That November afternoon two years ago was one of the best days of Patrick McSweeney’s life, a day he could block out all the chemotherapy and T-cell treatments and bone marrow transplants. But he wasn’t sure if Celtics guard Terry Rozier would remember.
Nevertheless, when McSweeney, 17, attended the Celtics’ road game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday during a break from medical treatments, he packed the old basketball jersey, just in case. And he waited.
One day in the summer of 2004, McSweeney was at a youth swim meet in Louisville, his hometown, and struggling to make it across the pool. His mother, Debbie, tried coaxing him with his favorite candy, but he ended up just wrapping his arms around the lane dividers.
He had developed his third fever in three months and was diagnosed with strep throat. But he also was tired and bruising easily and Debbie, a nurse, knew something was wrong. Then her son was diagnosed with leukemia.
He underwent three years and three months of chemotherapy before the disease went into remission. But he relapsed three times over the next seven years, including after he received a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Joey.
In 2014, Patrick underwent experimental T-cell therapy at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He wanted to be cured and to just feel normal, and he wanted to play basketball, his primary respite.
His cousins in Cincinnati had become diehard Celtics fans while living in Boston, and they’d passed down this allegiance. He also loved his hometown team, the Louisville Cardinals.
In 2014 the Boston-based non-profit, Team IMPACT, connected McSweeney with Scotty Davenport, the longtime head coach at Division 2 Bellarmine University in Louisville. That summer Patrick became an honorary member of the Knights, but Davenport dreamed of something bigger.
He contacted Louisville coach Rick Pitino and hatched a plan to have McSweeney play for the Knights in their exhibition against the Cardinals. And that brings us back to Rozier, and the day neither will soon forget.
Rozier was just starting his sophomore year with Louisville. The point guard was six months from being drafted in the first round by the Celtics. In the exhibition game he came out for the opening tipoff and shook McSweeney’s hand and patted the back of his head.
The teams had arranged for the 5-foot-3-inch McSweeney to get the ball and take Bellarmine’s first shot. But his arms felt like spaghetti, and his 3-pointer was an air-ball.
At the other end, Louisville passed the ball around until Rozier had it near the left arc, with McSweeney guarding him. Rozier understood the moment. He let McSweeney take the ball from him, and the crowd roared.
“I remember bobbling it for a second before I caught it, because I didn’t really understand what he was doing for me,” McSweeney said. “That was probably the biggest moment.”
After missing a layup, McSweeney got the ball back and converted his second try.
“Him scoring that first basket put a big smile on my face,” Rozier said last week. “It put a big smile on everyone’s face just to make a kid’s day like that. That’s something he can talk about for a lifetime.”
One day later, McSweeney was heading back to Philadelphia to resume medical treatments.
McSweeney, who is now a senior at St. Xavier High in Louisville, has been returning to Philadelphia Children’s Hospital every three months for brief follow-ups since starting treatments there in 2014. But earlier this fall he relapsed for the fifth time, so he is now back in Philadelphia for a six-week stay that includes a new infusion of T cells.
“He’s got a positive attitude like you wouldn’t believe,” his father Mike said. “If he didn’t, I don’t think he’d be here.”
McSweeney can feel isolated in Philadelphia, particularly during the holidays. So Davenport, Bellarmine’s coach, recently scanned the NBA schedule and found the Celtics game. He had reached out to the team about McSweeney’s story and love for the Celtics in 2014, and the team provided tickets when Boston came to Philadelphia. This time was no different.
When Davenport sent Rozier a text message, letting him know that McSweeney would be at the game, Rozier arranged for him and his father to receive postgame passes.
“Ever since the Bellarmine game, ever since he handed me the ball, I’ve admired him,” McSweeney said of Rozier. “I stayed after the Celtics game because I figured if he was leaving us passes he remembered who I was and would maybe like to see me. Of course I wanted to see him.”
After the Celtics’ completed their 107-106 win, Rozier went to the court and saw McSweeney with his father, holding the Bellarmine jersey he’d worn on that memorable day two years ago. Rozier signed the jersey. The two reminisced about the game and talked about McSweeney’s health.
“It was just really good to talk to him and see how he was doing,” Rozier said. “And it doesn’t go unnoticed by me that he came out here to support me, too, with all he has going on. Everything’s not a perfect world. So it puts it in perspective, just to see how strong of a kid he is. It’s big just to see him fight.”
McSweeney is scheduled to return home from this round of treatments on Dec. 20. Soon after, he said, he will begin playing in an intramural basketball league with his friends. He understands this fight will probably continue, but he is ready, and he wants to be an inspiration.
“It’s really neat to see a kid that’s so impacted by these basketball teams and the Terry Roziers of the world,” Mike McSweeney said. “But it’s also neat to see the impact Patrick has on them, and how it’s about bringing everything down to a common level, about caring for each other.”