Duquesne's Colter quiet cancer fight

Derrick Colter didn't want to publicize his fight against cancer. But now, he sees that his fight can help others. Courtesy of Erik Kaminksi

As he lay facedown while doctors zapped radiation at the back of his neck, killing the cancer that had taken root there, Duquesne's Derrick Colter never flinched. He didn't cry, didn't complain.

He acted, his coach joked, as though he was trying to get rid of a pimple, not non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Colter was so unemotional that Jim Ferry struggled to find the proper word to describe his junior guard.

"It was very professional, almost business-like,'' Ferry said.

A lot of thoughts went through Colter's head during those 20 consecutive weekday visits to Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh.

He worried a lot about his basketball future. Doctors told him he could do whatever he felt he could handle, and so Colter, who averaged 9 points and 3.4 assists for the Dukes last season, pushed himself. But there were days when all he wanted to do was sleep. What if that never changed?

He thought about his parents. They were home in Forestville, Maryland, four hours away. Colter and his family had decided it would be best if he stayed in Pittsburgh for treatments and so he could continue seeing Dr. Stanley Mark, the physician who had first diagnosed him. But Angela and James Colter were obviously concerned and their son knew they'd want instant updates.

Mostly he thought about his oldest brother, JJ, the child who never spoke a word or walked a step, but was the epicenter of the Colter family; the man who wasn't supposed to even see his teen years yet lived until the age of 33; his baby brother's role model, who fought cerebral palsy with dignity, determination, and somehow even joy, until he died in 2012.

"We've got the same genes, man,'' Colter said. "Always fighting.''

For years, James and Angela Colter shuttled between the Hyattsville, Maryland, nursing home where JJ was being cared for and their own home, where Derrick and his two other older brothers were growing up. JJ's battle included its share of life-threatening scares, yet instead of fracturing the family under the weight of its stress, JJ's condition somehow buoyed them.

A lot of that came from JJ. He smiled easily and laughed joyfully, forging a bond with his brothers built on intuitive, not verbal, communication. Muscle degeneration made it impossible for JJ to use his hands, but Derrick, the baby of the family who idolized JJ, found a way to toss a basketball with him, anyway.

"That bond, it was something you had to see,'' James said. "It would touch your heart.''

When the Colters needed outside support, they turned to their church. As part of its Sunday services, the True Way Holiness Church congregation gathers for the Victory March, an uplifting parade around the church. Contrary to what the name might imply, it is not meant to celebrate accomplishments, but rather to ask for help in the gravest of circumstances.

The congregants have marched for a church member whose baby had stopped breathing, and for another who had Hepatitis B. They marched in April for Derrick, and before him, for JJ.

The Victory, James explained, is having the faith to ask for help.

"We're not clowning,'' he said. "If you want God to do something for you, you march for Him and let Him do it.''

For so many years, JJ defied the odds, so long in fact that no one ever thought the disease would win.

In 2012, during Derrick's freshman year, his parents called Ferry to warn him that JJ had taken a turn. Then, one day, Derrick didn't show up for practice.

"I remember it was a rainy day and [Derrick] came walking into practice, just distraught,'' Ferry said.

He went home for the funeral with instructions to take as much time as he needed. Instead, on the same day that he buried his brother, Colter was on the court, playing against Robert Morris. He scored 16 points to go with six assists.

"[JJ] always sucked it up and kept pushing,'' said Derrick, who has been stenciling his sneakers with "4 Bro JJ" since high school, "and that's how I am.''

He first felt the lump in March. It was small, maybe the size of a tiny super ball.

Derrick mentioned it in passing to his athletic trainer, Vic Bauer, while Bauer was taping his ankles before a game at George Mason. He said it had been there for three weeks.

Bauer took a look and, not wanting to upset Derrick, sent him out for pregame warm-ups. Then he got on his phone.

"I started texting our doctors,'' Bauer said. "I thought we should get the ball rolling.''

Three days later, team physicians looked at the lump in Brooklyn, New York, during the Atlantic 10 tournament. After Duquesne was eliminated, they all consulted with Marks, the deputy director of clinical services for UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Marks ordered a biopsy and, on April 22, while Derrick was home for Easter weekend, Dr. Marks called with the diagnosis. Derrick had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system.

"I didn't understand at first,'' Derrick said, "and then you hear that word -- cancer -- and I just ... there were no words. It was like everything just stopped. Me and my mom broke down crying and my dad just kind of was looking straight.''

That was the beginning and the end of the Colter Family Pity Party.

After PET and CT scans showed no other malignancies in his body, Derrick began his radiation treatments on May 1.

Ferry often went with him.

Before coming to Duquesne, Ferry was the head coach at Long Island University. Four years ago, his best player, Julian Boyd, was diagnosed with a heart condition and was forced to sit out a year. Player and coach had more than one serious conversation as Boyd tried to navigate the emotional roller coaster of his diagnosis.

That's what Ferry was prepared for with Derrick. He even offered him a spare bedroom in his home, so Derrick could relax in peace after his radiation treatments.

Derrick opted for the dorms.

"It was never once a 'why me' situation,'' Ferry said. "His first question in the doctor's office was, 'When can I work out?' I was, I am, amazed."

It was that commitment that first appealed to Ferry.

In high school, Derrick was a high-scoring point guard who led his team to a Maryland 2A state championship game. Ferry knew he'd be a critical addition as he rebuilt the Dukes without T.J. McConnell, who had decided to transfer to Arizona.

After three years of coaching Derrick, it's his attitude that Ferry finds even more impressive than his ability.

"We're playing St. Bonaventure and he has a chance to seal the game for us, but he misses both free throws,'' Ferry said. "He's completely devastated. But then we foul, they miss and he gets the ball. He drives up, shoots a half-court 3 to win the game. Everyone's storming the court and tackling him. Derrick is covering himself up, not wanting the attention.''

The spotlight has never mattered much to Derrick. Amid the fanfare at his high school when he signed his letter of intent, Derrick said he'd rather be off visiting JJ.

For the better part of this summer, in fact, hardly anyone outside of his family and his basketball family knew Derrick was battling cancer.

He's telling his story now for the first time only after some cajoling, and only because he sees a bigger purpose.

At the end of this month, he'll be feted at a Coaches vs. Cancer benefit in Pittsburgh.

But before that, he plans to visit the pediatric cancer wings at Pittsburgh area hospitals.

He wants the kids to know that he was just like them, exhausted from the treatments. Maybe he'll even show them where he's lost a bit of his hair.

And he wants them to know how he played basketball this summer and recorded a triple-double in a Pittsburgh Pro-Am League game (33 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists); how he will be ready to play when the Dukes open the season in November, just seven months after his diagnosis.

He wants them to know about JJ, too, and how tough he was, tougher than any basketball player Derrick knows.

Mostly he wants to tell them about June 24, the day doctors told Derrick that his cancer was in remission.