From an outside perspective, Saturday night’s women’s basketball game was just another event for breast cancer awareness. Lavietes Pavilion was clad in hues of pink—from shirts to laces to the referees’ whistles—for the fourth annual Pink Zone game. But for those familiar with the story of Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, including the numerous alumni in the bleachers, this weekend held much more meaning.
Boasting a near-30-year tenure at the helm of the Crimson’s basketball program, Delaney-Smith has seen it all on the court, but she never saw what was coming 11 years ago. That year, on what seemed to be a normal December day, Delaney-Smith was getting a regular physical when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had been very healthy up to that point,” Delaney-Smith says. “I was shocked—[my family and I] were all shocked. I didn’t really know anyone prior to my diagnosis who had breast cancer, so I felt I was not informed. It was pretty scary.”
At first, Delaney-Smith wanted to keep her diagnosis within the family. She felt that she could handle it privately without worrying everyone around her, including the 1999-2000 women’s basketball team. But the coach had a change of heart.
FACING THE CRIMSON
Once her doctor told her that she could continue coaching, Delaney-Smith decided to tell the squad about the new development, especially since she would need to coordinate her treatment around Harvard’s regular-season schedule.
“Telling the team was really difficult,” Delaney-Smith remembers. “It was an emotional thing, because I’m sure if I were 18 and this person in my life that I see everyday told me that they had cancer, it would be kind of shocking.”
“We could not even imagine what she was going through,” says team member and co-captain of the 2001-2002 squad Laura Barnard ’02. “She stated from the onset that she was going to do everything she could to be at every practice and at every game. I think she maybe missed one practice and one game, if any at all.”
Delaney-Smith did not wait long to start chemotherapy treatment. Fortunately, winter break was near, so she planned her surgery and initial treatments during the holidays. But because of the future doses of radiation involved with chemotherapy, Delaney-Smith knew that soon she would start showing physical signs of her condition.
HARVARD HAIR SALON
Knowing that she was going to lose her hair, Delaney-Smith decided to take the initiative so her team would not be shocked to see her bald after the break.
“She was like, ‘That’s it, I’m going to cut my hair off.’ She was proactive about it and said, ‘My hair does not define me,’” Barnard recounts. “She had a session where one of our players actually cut off her hair for her. She was like, ‘Cut it really, really short,’ because she knew it was all going to ultimately fall off.”
For the rest of the season, Delaney-Smith often messed around with her wig, twisting it, turning it, or using it as a prop to liven the atmosphere. It was her way of showing the team that she was still the same old coach, and that she had no qualms about fighting this cancer.
“One day, all of the other coaches came in with wigs on—Kathy was all about using humor to deal with everything,” says former Crimson player Sharon Moore ’02. “That’s the way she lives her life. She applied it on the court, she applied it to her life dealing with cancer, and that’s the way that everybody else got through it too.”
The team also had a way of showing its coach that the squad cared about her.