As the clock struck noon on Saturday, Ava Adamopoulos let her arms hang around her teammates’ shoulders, leaning gently back and forth while the Star Spangled Banner echoed throughout Blake Arena. The 6-foot, 2-inch junior center knew she was playing for someone else, someone other than herself. This wasn’t new. It was apparent that there was something different about this game though, as we all slowly took in the scene around us. Pink t-shirts scattered amongst the gym, including on the backs of every member of the Pride. Posters filled with quotes from former coach Jim Valvano of North Carolina State University lined the walls. A young girl wearing glasses, boots, and a white winter hat emerged from the corner of the gym, her parents by her side. She was greeted with her own pink t-shirt, and escorted to the home bench just before tip-off.
On the court, Ava’s ability to bring a defensive presence to the paint is unmatched, and her determination to get to the basket with both finesse and power makes her incredibly versatile down low. She helped close out a win for the Pride in a 62-53 victory over MIT that day, hipping past defenders for nine points, ten rebounds and three assists in a seemingly effortless performance. The win was a huge step for the Pride, who improved to 14-9 with two games remaining before playoffs, but it was Ava’s determination off the court that fueled the emotion felt in the gym.
Her focus was on her youngest teammate. The least traditional member of the women’s basketball team, Lisa Hartley hasn’t scored a point, grabbed a rebound, and has yet to graduate from high school, but her love for the game of basketball and her remarkable strength run deep in the veins of the Pride, especially in the person she refers to as her big sister.
College: a time when it is so easy to become selfish and focus only on things that directly benefit you. In her time here, Ava Adamopoulos has proved herself one of the most genuine, selfless people at Springfield. She has a connection with her teammates and her coach far beyond that of many college athletes.
Just this past spring, the women’s basketball team received a message from representatives at Team Impact informing them that they’d been paired with a high schooler by the name of Lisa Hartley, a 16 year old from Palmer, Mass. Team Impact is a national program that pairs kids suffering from chronic illnesses with college athletic teams all across the nation in an attempt to improve the quality of life for the sick child. Once an applied child and an applied team are matched, contact with the family is then initiated, and plans to meet and get the child involved in the program start right away. Springfield College also has Team Impact athletes on its football, baseball and women’s volleyball teams. In Lisa’s particular case, she’s currently battling Type B and Bulky Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and Ava has been right by her side, literally, since they first met.
A native of Ludlow, Mass; Adamopoulos attended Ludlow High School and participated in volleyball, basketball and outdoor track in her time there. As graduation slowly crept up, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to attend Springfield, instead looking to bigger universities, and colleges further away from home. “When I was looking at colleges, I didn’t want to go anywhere close to home, not even remotely close. I was looking on Long Island, in Rhode Island. My Mom tricked me into coming to visit here,” said Adamopoulos. “We had a day off from school and she told me we were just going to visit Westfield State, ‘just to see what schools around here look like’, and I realized we were going to Springfield.”
A Springfield College basketball camp goer as a young high schooler, Adamopoulos had known Coach Naomi Graves for four years before she ever played a minute here. She described not wanting to even get out of the car, almost positive that she wasn’t interested in becoming a member of this community until her Mom bribed her with a $20 bill. “I went to coach’s office, and as I was walking up the hill past the tennis courts I turned around and I looked at the campus and I just felt that … feeling that everybody talks about that I thought was not real. I just fell in love with this place, and I knew that I was coming here.”
It was that day that Ava started the recruiting process with Graves. An athlete who once wanted to get away, is now a standout player at a school that is no more than 20 minutes from her house. “I came for my overnight and I fell in love with the team. I could see myself playing for her (Coach Graves). We have a very good relationship and I really value it. I think we have a lot of respect for each other, both through life experiences as well as basketball, and I think the combination makes for a really good relationship between me and my coach.”
The experiences that Adamopoulos speaks of tie her story together. Both Ava’s mother and Graves are cancer survivors. Graves was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, and her sister is still battling the disease. Ava’s mother had a stem cell transplant right before Ava’s freshman year of college, the same procedure that Lisa Hartley had last summer, the procedure that had been preventing her from participating in team activities, until now. “Lisa was so sick she had to worry about germs,” said Graves of the Palmer High School sophomore. Lisa’s mother Debbie explained that if you survive the first week after the transplant, your body essentially starts from scratch. Many of the immunities normally built up over the course of a childhood are erased with the transplant. “If you survive that week of cancer and you don’t pass away, you’re like a newborn baby.” What Lisa battled over the summer was scary, and it was tiring. The procedure took place at Boston Children’s Hospital the last week of July, and she faced 100 days of isolation from that point to avoid any and all exposure to germs. “The doctors tell you there’s a chance you could die,” Debbie Hartley said, “They made it clear to Lisa.”
Adamopoulos has had far from an easy life as a young person. From her mother being diagnosed with cancer, to losing her brother Gus in a boating accident, Ava understands what it is like to feel pain. With that, she has the ability to comfort others dealing with their own pain. Because she knows that life is short, Ava has been ready to take on an opportunity like this for a while. “I’m around here so it’s the easiest for me to just pick up that responsibility and I’m okay with that.” Her teammates, coaches and peers all speak incredibly highly of her, and taking the lead working with Team Impact is fitting to her overall character.
Graves thinks that Ava has really found her “niche” and is truly maturing in all aspects of her life. “She’s becoming a leader on the court. She has a tremendous amount of strengths, this infectious personality, and when you mention her name everybody’s like ‘Oh yea Ava’! The world knew Ava ever since her freshman year on campus, not only because she carried a basketball, but just because she has this personality, this welcoming this ‘hey how’s it going, what’s up’ kind of attitude. She makes people feel pretty comfortable right away. She just does. That’s a gift.”
Lisa’s stem cell transplant over the summer was tough both physically and mentally, as one could imagine, but Ava’s unrelenting support made a huge difference. “She has the ability to be able to guide Lisa’s family in, ‘this is what it’s going to feel like, and this is how it is, and don’t be afraid’,” described Graves. They were familiar with how everything surrounding the procedure worked due to Ava’s mother’s experience with the treatment. It made everything easier and more comfortable for Lisa and her parents, experiencing it all for the first time.
The basketball team, led by Graves, set up a contact program for Lisa, where over the summer, a different player every week would call or text Lisa and just chat with her and try to keep her spirits up. This stemmed from a leadership team put together by Graves, including Adamopoulos, Heather Lewis, Lexi Windwer and LeAnn Downs. This is when Ava reached for more, and was truly driven to make Lisa’s experience as painless as possible. When visiting Lisa at Baystate over the summer, before the transplant, Ava would spend all day with her, often trying to remove her from the situation as much as possible. She described instances where she would play board games and watch movies with Lisa, even when she was feeling her worst.
“She wasn’t feeling well, but there were times that she was. She was happy that she could get a break from her parents and they could get a break from her. It was like a comic relief I guess; we had fun. We’d listen to music, read magazines, and just give her something to do that a teenager would do. I went a few times over the summer and talked to her mom pretty much every week.”
“I think this has been an awesome opportunity for Ava to speak on a personal level with Lisa. I think the connection for Ava is a different connection than it might be for other people on our team, because she’s experienced the highs and the lows of having someone that she loves in a treatment protocol,” said Graves of Ava’s desire to connect with Lisa.
Baystate is really where everything started. Ava visited her there with Graves and a few teammates, and brought her gifts from recent travels throughout the summer. Ava said, “I would go to her house and drop off gifts from our team. I would send little packages that her brother would bring to Boston for them. If anyone on our team traveled somewhere they would get a little trinket or something and put it in a gift bag and bring it to her at Baystate.” Coach Graves spoke very highly of Ava’s involvement with Lisa and Team Impact, and her overall willingness to put others before herself. “Ava’s just a gift in terms of generosity. She just bought this young woman all these presents when we went over. She told me early, ‘Coach I want to get involved on a higher level’.”
A higher level is an understatement describing what greatness has come from this Team Impact opportunity. Graves made it clear that Adamopoulos has benefitted from this friendship just as much as Lisa has. “This woman (Lisa) has defied all the odds. There’s been times when she’s gone down and people really felt comfortable about saying that she wasn’t going to make it, and then she makes it, so the one thing I know is that this young woman has a will that is beyond wills. She’s fought a lot of battles, infections, and has tremendous strength. Resiliency, I think that’s one of the things that Ava identifies with because of her plight with her family and her mom being ill, and how important it is for her to stay in the present and enjoy the moment. It’s been a gift for Ava to have Lisa as much as it’s been a gift for Lisa to have Ava.”
“I’ve gotten to know a really, really awesome family, and I think it’s really great that her and her family can be a part of the posse. It’s been amazing. It’s really positive on both sides, and a really great experience for both of us,” said Adamopoulos of her friendship with Lisa.
Her new relationship with a local college basketball standout has helped Lisa battle her illness at times when she’s been feeling her worst. “ [Ava’s] so funny. We would just chill. She’d tell me things she’s been doing and I’d tell her what I’ve been doing,” said Lisa. Her mother explained that Lisa was able to get back to school about three weeks ago, and her time spent with the women here on the basketball team certainly helped her stay in communication with her college teammates while she was deprived of that social interaction in a school setting. “The team sent Lisa videos over the summer,” said Debbie Hartley, “Ava definitely made her laugh. They brought Lisa some beautiful gifts.”
The team’s presence at Baystate also benefitted Lisa’s parents, who needed a break from it all every once in awhile, understandably, and wanted their daughter to retain normal interaction with girls similar in age. “It gave time for me and her Dad to step out, so Lisa could be with somebody else, which is very important.”
Lisa has had a hard time staying in touch with people from her high school during the whole treatment process, and at times, the Pride women have been her only peers in contact with her. “Ava and the girls are great support, and they know how to make someone is Lisa’s situation laugh,” said Hartley.
Lisa’s eyes lit up when she saw her teammates secure the win Saturday afternoon. Sparked by a late game surge with many plays opened up through Ava, the Pride were able to go up enough so that the last minute of the game was irrelevant. The victory marked the first win that Lisa had been present for, as well as the first game she attended on her home court. Ava would argue that Lisa has always been present though, ever since the first time they connected.
Lisa is young, and she loves the sport of basketball. Most people will never experience what she’s had to deal with on a daily basis. The frail 16-year-old girl, elated from the energy on the court, sat up in her chair, the fifth one down in the row making up the home bench. Who was sitting in the fourth seat down? Ava.
After the game, Lisa initially hesitated when asked about her friendship with Ava. “Well,” said Lisa, smiling after a moment, “she’s a big sister to me–even though I have four big sisters. She’s my fifth big sister.”