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Watertown’s Mike Slonina shooting for the means to fight cancer

Betsy Cullen’s diagnosis with a brain tumor motivated her son, Michael Slonina, to launch a charity to raise money for cancer research.
Betsy Cullen’s diagnosis with a brain tumor motivated her son, Michael Slonina, to launch a charity to raise money for cancer research.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

On a Saturday morning earlier this month, Mike Slonina gingerly walked into the gymnasium of his alma mater, Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury.

With each stride, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Slonina was careful not to aggravate two areas of his body.

The 21-year-old Watertown resident suffers from nerve damage in his left ankle, stemming from an improperly diagnosed injury in junior high. It cost him a high school basketball career, and now swells to twice its size after just five court-length sprints.

There is also his back, the pain a nuisance prior to shooting baskets for 24 straight hours on April 9, 2011, but now a major obstacle that, on some days, stops him from engaging in his favorite pastime.

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"It takes a ton of determination," said Slonina, the founder and CEO of A Shot for Life, a nonprofit dedicated to funding brain research at the Curry Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston Children's Hospital.

The torn ligaments in his right shooting wrist and elbow, along with a cut on his right index finger — which throbbed during most of his 8,101 field- goal attempts — have healed. But his resolve to succeed, punctuated by 5,930 made shots, still drives him. He raised more than $17,000 during his first effort.

Motivation from mom

Betsy Cullen always believed it was a terrible idea.

"I thought it was too much," she said of her son's decision to shoot jumpers and 3-pointers for so long.

"But it's hard to stop Michael once he is focused. He needed it. That's the truth. So I supported it because he needed to do something . . . he needed to get power in the situation."

Stunned by the news of his mother being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Slonina vividly recalls the details of the May afternoon in 2010 that provided his motivation.

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"She sat me down and drew a little dot on a piece of paper and said, 'They did a scan. This is a brain tumor,' " he said.

"Her eyes really started to water — my mom is like a warrior, so to see her show emotion like that was really unusual. It scared me."

Later that afternoon, after hours hoisting shots inside his self-proclaimed sanctuary — CM's gym — Slonina began coping with his mom's mortality, and pondering how to help families in similar situations.

"Basketball always soothed him," Cullen said.

Within a week, Slonina — a former manager for the varsity basketball team when he was at CM, and reputedly the best perimeter marksman on the 2010-11 team — was training.

His workouts included daily shooting routines before, during, and after school, and regular collaborations with nutritionists and physical therapists — two stipulations by his mother — to manage his body.

Cullen has been pronounced free of cancer. Given the tumor's location, the mass was measured a year later, in 2011, to determine whether it had grown (it had not). The news came a week before Slonina's 24-hour marathon, but his commitment never wavered.

"It looks like the tumor will never become malignant. But for every one of my situations where everything is OK, there are millions of scenarios where people lose their mother, father, brother, sister, or child."

Becoming a role model

The high tops are gone.

Slonina instead opts for wingtips befitting his CEO stature.

Still, his legacy is unmistakable.

"I was really impressed," said Ashley Russell, a rising senior at Braintree High who has committed to play at the University of Pennsylvania. "I can't imagine ever shooting for 24 hours."

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Last August, Slonina organized the inaugural A Shot For Life Challenge, effectively shifting the focus.

This year's challenge will be held Saturday, at the University Sports Complex in Hanover.

The two-hour event last year — won by Walpole High's Scott Arsenault — challenged 11 competitors to 20-minute intervals of specific shot types, including midrange jumpers, free throws and three-pointers.

But more than anything, it signified the beginning stages of A Shot for Life's evolution as a charitable organization.

"ASFL can't be synonymous with Mike Slonina . . . it needs to outgrow me in that sense," he said at the time. "I want ASFL to grow to the size of Livestrong. I want it to be nationwide. If it's about one kid shooting over and over, ASFL can't do that."

Together the participants raised approximately $11,000.

Newton North High's Tommy Mobley finished third.

Although he can't compete this time due to a conflict, Mobley said, he cherished the experience and hopes to return next summer.

"Shooting is something that I do to help relax," he said. "It's my favorite hobby.''

Last year, he said, "I realized that I was able to shoot while making a difference. For every shot I took, I was helping someone else."

This selflessness is what Slonina seeks from all participants.

A new competition

On Saturday, high school players will compete in a two-hour shooting competition.

The boys' field features Brandon Twitty (Catholic Memorial); Mike Nelson (Bishop Feehan); Ryan Boulter (Mansfield); Matt Kelley (Canton); Denis Tobin (Catholic Memorial); Ryan Roach (Cardinal Spellman); Jake Foote (Duxbury); Efthim Butka (North Quincy); Ben Judson (St. John's Prep); Paul Calobrisi (Westwood); Chris Rodgers (Franklin); Matt Hanna (Catholic Memorial); Jack Loughnane (Boston College High); Drew Myers (Quincy); and Shaquan Murray (New Mission).

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The girls' field features Hayley Wardwell (Cardinal Spellman); Sam Hyslip (Westford); Infiniti Thomas-Waheed (Newton North); Alana Gilmer (Archbishop Williams); Katie Nelson (Bishop Feehan); Bridget Herlihy (Braintree); Ashley Russell (Braintree); Emma Forbes (North Attleborough) and Vanessa Edgehill (Rivers).

A dunk contest will feature Anthony Green (North Quincy); Guillien Smith (Catholic Memorial); Nick George (Cardinal Spellman); Nick Lynch (Lawrence Academy) and Sidney Limage (Archbishop Williams).

Each competitor has been asked to raise $1,000.

"The fund-raising has been going really well," said Westford's Hyslip, who is headed to Stonehill College this fall. "I've reached out to my friends and family and right now I am at $2,100 . . . everyone has been really nice and so generous."

In the end, Slonina hopes the final tally will surpass even his expectations.

For more information, visit www.ashotforlife.org.


Paul Lazdowski can be reached at pmlazdowski@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @plazdow.