CANONSBURG – As his teammates took the court to open the season Friday night against Burgettstown, Canon-McMillan High School junior Luke Blanock laid in a bed at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Blanock, a forward on the Big Macs’ basketball team, was taken to the hospital three days earlier after experiencing back pain and tingling in his legs. After doctors performed a battery of tests, the diagnosis was a tumor on his spinal cord. It took 48 hours for doctors to determine that the mass was cancerous. The news came as a shock to the Blanock family and the Big Macs basketball team. Blanock had practiced with the team as recently as Monday.
With a student section wearing shirts with #LUKESTRONG written on the back, Canon-McMillan honored Blanock with a memorable season-opening performance Friday night. The Big Macs started the game on a 22-0 run before eventually defeating the Blue Devils, 70-27.
“It has been like a punch in the gut to us,” Canon-McMillan head coach Rick Bell said. “Luke is really our energy guy. His motor never stops and that’s what I said to the boys today, I want them to do whatever they want to do, but I am going to honor him by coaching the way he plays. It was really kind of neat to see how the kids came together.”
Despite the inclement weather outside, a large group of students arrived early to show support for the Big Macs and Blanock’s recovery. The energy in gym was obvious. A “Luke Strong” sign was passed around for everyone to sign. After Canon-McMillan shook hands with Burgettstown following the game, Bell took his turn writing a message for Blanock before heading to the locker room. While Bell hopes the team’s success could help Blanock during his recovery, the coach is optimistic that the news will have a resounding effect on the community.
“What I would hope is this might help people put things into proper perspective,” Bell said. “I think sometimes we lose our minds over high school sports and youth sports. Maybe it will, hopefully, help some folks, myself included, put things into check and perspective. Focus on what is really, truly important in life.”
Canon-McMillan junior guard Alex Hammers used the difficult week as motivation. Hammers and Blanock have been close since preschool and spent several years as track and cross country partners. Hammers, along with Bell and his son, R.J., visited Blanock in the hospital Tuesday night. Hammers scored 17 points to spark the Big Macs to open the season with his best friend listening to WJPA Radio’s broadcast in his hospital room.
From the moment the two teams took the floor for pregame warmups, two words kept coming to Hammers’ mind: shake and bake. It’s a phrase Blanock and Hammers have used for years. The guard could not help but feel Blanock’s presence as the Big Macs opened the season without him.
“I was thinking about him the whole time, like he was still there,” Hammers said. “He plays harder than any kid on our team, easily. Our team motto is play as hard as Luke would, and he would have played just as hard or harder.”
As the Big Macs celebrated the dominant effort against Burgettstown, the team could not wait to give their teammate a phone call to tell him about the victory. For eight minutes following the win, the team passed Hammers’ phone around as each player spoke to Blanock. Though he was drowsy from the hospital stay, Hammers could tell that Blanock enjoyed the surprise call.
“He seemed a little tired, but he was into it,” Hammers said. “He was listening to it on the radio, and we tried to lie to him by saying we scored 100 points. He didn’t fall for it.”
While Blanock’s recovery is in its beginning stages – he was released from the hospital Saturday and will begin chemotherapy treatments in three weeks – Hammers and his teammates are confident that Blanock will defeat cancer.
“It was obviously saddening and devastating, but Luke is a really tough kid,” Hammers said. “If you know him, then you know he’s going to beat this. It’s shocking because it came out of nowhere, but he’s tough. It’s sad but you are confident in him.”