Survival of the fittest

Leukemia does not stop Andrew Awad's pursuit of his hoop dreams.

"It was just the luck of the draw and a one in a million chance I guess," Cal State Fullerton junior guard Andrew Awad said.

Hearing those words, you may think the 6-foot-3, 190 pound shooting guard from Fresno was telling you how he made a game-winning shot or how he miraculously picked the winning Daily Six Lottery numbers.

But instead, it was how Awad was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and the bone marrow which attacks the red and white blood cells.

"I didn't know how it could be," Awad said speaking about his condition. "It didn't come from genetics."

Awad, a walk-on, who has earned a spot on this year's basketball team, recently received promising news about his condition. But having overcome an illness that almost ended his life, is something Awad is most proud of.

In August of 2002, Awad was at West Valley Community College and being coached by current CSUF Coach Bob Burton. When Burton left to take on an assistant job at Fresno State, Awad decided he was going to take his college basketball career to the next level, by walking-on at UC Santa Barbara.

Shortly thereafter, Awad noticed adverse changes in his appearance and health. He was having a hard time running up and down the court. His condition drastically took a turn for the worse. He lost 30 pounds, lost color in his face and his appetite was nowhere to be found.

"I really didn't look good and it was really bad," Awad said.

He finally agreed with his family to see a doctor. Doctors at Fresno hospital revealed that Awad's hemoglobin count was well below average and almost all of his bone marrow was cancerous.

Doctors told Awad and his family that another couple weeks without treatment would have been fatal. Furthermore, if he had gotten hit or had fallen on the basketball court, that could have been fatal, too.

"I had known all along there was something wrong with me but I didn't think it was leukemia," Awad said. "After the doctors told me that, I was just all shook up and rattled. It was a real 360 of what is important."

Awad soon endured a rigorous treatment of chemotherapy injections, pills and a lot pain. He spent the next two months in a hospital bed with IVs and needles jammed into his body. Pills took their toll on him as he constantly hovered over the toilet seats vomiting "what [seemed] like 50 times a day."

Radiation from chemotherapy was shedding the hair off his head and eyebrows. He lost an additional 30 pounds making him nearly 60 pounds under his normal weight. At the time, basketball was the last thing on his mind.

He would gently crawl out of bed and do push-ups while being hooked onto tangled IV wires.

As he started to get stronger, his yearning and passion for playing basketball came back. He started dribbling a basketball in the hospital hallways with one hand while rolling the IV stand with his other, driving hospital nurses crazy all night long.

"It was a good time for me to work on my left-hand dribbling," Awad said jokingly.

Basketball helped Awad through this difficult time. He never doubted that one day he was going to be able to wear his No. 12 jersey again.

"Basketball was a big part of my recovery," Awad said. "I knew I needed to play another game."

When Awad was released from the hospital, he decided to take to the court again although it wasn't recommended by his doctors.

"They always wanted me to take it easy, but I couldn't help myself," Awad said.

The journey to regain his health did not come easy. He pushed himself harder than ever before.

By this time he had gained some of his weight back, but still was nearly 30 pounds underweight. Awad would play basketball, workout and then vomit right after.

It was a reoccurring regimen.

Awad eventually showed enough improvement physically, allowing Fresno City College Head Basketball Coach Vance Walberg to award him a spot on the team.

Walberg remembered what type of player Awad was in high school.

He played tough hard-nosed basketball and did all the "dirty work." Awad played the season coming off the bench averaging 4.4 points and 2.1 rebounds until a late season broken leg injury kept him out.

It was an injury that only occurred because of Awad's weak bones from the cancer.

"The doctors told me the only other way I could have broken that bone was if a piano had fallen on it," he said.

Again, that didn't stop Awad. The next season he contacted Cal State Fullerton men's basketball Head Coach Bob Burton about playing for him and his program. Burton welcomed him to the team.

"Drew is a great kid and an inspiration to everybody," Burton said. "For him to gone have through what he has gone through is just amazing. He's one of the most competitive players I have ever coached."

The general consensus appears to echo Burton.

"It's really unbelievable to watch him play," Titans senior guard Ralphy Holmes said. "He doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for him."

Awad admits that there was a time when he wanted to give it all up – not just basketball. There were days of intense agony as doctors inserted a screw-like instrument pinned to his spine to collect the bone marrow.

However, it's one thing that Awad is the most proud of himself for.

"I'm most proud of myself for not giving up and going through this," he said. "I mean, when your back is against the wall it really shows what you're really made of."