frustration, all being taken out at the bottom of the net.

And in the end, ultimately, closure.