Sports Women's Sports

Heather King of Springfield College women’s basketball uses basketball as a way to honor her late mother

Kristian Rhim

It was Heather King’s senior season at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire, when she found out.  

“Me, my younger brother Matt, and my dad were at home. We get a phone call. My dad answered and he just started crying,” said King. “Matt and I were right there and we started crying because we thought it must be something bad. Then he told us it was cancer.”

Her mother, Sally King, had been sick for a while. She went to get blood drawn and tested for what they thought would come back as anemia. The results came back negative. Instead, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia.

Because of the fast acting form of leukemia, Sally had to go into chemotherapy immediately.

“My freshman year of college she was in remission, then she started doing well, then cancer came back,” said King. “That basically just kept happening. Then the summer before my junior year she was at Penn State receiving treatment and things were looking good.”

For the next several months Sally King had many ups and downs in her prognosis. Then on October 1, 2016 she passed away.

“The night before she passed away my older brother came and picked me up [from Springfield] I think we got back home at like two in the morning,” King said. “We were at the hospital for most of the night and it just happened so quickly.”

Sally King was always dedicated to supporting Heather’s basketball dreams from the beginning. She coached Heather’s rec league basketball team from third to sixth grade. When Heather was in middle school, Sally coached Heather’s school’s B team. She was always happy to be around.

“She used to coach when I was little and her big saying was always ‘razzle dazzle,’” said King while laughing. “It meant like go out there and show them your stuff. So we all used to be huddle up put our hands in and say razzle dazzle.”

Heather’s mother coached her AAU team, the Lebanon Voltage in high school. When that team disbanded, Heather moved on to the Shooting Stars. The Stars practiced an hour and a half away in Southern New Hampshire. Nevertheless, Sally and Heather would still take the hour and half drive to practice two to three times a week.

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King’s mother (top row to the right) used to coach some of Heather’s basketball teams. (Photo courtesy/The King family)

During these trips to practice they would usually listen to Disney soundtracks, specifically the one from Aladdin. Overall these trips to practices, games, and tournaments over the years made Heather extremely close with her mother.

“One time she went with me to a tournament in Las Vegas, we got to go to Red Rock canyon and got to do a whole lot of fun activities together,” said King. “It was a nice mother-daughter trip.”

There was one point in Heather’s life where she wanted to give up on basketball, but her mom wouldn’t let her.

“She really pushed me to do things to help better my career. I went to a new AAU team my senior year and the players there were kind of all about themselves. There was one day I really didn’t want to go and I gave so many excuses not to go. But she told me if I really wanted to be playing college basketball this will help me so I needed to focus on myself not worry about the people I did not like to play with.”

When Sally passed it was hard for King to accept that her mom wouldn’t be there after games anymore.

“She was always there and was my number one fan,” said King while fighting back tears. “I always texted her after games in college. If I didn’t have a good game, she was someone I would always text. She would try and swing my mood and make me feel better about things.”

The only thing that took her mind off her mother’s death was basketball.

“It was very hard for a while to sit down and do my work because I just didn’t want to do it for a while. I just wanted to play basketball because it got my mind off of a lot of things.”

Her father Scott, has always tried to be strong for Heather and her brothers.

“I am not sure my role changed that much,” he said. “I was always both the soft fun side and yet the hard strict side of parenting. Sally was the steady strong base that the family was built on. I have tried to be stronger and more of a stable example but it’s been difficult.”

Scott made sure that he was at all the games he could be for Heather after Sally passed.

“When Sally passed it was hard on all of us,” said King. “It was a blur and there are parts of that time I cannot remember, while I may have been present at the game my mind was elsewhere. I think going to Heather’s games were more beneficial for me than Heather, but I hoped it was helpful for her.”

This tragic experience showed Scott how many great people that the family have in their life.

“I hope that people who have not gone through a life changing event like this look at all the good that comes into your life. We had hundreds of friends that have been there for us and we all appreciate the blessings. If these blessings do not make you want to be a better person and be there for everyone else I do not know what would.”

Throughout the process of her mother’s cancer treatment, and even now Heather has admired how her father handled the situation.

“It’s hard on us as kids because that’s our mom, but that’s supposed to be his life partner,” she said. ‘Whenever he could, he would be at the hospital with [her]. I thought he did really well helping us through it and staying strong for all of us.”

Scott was not alone in the helping his family get through this time. Heather’s friends at Springfield and back home have helped her family a great deal.

“Our community really helped us out a lot, they even took turns making us meals at one point. The support from them was amazing,” she said. “My friends would take me out to dinner to keep my mind off things. The team was great they all drove two hours to the funeral, my roommates Christa and Carli [Brent] were very supportive as well. Without my friends it would’ve been very hard to cope.”

Most people after losing anyone close, especially a family member, would miss at least a few games or even consider giving up their sport all together.

Not King.

She started in 25 of Springfield’s 26 basketball games her junior season and averaged 9.8 points per game along with 5.7 rebounds.

“I never really thought to stop playing,” said King. “My mom was someone who coached me too so basketball was kind of a way for me to stay with her and it’s what I looked forward to during the day.”

Even her father knew that Heather would never consider quitting.

“Basketball was a dream of Heather’s before she started playing. I never thought she would stop, I did worry she would lose some of the concentration needed to perform at the college level. Fortunately, she’s been able to keep the focus needed. It’s like when you have an injury and you are told you can go back but to take it easy the first week or two. You cannot go back into a game and take it easy, you are either in or out.  Heather has been all in.”

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(Photo courtesy of the King Family)

King had support from many people including her friends, family, and others but no one was more helpful than her head coach, Naomi Graves.

“I [visited] the counseling center a little but but really I just talked to coach a lot,” said King. “She’s been through a lot of things, so she is very easy to talk to and she understands.”

Graves has had a history with cancer herself. She battled breast cancer and lost both her parents to the disease.

“I just wanted to support Heather in the best way I could,” said Graves. “I had fought cancer so I think that we had some common ground. Her mom fought brilliantly. She’s [Sally’s] the most courageous woman I’ve ever met.”

Before her senior season, King was faced with another challenge.

Last season, the women’s basketball team was led by senior Ava Adamopoulos, who averaged 14.9 points per game. She helped lead them to a record of 20-9 overall. With her departure along with Lexi Windwer, Danielle Racette, and Molly McCausland, the Pride had a big leadership role to fill.

King, the lone senior on the roster has been looked on to fill those figurative shoes.

She helped  lead the Pride to a 18-7 regular season record, while averaging 8.6 points per game and 6.1 rebounds.

“I was very nervous coming into the season but coach has supported me and I have the support from my teammates,” said King. “It’s been a struggle a little bit but it’s easier now.”

King hopes that her leadership will have an effect on future teams.

“We are a young team. I’m just building the posse, what we’re all about as a team, and making sure that when I’m gone it still continues.”

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