Celeste Hoewisch still beating the odds

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Few players seem less fluent in the language of failure than Celeste Hoewisch, whose very basketball existence suggests that sheer stubborn will to succeed comes in packages as distinct from the norm as Brittney Griner's size or Kayla Pedersen's versatility.

Too small to play big-time basketball, at a school too small to make a name for herself on the national scene, Hoewisch will instead leave a pair of giant shoes to fill when her Green Bay career ends next spring.

"I guess the best word I can use to describe her is a fighter," fellow Green Bay co-captain Kayla Tetschlag said. "She brings the fire all the time. Whether it's in practice if we need a pick-me-up, whether it's in a game if we need a big shot to turn us around, she's always the one to compete. It's not always making the big shot, but it's hustling for that loose ball, or it's grabbing that rebound when nobody thinks she can. She's always bringing the fire."

Yet it's a single memory of just how bitter failure tastes that offers the best beginning in explaining one player's will to succeed. If you want to know why the coaches who ignored Hoewisch and the opponents who underestimated her failed so fully, start with the one thing that stopped her in her tracks.

The third of Dean and Donna Hoewisch's five children, Celeste idolized no one so much as her oldest sister, Kaylin, growing up in Hortonville, Wis., a town not quite an hour south of Green Bay. Younger sister Karen, now a basketball player at Carroll College, might have wanted to blaze her own trail, at least by the modest standards of inherited jersey numbers, but Celeste happily followed in Kaylin's footsteps, wearing the same No. 24 that the eldest sibling, four years older, always wore on the court at Hortonville High School.

There would soon be reasons well beyond basketball or babysitting to look up to her older sister.

Just weeks after the start of classes at a technical college where she was set to study nursing in the fall of 2002, Kaylin grew sick and was diagnosed soon thereafter with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Initial chemotherapy didn't improve matters that winter, nor did stem cell treatment that lasted through the spring. By the beginning of summer the following year, the outlook offered by doctors was bleak.

A freshman in high school during that first year of her sister's illness, Celeste understood that cancer was, by nature, serious. But she also knew her sister to be invulnerable in the way only older sisters can be. Even as the cancer spread, even as the family traveled via the Kids Wish Network to Florida to visit Give Kids the World Village, a self-described nonprofit resort for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, she believed Kaylin would be OK.

"I never really got completely scared until I saw my parents start to get scared," Celeste said.

It was during the search for something, anything, to combat the cancer that Celeste met her match. Day after day, Kaylin would drink large glasses of juices her mom created out of any vegetables that might boost an immune system or offer other health benefits. Needless to say, taste wasn't part of the creative process. After listening to her sister describe how wretched they were, Celeste decided to drink a small glass as a measure of solidarity. She only got a few sips down.

In the vastness of fear and uncertainty, the tiniest moment drove home the stakes.

"I couldn't do it -- and she would do two of those a day," Celeste recalled. "After that, I literally went up in my room and bawled my eyes out because I was like, 'I can't even do the simplest thing that she has to do.' She's going to chemo treatments, doing all these terrible things every single day, and I can't even do the simplest thing."

And you begin to understand what drives a person to push herself beyond where others will go.

The daughter of a basketball coach, Hoewisch wanted to play at the Division I level more than anything, so the pint-sized prep player put together her own recruiting tape and sent it to Connecticut, Tennessee and a few dozen other big-name programs around the country. Hearing little more than silence in return, she turned her attention to Division II Grand Valley State until Green Bay expressed casual interest. She jumped at the chance to go where she was welcome, if not necessarily desperately wanted.

"The Green Bay opportunity kind of came out of nowhere," Hoewisch said. "They weren't recruiting me very hard."

After a redshirt season, she was tasked with helping the Phoenix backcourt move on without Natalie Berglin, who finished her four seasons as the program's all-time leader in 3-pointers and first in assists over the past 20 seasons. It was Berglin who sparked a run that came to an end only after the team led Connecticut at halftime in Hartford during the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. After two seasons of steady improvement, Hoewisch helped lead the program back to the second round and to the verge of the Sweet 16 last season, in part by scoring 23 points and getting to the free throw line 15 times in a first-round upset of Virginia.

She wasn't supposed to be good enough to play Division I. She certainly wasn't supposed to be good enough to lead a team at that level in assists, steals, 3-pointers and free throw attempts (not to mention better than four rebounds per game at a slight 5-foot-7). But here she is.

"I don't watch anyone on film and think, 'Oh, she plays as hard as Celeste Hoewisch,'" said Green Bay coach Matt Bollant, who inherited Hoewisch when he took the job after her redshirt season. "She just plays so hard all the time. It really separates her. She just has a motor that goes, and she's so intense and so passionate, that's just how she plays every day."

Her motor was operating on all cylinders in a recent game against in-state rival Wisconsin. With Green Bay's other two leading scorers, forwards Tetschlag and Julie Wojta, occupied with physical defensive assignments, Hoewisch led all scorers with 22 points in a game Green Bay won by 26 points. The smallest player on the court for much of the night, as she often is when Green Bay takes on the major-conference teams it beats with regularity, she got to the free throw line 10 times, got knocked to the ground half a dozen times by a conservative estimate and finished with four rebounds.

She took a remarkable amount of punishment for a person feeling great, let alone a person who couldn't stop coughing in the afternoon shootaround or during her rare moments on the bench -- and someone who had taken an exam in human physiology the day before. Not surprisingly, she tried to dismiss the effort as anything special, foiled only by the coughing fit that interrupted her answer.

"She toughed it out," Bollant said. "She did not feel well. She couldn't hardly talk because every time she'd talk, she'd start coughing. She's the type of kid that's not going to make an excuse for herself. She's going to take responsibility, and she did that [during the opening weekend]. It's just neat to see -- that's part of having success, as soon as you start to blame, 'Oh, I'm not felling well,' or make an excuse for yourself, your chances of playing at that level aren't very good."

Kaylin refused to believe it when doctors effectively said her chances of survival weren't very good. The crushing part about cancer is that even that fighting spirit isn't enough in some cases. But the hope comes from the times it does foretell the future. More than a year after she was diagnosed, with her condition deteriorating steadily, Kaylin received an allogenic stem cell transplant from sister Crystal, the second-oldest in the family. Gradually, what amounted to the final treatment option began to show signs of working, and by January 2006, Kaylin was officially said to be in remission. Despite being told that the side effects of her long fight might make it impossible for her to have children, she's expecting her second child early next year, perhaps just in time to be on hand when aunt Celeste plays her final home game for the Phoenix.

It's safe to say she will play that game the same way she has played each and every game in the uniform.

"Not being recruited highly, you get a little chip on your shoulder," Hoewisch said. "I think that's kind of motivated me to become the player that I am. I don't take anything for granted. I've got to work hard every single day, earn my spot and prove that I belong here."

But that success also comes with the perspective of someone who got just a taste of what success and failure means when the stakes aren't measured on a scoreboard. Hoewisch might be a self-made star and one of the toughest basketball players in the country, but she's also still a little sister who idolizes her big sister. And she still wants to be just like her. A fighter.

"She's my hero," Hoewisch said. "I do not compare anything -- this hard work I do out here? It's nothing."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.