Rashawn was the healthy one, believe it or not. One of his sisters was born weighing 2 pounds, 5 ounces. And that was the easy one. The other infant was born weighing 1pound, 3 ounces. Four months premature. Mom spent a year in the hospital with that baby. Challenges, Mom calls them by way of understatement.
But Rashawn never even got sick, not even with a common cold, until he arrived at 17 years old. That’s when the healthy one kept walking into his mother’s room late at night, while she was sleeping, waking her with his fear and crying over her bed. He told her that he didn’t feel right, that he felt like there was something hiding in his body. It would reveal itself at football practice soon after that, when his hands and feet and face suddenly swelled up in a way that left the teenager afraid to check a mirror through his dizziness.
“He was literally dying right before me,” his mother says now.
Leukemia. Rashawn’s white blood-cell count was so high that doctors had to retest him on another machine, thinking the one they used had to be broken. Rashawn got to the hospital on a Monday. Would have been dead by Wednesday if he hadn’t, the doctors said. Almost two months in intensive care came after that. So much radiation. Rashawn estimates he vomited over 100 times. That wasn’t the sickness. That was the cure.
“Pumping poison in my body to get the poison out,” he says now. “First thing that came to mind is death. I’m going to die. My grandma died of breast cancer. My aunt died of pancreatic cancer. I knew what this was. I’m only 17, and I’m about to die. I’m fighting for life, tubes in my neck. I was so swollen they couldn’t get the IV in my arm, so it had to go in my neck.”
Outside intensive care, not allowed in, more than 80 of his high school friends and teammates from Middle Creek High in North Carolina gathered. Later, they put together their cards and letters and prayers. They raised more than $2,000 for his medical costs with pancake breakfasts, T-shirts, headbands and pray-for-Ray bracelets. Those things carried him through the spinal taps and bone-marrow tests and labored breathing. He played basketball and football once, but now his bed-ridden, 200-pound frame withered away to 127 pounds.
The Make-A-Wish people came into that hospital room one day, looking to help the too-young sick and dying. What would Rashawn want? A million dollars, Rashawn said. That’s not how these wishes work, he was told. They are priceless. No money allowed. Rashawn said he’d like to spend time with his hero, LeBron James, at the 2010 NBA All-Star Game. That, they could work on. James and his teammates should pop out of bejeweled bottles occasionally, given how many wishes like this they grant to sick and needy children. The date was set to meet his hero, one blessed day of relief from the sickness, but then there was fear of blood clotting and an emergency surgery, and the 2010 All-Star Game came and went. Maybe 2011?
Rashawn, feeling better, had changed his mind and perspective by then, though, because his high school friends had done so much to lift his spirits in the interim. He decided to make a wish come true a little closer to home.
“Why be selfish and meet LeBron when I can give something back to the people who supported me at my worst time?” he says now.
Another meeting with LeBron had been set up when his mother got a call from the Make-A-Wish people at work.
“They told me, ‘You aren’t going to believe this but your son wants to change his wish,’ ” his mother says now. “He just asked that lunch be bought for everyone at his high school so that he could thank everybody individually and tell them that he loves them.”
Rashawn King’s mother lets the silence sit.
“I just got quiet when they told me that,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by what my son had done.”
Rashawn is a freshman point guard at North Carolina Central now. His cancer is in remission but remains a liability, so he has had to sign waivers and is waiting for them to clear before he can play. His new coach, Levelle Moton, knows Rashawn’s story. Knows some people close to LeBron, too. Coach made some calls recently, making his way up the LeBron ladder explaining the situation. And the other day, Moton called Rashawn, who thought he had done something very wrong to be getting a call from Coach. They got into Coach’s car as a surprise, Rashawn thinking they were going to dinner until they started driving toward the Heat’s exhibition game against the Bobcats. Next thing he knows, Rashawn is in the Heat’s locker room and hearing the word “here” from behind. He turned around to see his hero, LeBron James, handing over his game-worn shoes with a smile.
“LeBron let me meet the whole team,” Rashawn says. “They were amazing. Very humble gentlemen. Very friendly. LeBron told me, ‘Keep fighting. I’m proud of you.’ Just to hear those words from your hero, your idol, I felt special and important. I walked out with him all the way to the bus. I wanted to get on the bus with him. I took pictures with him. You can see I’m frozen up in those pictures. I didn’t know what to say. I was stuck. I just smiled. Frozen smile. I was amazed.”
On the drive home, his college coach looked over and saw that Rashawn was crying.
“Coach,” Rashawn said, “this is the best day of my life.”