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Syracuse star Tiana Mangakahia nurtures basketball dream, finds new purpose during breast cancer battle

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Tiana Mangakahia: 'Through My Words' trailer (1:00)

While a battle with cancer may have put the plans of Syracuse basketball player Tiana Mangakahia on hold, the experience has caused her to create some new dreams. Catch the full feature this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on the ACC Network. (1:00)

TIANA MANGAKAHIA JOGS behind her Syracuse teammates as she makes her way out of the locker room and onto the basketball court at the Carrier Dome. She raises her right hand and high-fives the kids leaning against the railing.

She glides in on 6-inch snake-print pumps, wearing a white turtleneck and a pair of jeans ripped at her knees. Hoop earrings the size of a fist dangle from her ears. Her brown hair is growing out, short and spiky and coated with a generous amount of gel.

As she sits down next to head coach Quentin Hillsman with 15 minutes to go until tipoff -- an important ACC game for Syracuse against No. 5 Louisville -- the screen above plays a video of Mangakahia -- her head is clean-shaven -- talking about her favorite meal on game day: steak. Right after, a question pops up: Who on Syracuse is most likely to play in the Olympics?

Teammates appear on the screen answering the question. Mangakahia looks up as the fans' votes come in. She has taken a quick lead.

Her face breaks into a cheeky grin, a smile that makes her nose crinkle.

People still believe in her. Maybe more people now than ever.

After eight months of treatment -- eight chemotherapy sessions, a double mastectomy and a reconstruction surgery -- it turns out cancer didn't steal her dream. Odd as it sounds, Mangakahia insists it gave her a new one.


YOU HAVE INVASIVE ductal carcinoma. We need to start chemotherapy immediately.

It was 8:15 a.m. on June 17, 2019, three fitful days after Mangakahia had undergone tests. The words reverberated around her head. They didn't make any sense. It was as if her brain had suddenly forgotten how to process words.

What does that mean? she said into the phone.

You have breast cancer. I am so sorry.

That's when the tears came.

She hung up the phone and FaceTimed her best friend and former teammate, Miranda Drummond. Through sobs, Mangakahia told her she had cancer.

Two weeks earlier, she had found a lump on her left breast and called her mom, Cynthia, back home in Australia. They decided not to worry too much -- Mangakahia was young and active and it couldn't be serious, they said to each other. Still, her mom urged her to get it checked immediately. In those two weeks, the lump had grown. That's when she knew this could be something serious. As she sat in the doctor's office and carefully observed the nurse's face as she ordered more tests -- a mammogram and a biopsy -- Mangakahia knew something was off. She saw it in the nurse's eyes.

She was 24, having made her way to Syracuse after playing club basketball in Australia and at a community college in Kansas. This wasn't supposed to happen to a 24-year-old, she kept thinking. She didn't have any symptoms. She was playing her best -- the 5-foot-6 point guard had recently scored her 1,000th career point for the Orange -- when the season ended just three months earlier. She had just been selected to attend camp with Australia's national team. She had decided to return to Syracuse rather than enter the WNBA draft.

She had all of these plans. She had everything mapped out for the next year.

And then she didn't.

She called Hillsman, whom the players call Coach Q, and asked to meet him immediately. Those 3 miles Hillsman drove from his house to his office were the "longest 3 miles" of his life. He knew Mangakahia had undergone tests, and he knew immediately it had to be bad for her to want to talk to him in person.

They cried for a few minutes after she told him, but that was it. He rubbed his eyes and told her, "You're 24. We're going to get through this. I am going to be here for you all the way if you want to stay in America for your treatment."

That was all Mangakahia needed to hear. Her dad, Terei, tried to persuade her to come home for the treatment, but she knew her life was here now. Her teammates were here, her career was here. She wouldn't let cancer pluck her out of her life.

"I'll stay, Coach. I'll stay and fight this disease."


AS A CHILD in Brisbane, Australia, Mangakahia was a daredevil. She'd climb the 15-foot pole outside her home with her five brothers -- four older and one younger. She'd get thrown into wrestling contests with her younger brother, and despite being tiny, she'd beat him up. Before she got her own bike, she'd steal her brother's friend's bike. During one race with her brothers, she cut open her chin when the bike's handlebars spun out of control going down a hilly road. She brought home every cat or chicken she saw and made friends on a daily basis. She smiled easily, and she loved the noisiness of her household.

Mangakahia is Māori (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) Australian. Her dad moved to Australia from New Zealand when he was 17 and later married a Queenslander there, Cynthia.

Being raised in a large household made Tiana realize she had to charge into the world and claim her space if she wanted to succeed. And that trait stuck.

When she was not in school, she was on the basketball court -- her older brothers played basketball, and her mother, to make sure they were safe, enrolled them in basketball camp together. Even at age 8, when she was the smallest girl on the team, she'd run and pass the ball like a ninja, nimble and fast. Basketball came easily. On the court, she felt big, she felt free and she felt confident. When she was 9, she was asked to play on her club's under-12 team, but her mother stepped in: "No, you're too young." Cynthia begged the coach to demote her daughter back to her own age group for a year -- a move that was unheard of.

"I think that actually helped me so much, because you never know," Mangakahia said. "What if I played [up] and just sat on the bench the whole time? I probably would've not enjoyed basketball."

From there, she went on to play for Australia's U17 and U19 teams, eventually landing at the Australian Institute of Sport, the prestigious training institute in Canberra. It was during this time that Hillsman, who was then assistant coach of the Netherlands team, saw Mangakahia play for the first time. During a tournament in Europe, he remembers telling his head coach, "If we play Australia in this tournament, we can't play man-to-man because we can't guard their point guard; she is really good. She has impeccable balance, she can get to the basket. We'd have to come up with a new plan for her."

The Netherlands didn't play Australia in that tournament, but Hillsman remembered her name. Later, he saw that Mangakahia was at Hutchinson Community College -- a move she thought would take her one step closer to playing Division I ball and then eventually to the WNBA -- and he knew she belonged on his team.

The Syracuse reputation had spread 10,000 miles to Australia, so Mangakahia was familiar with the program even before Hillsman reached out and told her he'd seen her play and wanted her to play for the Orange. The word "yes" slipped out as easily as an exhale.

And just like that, Mangakahia fit into the 2017-18 Syracuse team like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Along with teammate Drummond, who now plays professionally in Greece, she was half of the Syracuse dynamic duo. Mangakahia averaged 16.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game in the 2018-19 season, tying a career high with 44 in a Syracuse road win at Florida State in March. She helped her team to a 25-9 record and its highest seed -- No. 3 -- in the NCAA tournament, and she was named an All-ACC selection, an honorable mention All-American and Syracuse's 2019 Sportsperson of the Year.

In two seasons at Syracuse, she played 65 games, scored 1,114 points and set the school's career assists record with 591. She made the Orange better; she made her teammates better.

"Tiana and I have that connection where in my gut I know before she makes the pass that she's going to pass to me," Drummond said. "I know when she is going to pass to me. I know Tiana does all of these crazy passes -- behind the back and stuff. She knows that when she passes, I will catch the ball."

Ever since she started playing basketball -- and realized she was good at it -- Mangakahia wanted to play for Australia in the Olympics. And in April 2019, she made the preliminary squad. She called her mom and said, "Mum, it looks like my dream is coming true. It looks like we are going to Tokyo!"

Three weeks later, when she was taking a shower, she found the lump on her left breast.

"I am lost ... like, what am I supposed to do now?" she said.


SHE NOTICED IT after her second chemo session: She washed her hair -- beautiful, long and curly -- and clumps fell out. She felt tired after the sessions, sure, but otherwise, she was still playing pickup basketball and going about her day as normally as she could. She'd even told her family -- at least one family member accompanied her to each of her chemo sessions and surgeries -- that they couldn't cry in front of her. She had no room for sadness.

But watching her hair fall out was hard. First, she cut it short on the side with just enough for a short ponytail on top. Then, after her second session, she decided to shave it all off. She initially tried on wigs, and then scarves, but they didn't sit right with her.

She had breast cancer. Millions of women faced it. And they lost their hair because of the treatment.

I want people to see that I can smile despite everything I am starting to lose, she thought to herself.

"I embraced it. I made myself know that my looks don't mean anything and that it's all about my personality," she said.

She got Syracuse to take a new headshot for her bio page. She put on the biggest smile she possibly could. To support her through it, all five of her brothers shaved off their hair in Australia, at the same time Tiana did.

The little things changed. She and her boyfriend broke up midway through chemotherapy. She couldn't spend as much time nurturing her friendships. She couldn't enjoy food anymore. She set alarms to remind herself to eat because the chemotherapy took away her appetite. She'd always been a happy person, but the chemotherapy made her anxious. She was at the mall one day, and out of nowhere, she felt her breath catch in her throat, her face flushed and tears formed in her eyes. She'd never had an anxiety attack in her life, but she knew she was having one then. Her parents made her sit down, told her to focus on her breathing, gave her some water, and after a few minutes she felt better.

Even while talking about it, her face reddens and sweat drops form on her forehead. She fans her face with her hands and grabs the water bottle sitting next to her.

"I'm getting a heat flash. I get heat flashes all the time now," she said smiling sadly. Heat flashes can be instigated by treatments to cure cancer, and in Mangakahia's case, they are the result of chemotherapy. Even as she talked about her darkest days, she'd find a way out of it, landing on a positive thing that came out of those moments.

One of those positive outcomes was that her relationship with Hillsman and his family got only better. His wife flew Mangakahia to Boston for a second opinion after her initial diagnosis, and Hillsman decided to stay home instead of traveling during recruiting season. He decided she needed him more. They spent hours chatting, and most times it had nothing to do with basketball or cancer. It was about her life, her heartbreak, her new reality. He went from a coach to a friend, a mentor, a family member.

In fact, all of her teammates treated her like family. They gathered at the hospital on the day of the last chemo session, swarming her bed and making her laugh. And now, months later, the first thing the team remembered about that day was Mangakahia's smile through it all. She even cracked jokes about how she'd always wanted fake boobs.

"If you didn't know that she had cancer, you wouldn't know, because Tiana would never dwell on it. It was always about the next great thing with her," teammate Emily Engstler said.

Even for an infinitely positive person like her, the days leading up to the double mastectomy were hard. She had conversations with her mom about the surgery. The doctors gave her options: A single mastectomy (removal of the entire left breast) was a must, but they said she should also consider a double mastectomy, which would drastically reduce the chances of the cancer returning.

"Mum, how important is it to breastfeed my child? I don't want to get a double mastectomy if I'd miss out on an important part of my child's life," she said to her mom. Her mom responded, "Lots of mothers with perfectly normal breasts don't breastfeed their child, and that's OK. So do what is best for you."

The day she went in for her double mastectomy, her parents flew to Syracuse, and as she was dragged into surgery, the two women cried, alone and silently, as the weight of the situation settled in.

After the surgery, her doctor said, "Your lymph nodes are clear. You are cancer-free."

She exhaled. It was as if the elephant that was sitting on her chest had finally decided to walk away.

"I'm so glad that I was finished with that part of my life and I can dream again," she said.


AT LEAST 300 fans -- kids, parents and well-wishers -- stand in line in the aisle on the Carrier Dome's upper level holding posters, jerseys and hats of the Syracuse women's basketball team. The team has stunned No. 5 Louisville in a 59-51 upset victory, giving Hillsman his 300th win as head coach. It's the season's first autograph session, and the line snakes all the way down the aisle. Mangakahia sits next to fellow guards Brooke Alexander and Kiara Lewis. She asks fans their name and the message they want signed.

A woman with shoulder-length blond hair and a Syracuse hat stops in front of Mangakahia. She holds Mangakahia's right shoulder, pauses and takes a deep breath before speaking.

"I am so happy to see you on the bench, supporting our team. I am also a cancer survivor -- I had the same type that you were diagnosed with -- and it is a horrible sisterhood to be a part of, but I wanted my two girls to see that there is life beyond the disease, that we can pick ourselves up and make our way out of the hole and lead a full life."

Mangakahia nods, asks how old her kids are.

"Thirteen and 15, and they're wonderful," Alise Hoffmann says through tears.

"Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know this can't be easy to talk about," Mangakahia says.

Hoffmann, 44, went through the same treatment Mangakahia did. "That anxiety that it could all come back, or something could go very wrong -- that never goes away. So to see Tiana smile and take this disease on and beat it ... that is everything to me," she says after.

This is the reason Mangakahia woke up this morning, put on her best smile and got to the basketball arena. She wanted people to know things get better. This is her new dream.

With the platform basketball provides, she wants to have conversations with cancer patients and survivors, talk about the smaller changes and provide support. She's already been having conversations with patients on social media -- people reaching out to talk about hair loss during treatments, what the chemo process looks like, what the day after the mastectomy felt like -- just conversations to show her support. She's also organizing events, including a golf tournament in Syracuse in May, to raise money for breast cancer research.

Playing basketball in the Olympics and the WNBA is still the goal. She'll have to rebuild her upper-body strength, regain the 20 pounds she lost during the treatment and work her way back into top shape. She can return to her regular shooting workouts this week. After the Syracuse season, she'll petition the NCAA to extend her eligibility so she can come back for the 2020-21 season.

"Not to say anything negative about the game of basketball or who she's playing with, but an 80% Tiana is better than a lot of players [at] 100%, because she's just that good of a player," Hillsman said. "There's no doubt about it that she can exceed everyone's expectations on what she can do coming back from this situation."

"She is so talented that you feel like every time she has the ball in her hand something good is going to happen," Engstler said. "We always make jokes about how we hope to see each other in the league one day."

"So what if Tokyo 2020 didn't happen," Mangakahia said. "There's always Paris 2024, right?"