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TEST OF FAITH

WHEN MIDNIGHT MADNESS STRIKES AT UNCC, CHARLES HAYWARD WILL GET A HEROE'S WELCOME BACK

It wonOt be his first Midnight Madness. That was a year ago, right before everything came undone. It wonOt be his first standing ovation either. He got one last January just for sitting on the bench. Which is a little strange, if you ask Charles Hayward. He hasnOt done anything yet. HasnOt played a single minute of a single game. But he remembers the cheers he heard that nightNeverybody waiting for him to stand up or wave or do anything besides lower his head in embarrassment.

Now theyOre about to get their wish. And on the night of Oct. 16, inside Halton Arena on the UNC Charlotte campus, Hayward will finally get his.

He is no ordinary redshirt freshman. The tattoo on his right biceps testifies to that. Not the wolf dripping blood from its fangs, but those eight letters just below it. Survivor E The leukemia has been in full remission since April. Gone too is that seat on the bench, the one with his name and No. 45 printed on the backNthe seat his teammates saved for him all last season. There will be no empty chair now, unless heOs out on the court. And if he happens to receive another key to the city, another letter from the White House, another standing O? Basketball will be the reason.

Hayward was a top-100 player coming out of Peabody Magnet School in Alexandria, La. (One expert had him No. 56.) He was also the most promising recruit ever landed by the 49ersNa chiseled 6'8" forward with the shot-blocking reach of a seven-footer and the quickness of a guard. He turned down Memphis and Arkansas to play for a UNCC squad that entered last fall with its first national ranking (17th) in six seasons. Hayward figured to see 20 to 25 minutes a game alongside O98 Conference USA player of the year DeMarco Johnson. Instead, his teammates dedicated their season to him, coming up an overtime short of North Carolina and the Sweet 16.

Now Johnson and star guard Sean Colson are goneNand Hayward has an extra burden to carry. OAll of a sudden, the spotlight changes,O he says, Oand youOre Charles Hayward, the guy who came back from leukemia.O There is little emotion in his soft voice. If youOre waiting for an Oprah-style outpouring, forget it. OWe donOt talk about the leukemia too much,O says junior guard and boyhood friend Kedric Smith, the son of HaywardOs high school coach. Charles would rather play than talk about himself. ThatOs just not him. ThatOs not the kid who inherited his daddyOs stoic disposition. (Charles Sr. was shot and killed when his boy was only 4.) ThatOs not the player who kept everything inside when so much went wrong last OctoberNwhen he struggled to finish drills or lift more weight or make a stupid layup. He knew there were whispers. Is the new guy dogginO it? So he fought through the sprained ankle, the sore back, the strep throat. But then he took an elbow to the mouth and his tongue swelled up and he couldnOt eat for three days. Finally he went to trainer Bret Wood, who sent him for blood testsNwhich revealed a sea of oversized white cells.

It was Halloween. OI donOt know if he would have made it to Christmas,O says Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, HaywardOs oncologist at University Hospital. All Charles could think about was basketball, and not letting his mother or older brother see him afraid. Janice Harrell left two kids back home with relatives to be with her OJunior.O Eric Hayward, a former UConn Husky, drove down from Connecticut. The owners of a Sleep Inn donated two rooms. Athletic director Judy Rose helped the family get Medicaid. People who had never seen a game sent checks. Fans bought special pins and gumbo suppers. They raised $58,000.

Hayward spent six weeks in the hospital, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, playing cards and video games, laughing with visitors and talking hoops. OHe acted like nothing had happened,O says senior forward Kelvin Price. Late at night, when the nurses werenOt looking, Charles would pull out the pair of 10-pound weights hidden under his bed, the ones Eric had snuck in. Other times, he would pray.

He prayed when he got out and the chemo kicked in. He prayed through the pain after they stuck that long, fat needle into his hip to see if he needed a bone marrow transplant. (He didnOt, but he broke down and wept the night before he got the news.) He had prayed a lot by the time Mom returned home in April and Eric found a place in Charlotte. The brothers were playing pickup by then. OI knew God was at least going to give me a chance at my dream,O says Charles.

What if it comes back?

He canOt worry about that. He canOt control that. All he can do is go for his monthly blood work, play ball and keep earning AOs and BOs. OThe battle isnOt over,O says Dr. Gonzalez. OThe disease can come back at any time. But every day, every week, every month that goes by, the balance tips in his favor.O

The player is stronger now than before he got sick, in better shape than most of his teammates. OHeOs ahead of where I thought heOd be,O says new coach Bobby Lutz, the assistant who took over when Melvin Watkins left for Texas A&M. OItOs too early to say if heOll start, but heOs ready to contribute.O

Hayward has more in mind. He turns 21 on Oct. 23. All he wants is a third-straight 49er trip to the Big Dance, a regular spot in the rankings and a future in the NBA. OI want to be a part of building this program,O he says. OI want to be the one who beats schools like North Carolina and Duke. I want to make a huge impact here.O

Do you doubt him?