Cancer fight gives coach new focus on basketball

Published 2:34 pm Saturday, February 2, 2019

A year ago, losses like the one that the St. Martin girls basketball team suffered Tuesday night are games that would have gotten to Gina Bell.

The veteran coach admits that she would have been frustrated with her team and certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the post-game interview with local media.

On Tuesday night, Bell stood smiling in the hallway outside the locker room after her team’s 69-56 loss on senior night to end a 10-game winning streak.

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A battle with breast cancer tends to put things like a basketball game into perspective.

“It has changed me,” she said. “I look around and I see life in a different perspective. If we lose a game, it’s just a game. I’ve got these kids around me, family, friends, my assistants. We’re going to be here together tomorrow. This loss isn’t going to hurt anybody. It’ll hurt someone’s pride, but we’ll still show up tomorrow and do what we do.”

Even as her team endured a loss at the hands of Otis Gates’ West Harrison squad, Bell was making sure her players were still focused on the big picture.

At one point during the game, she pulled her senior point guard, Chelsey Washington, aside to relay a message: “You got accepted to the Naval Academy. This is fun, get out there and play your game. It doesn’t matter what happens. This is just supposed to be fun, go have fun with it.”

Bell was diagnosed with breast cancer in March and went through intensive treatment that included surgery and radiation, which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago.

She wasn’t as demonstrative from the bench as she has been in the past, but Bell was the picture of health after enduring a difficult 10 months of traveling off and on to Houston for treatment.

“I feel good. I feel absolutely wonderful,” Bell said. “I don’t have an issue at all.

“Everything looks good. They’ve done the scans from the surgery and they said there’s no cancer left. They’re very optimistic. I’ll go the next 5-10 years for check-ups every several months. Hopefully, I’ll come back with good news.”

Bell wasn’t around on a full-time basis early in the season, relying on assistants Chalandra Hilliard and Justin Williamson to handle the coaching duties.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “I had to rely heavily on my assistants. They wanted to do everything I asked them to do, but me not being there full-time allowed them to open the door and do what was best.

“At the beginning of the season, we won our first game and then we lost five in a row. When I came back full-time, I was talking to the girls, ‘I know I’m not the biggest piece of the puzzle, but I am a piece to the puzzle.’ Once I got back full-time, we were like a well-oiled machine.”

Williamson and Hilliard are part of a large support group that has helped Bell make it through her 25th year of teaching classes at St. Martin.

“I had people begging me, ‘Let me grade your papers. I’ll take your class over,'” Bell said. “My principals were wonderful. If I had to leave early, they let me leave.

“Our motto with basketball is, ‘Family.’ We end everything with, ‘Family,’ on three. It’s not just our basketball team. This school, this is family. If anyone is having a hardship, everybody backs them up. It’s a good place to be.”

St. Martin officials had a pregame surprise Tuesday night for Bell, presenting her with a plaque for reaching the mark of 200 career wins as friends and family surrounded her on the court.

“We all know what a struggle it is to get this point in a coach’s career, but this year has been especially difficult,” St. Martin athletic director Jesse Kanode said in his speech to the crowd. “The strength and will power that Coach Bell has shown is a true inspiration to us all.”

Bell didn’t see it coming.

“That was a shock to me,” she said. “I’m so thankful, humbled by just the outpouring of love and support from not only my assistant coaches and girls, but friends and family. I did want the focus to be on the girls. I’m a behind-the-scenes type of person.”

With the St. Martin girls sitting at 14-7 overall and 4-0 in Region 7-6A Tuesday night, Bell was feeling as if she’s just getting started in her career.

“I really am (having fun),” Bell said. “I see myself doing this for another 10, 15, 20, 30 years and teaching.”