Former Gopher star prevails over cancer threat

SOECharlesHallmansquareA person, whenever they’re hit with bad news, either can go in one of two directions: Stay upbeat and fight, or allow themselves to slip away. Danielle O’Banion chose to fight: “No condolences,” she told others upon first learning in November 2014 after a routine doctor’s visit that she’d been diagnosed with stage 2 lymphoma cancer.

We first met O’Banion back in the early 2000s after Pam Borton hired her as a Minnesota assistant women’s basketball coach. She was on the staff when the Gophers made their first and thus far only Final Four appearance in 2004, when they lost to UConn in the national semifinals.  “I still have nightmares of that shot” by the Huskies, a three-pointer made late in the closely contested game that ultimately gave the winners a comfortable cushion against the seventh-seeded and pesky Gophers.

Danielle O'Banion
Danielle O’Banion

O’Banion, after five seasons, left Minnesota in 2007 and took a coaching and top administrative job at her old high school, but eventually she returned to college coaching. She worked her way up to associate head coach at Memphis for two of her four seasons there (2008-12) before being hired at Kent State in 2012. She began her coaching career in 2002 as a Harvard assistant coach after graduating from Boston College, where she played 1997-2001.

“I have been real fortunate to have great coaches when I was a player, and great coaches when I was an assistant, and great mentors,” said O’Banion in our first face-to-face meeting in Indianapolis earlier this month since she left Gopherville.

She reached the pinnacle of her position in women’s Division I basketball, the chance to run her own program, a Black woman in charge. Then, two years ago this past November, came the news.

“I was really surprised,” recalled O’Banion. “To me it means that first of all, [it was] a very difficult situation, and second of all, we stayed true to what was important.”

This meant her “beating the ugly disease of cancer,” noted Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, who introduced O’Banion prior to her receiving the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award April 4 at this year’s Women’s Final Four. The award is named for the former Tennessee women’s coach who was diagnosed several years ago with early onset dementia.

O’Banion underwent chemotherapy treatments while maintaining her head coaching duties but admitted her concern over how Kent State would take the news. “When I was first diagnosed, I let my athletic director know immediately. I wanted to stay as long as I could be with the team. I was very fortunate that their reaction was very supportive, and they gave me every opportunity to coach as long as I could.”

“Taking a timeout was never an option for me, because the [coaching] routine was part of the medicine,” continued the Kent State coach.

Six months after being diagnosed, O’Banion tweeted that the cancer had gone into remission. She coached this past season cancer free.

O’Banion thanked her players and her staff, her life partner, family members, and others during her acceptance speech. “My co-coaches are my parents,” she proudly pointed out. “I want to thank my parents for equipping me for the battle and whatever lies ahead.”

More importantly, said O’Banion, “I’ve been very fortunate to play for the greatest coach of all. I want to praise God for everything He put before me, around me and under me. I look forward for what He has for me next.”

She summed up her remarks by suggesting that everyone in the audience take the time to hug and tell people you love them.

In between pre- and post-interview hugs, O’Banion told me, “I’m grateful that a bouncing basketball paid for my college education, paid for me to travel to Italy and some more places, and has given me the opportunity to pay it back to families and young women who might not have the opportunity I had.”

Finally, the Kent State coach said she was thankful for the ordeal she went through for over a year because it “really helped me remember what’s important.”


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