Hatchell will tackle cancer head-on

There are people who, if you gave them a free pass from work for the rest of their lives, simply wouldn't take it. Having expectations to face, goals to meet, production to accomplish -- it's just how they are wired.

North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell is that kind of person. Let's put it this way: Earlier this year, during the build-up to her 900th career victory, she was asked what she might do someday after basketball. And in true Hatchell form, she immediately spoke of the job she'd want after she retired: mowing the giant lawn at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. (she figured it would be a relaxing chore).

That's Hatchell: She's thinking ahead to work after work. It's the way she was raised in the textile-mill town of Gastonia, N.C., outside of Charlotte. It's how she has operated for the past 40 years as a coach.

And, as everyone who knows her would tell you, it's how she'll deal with cancer. She'll tackle it head-on, with a commitment to a game plan and her trademark relentless optimism.

It was announced Monday that Hatchell will temporarily step aside from her coaching duties after receiving a diagnosis of leukemia. Her longtime assistant, Andrew Calder, will be in charge of the program. Hatchell will be around the team and consult with her staff as much as possible as she pursues her treatment.

"The thing that makes her fighting spirit so strong is her faith," said Charlotte Smith, the former Tar Heels star and assistant who is now head coach at Elon. "After you get past the initial shock of finding out, you know to be encouraged because of her strength. She will go into this situation with faith and hope."

There is never a good time to deal with what Hatchell is facing, but there are particular challenges her team must confront this season. North Carolina has no seniors and must look to leadership from four juniors, only one of whom -- Brittany Rountree -- was a starter last year.

Youth is the key word for this team; North Carolina has the top-ranked freshman class in the country. But former Tar Heels assistant coach Trisha Stafford-Odom -- who was so instrumental in bringing in these recruits -- left UNC this summer to take a head-coaching position at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.

Hatchell, who took over at UNC in 1986, was eager to imprint her philosophies on this exceptional group of rookies, and she will still to do that. Plus, Calder has been Hatchell's right-hand guy ever since she came to Chapel Hill, so the continuity of the message to the youngsters will be maintained.

"It will be a different role for him," said Smith, who played for and then worked with Calder at UNC. "But in terms of the system, Coach Hatchell and Coach Calder have been together so long, the program won't miss a beat on how things are taught. They're like brother and sister, and that bond is so incredibly strong. I know he'll do his best for her."

Calder will have a strong backup crew. Assistant Tracey Williams-Johnson has been with the UNC program a dozen years. Ivory Latta, the former Tar Heel standout who now plays for the WNBA's Mystics, is in her first season coaching with her alma mater but certainly knows her way around a Hatchell practice and Carmichael Arena. Latta is "instant energy" in the WNBA and excels at mentoring younger pro players. She'll do the same with college kids.

Director of basketball operations Greg Law has worked for Hatchell for 11 years. And video coordinator Billy Lee -- a longtime men's hoops coach at Campbell -- has a wealth of experience, too.

That's the work side of things, and it's in Hatchell's nature that she would be determined to make that go as smoothly as possible, especially considering how many teenaged Tar Heels there are.

But there is, of course, also the personal side. Cancer has dramatically affected ACC women's basketball before. Hatchell's friend and longtime colleague, Kay Yow of N.C. State, died from the disease in 2009, having inspired so many people and leaving a legacy that lives on with the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

Former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan has seen her pancreatic cancer go into remission despite a dire diagnosis in 2000. Ryan continues to speak out for cancer research.

One of Hatchell's players, Jessica Breland, had to redshirt the 2009-10 season at UNC while being treated for Hodgkins' lymphoma. Breland had a successful senior year in 2010-11, and has since competed in the WNBA, most recently for Indiana.

Breland's illness came when Smith was still an assistant coach at UNC, and everyone on the staff and team then learned more about cancer because they saw first-hand what Breland dealt with.

Smith, who lost both her grandfather and father to prostate cancer, said when Breland was ill, Hatchell was a tireless advocate who treated the player like "she was her own child," Smith said.

Now, the Tar Heels -- past and present -- will go through this battle with their coach, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September. The alumni support will be constant; Hatchell's players always have tended to keep close ties with the program.

The community support in Chapel Hill, where Hatchell has been so involved in so many initiatives for nearly 30 years, will be strong, too. And Hatchell also has the bedrock support of her immediate family -- husband Sammy, also a coach, and 24-year-old son Van -- who've been so big a part of her Tar Heels family, too.

"When one is hurting, we're all hurting," Smith said. "I've gotten so much love and support already from my own friends, because they know the relationship that we all have with Coach Hatchell.

"She's like a mother to me, and she calls me her daughter. She's been there for me through the loss of my mom and dad. She was there the day I got married, she was there for me through my divorce. She's always been that support for us. So how could we not support her in her time of need?"