Blueberries coated in morning dew gleam under a rising August sun. Wild turkeys prance through the patch. Beams of light bounce off the Carolina blue roof of a wooden cabin.
North Carolina women’s basketball head coach Sylvia Hatchell, fresh from a trip to the beach, sits on the porch and overlooks her 204 acres south of Black Mountain. As she strokes the head of Maddie, her beloved golden retriever, the only sounds are chirps from birds and squeaks from her white rocking chair.
Hatchell doesn’t make it here often — at least not as often as she would like. Her seat on the porch is the perfect spot to gaze down on her blueberry patch, nestled between rows of trees. Each bush brings a smile to her face. These plants serve a purpose.
Back when she bought this land in 2000, she noticed several of the blueberry bushes growing. Hatchell wanted to do something with them.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll put up a sign on a tree down there that says 'honor system' and tell people to write checks to the cancer center,’” Hatchell said.
That sign, hammered into the strong cherry wood, turned into something more than she could ever imagine.
People came, and, sure enough, started to mail in checks for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Hatchell didn’t have the address for Lineberger at that time, so she put the address for her basketball camp. That way, she could deliver the money personally and keep track of donations.
Lineberger was receiving some of those checks directly, and there was confusion surrounding the frequent and random $10 donations for 'blueberries.' So when Hatchell went to drop off the checks to Shelley Earp, the director of UNC Cancer Care, he asked her to speak in front of the board. Hatchell, dressed in some comfy beach attire, entered a room of suits to tell her tale.
This was the beginning of a special partnership. Hatchell has sponsored Lineberger since that day, and her blueberry patch has become an important piece of the center’s story.
Oct. 12, 2013.
Hatchell lay restless in a room cloaked by darkness. She had sent her husband and son home and was working through a new reality alone. A thousand thoughts ran through her head, yet not one of them provided satisfaction. This was Hatchell’s first night on the fourth floor of Lineberger.
Three days earlier, she was preparing for another season. Coming off a long summer full of recruiting and speeches, Hatchell was exhausted. But she felt worse than usual.
“I called over there to Lineberger,” she recalled. “I said, 'I've been to four doctors. Nobody can tell me anything. I’m tired, and I need to know what’s going on.’”
On Friday morning, they took a bone marrow sample, and Hatchell was off to practice that afternoon. She received a call that night.
Acute myeloid leukemia. She checked into Lineberger the very next day.
This is a bad dream. This is not where I’m supposed to be.
“I don’t cry much," Hatchell said. "But I cried myself to sleep that night."
She’s always been in control. But in this instance, she was powerless. A month before her diagnosis, Hatchell was on top of the world.
“It doesn’t get any better,” she said. “I mean, I had the No. 1 recruiting class. I was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. I had just won my 900th game. Life was good.”
But Hatchell didn’t get to where she was by being complacent. She has always been the queen of positivity. So after her diagnosis, she got to work.
Luckily, she had people there for her. She still holds onto the voicemails she received that weekend. Names like Roy Williams, Larry Fedora, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt are all there. And her friends made sure she had company.
“For seven and a half months, I did not spend one second by myself,” Hatchell said.
Hatchell’s tenacity carried on into her treatment, which kept her at Lineberger for the first month of her fight. Dr. Claudio Battaglini was there every step of the way.
Battaglini, a professor of exercise and sports science at UNC, was a pioneer in researching the effects of exercise during cancer treatment. His exercise oncology lab in Fetzer Hall was instrumental in Hatchell’s recovery.
“It wasn’t easy,” Battaglini said. “There were some days I got there to exercise her, and she would look at me and say, ‘Claudio, I don’t have anything left in the tank today.’”
If there’s anyone who can match Hatchell’s level of positivity, it’s Battaglini. He has a certain energy about him— hard to pinpoint, but always there in everything he does. Even Battaglini was shocked by Hatchell's determination.
“She’s a fighter … she dug in so deep to get better,” Battaglini said. “It was something I’d never seen before.”
Hatchell wouldn’t let her sickness keep her from the team.
“I had my iPad 24/7,” she said. “I was in that hospital, but I was running this program.”
Nothing could stop her from coaching. She watched practice film and stayed in touch with recruits. One of those recruits was Jamie Cherry, UNC’s lone senior this season.
On her official visit, Cherry came to Lineberger to meet Hatchell. When Cherry took the court for North Carolina a season later as a first-year, Hatchell was back on the sideline.
“She’s a great woman,” Cherry said. “I definitely love her. She just wants greatness for other people.”
The donations from the patch grew with popularity of Hatchell’s story.
She says that it brings in anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 dollars every summer. Having experienced time at Lineberger, she quickly realized how this money could be used.
The only complaint Hatchell had about her time at Lineberger was the lack of a workout space. She walked around the floor and lifted weights with Battaglini, but there was no room set aside.
So Hatchell worked with the hospital to build two exercise rooms on the fourth floor. One of them is the Blueberry Room, covered with inspirational quotes and the fruit that has meant so much to her. To this day, Hatchell will come by and see the patients of Lineberger. That’s just who she is.
On Oct. 9 of this year, Hatchell will get her 15th bone marrow biopsy at Lineberger. Then, it's time for her 32nd year at the helm of the women’s basketball team.
The squad has been rebuilding ever since her return. After the NCAA scandal broke, most of her starters transferred. But with experienced players like Cherry, Destinee Walker and Stephanie Watts, Hatchell says she’s finally feeling that confidence again.
“I feel as good or better than I have in 15 years,” Hatchell said.
Whether she’s game-planning in Chapel Hill or berry-picking in the mountains, Hatchell is happy. For someone so passionate about the people in her life, everyone is family — whether that’s Maddie, a player or a new acquaintance. She’ll bring them all in with a smile.
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