South Broward’s Mackenzie Sadaka had every excuse to take the basketball season off following the passing of her father Michael Sadaka last September — just weeks before the season opener.
In Michael Sadaka, who was 52 when he passed from cancer, Mackenzie lost more than a proud papa. Michael Sadaka was her best friend, confidant, biggest supporter and fixture at every game Mackenzie played since he bought Mackenzie her first basketball at age 6.
Yet, instead of allowing grief to defer her basketball goals, Mackenzie used her father’s brave fight against cancer as inspiration for a breakout junior season.
“I watched how my dad handled having cancer,” she said. “Obviously it’s a huge tragedy. So when something happens to me I try to handle it like how he did. He wouldn’t let small things affect him, the stuff that would get other people mad. So I try not to let things affect me too much.”
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The resilience and strength Mackenzie showed this season brought her the Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the Miami Herald All-Broward Awards banquet on Tuesday.
Sadaka appeared taken aback as the crowd at the Signature Grand in Davie showered her with a standing ovation.
“It means a lot — I didn’t expect to win this award,” Sadaka said. “It is a great way to honor my dad. Just to have a group of people to admire what a good man and person he was. He would have loved it, to get this. This brings back some great moments.”
Despite a hectic schedule, Sadaka squeezed in as much time as she could to be with her father. For eight months, Mackenzie would visit him in the morning before school. At night she would return after practices or games to be by his bedside, often making efficient use of her time by doing homework.
She also took the initiative to start a GoFundMe page to offset steep medical bills. An outpouring of support resulted in 123 donations totaling more than $26,000 in one month alone.
That focus was evident in the classroom as well, where Sadaka maintained a 4.8 grade-point average (3.8 unweighted), which she hopes will increase the interest she has received from FAU, Furman, UMass-Lowell and Embry-Riddle.
It was Michael Sadaka’s second fight against cancer. The first, which started in 2009, resulted in a bone marrow transplant and remission from multiple myeloma.
Michael, who was affectionately called “Tubz” after the Miami Vice character, is remembered as a larger-than-life figure who never allowed any adversity he was going through to affect his mood.
Mackenzie said her father had a gift to find humor in even the most dire situations, including his prolonged stay in the hospital, which he referred to as a “vacation.”
Mackenzie shared this basketball journey with her father since he started toting her and her brother to his pickup games. Mackenzie eventually carved out her niche as a multitalented big guard for the Bulldogs, leading to Michael Sadaka scouring boxscores in the newspaper and calling friends to brag about Mackenzie’s achievements.
Sharlene Ferguson, who shares South Broward head coach duties with Richard Walker, said the will Mackenzie exhibited going through her ordeal made the Bulldogs rally around her.
“Mackenzie doesn’t know this but the girls came to me in private and said Mackenzie is tough so we have be tough and be there for her,” Ferguson said. “Mackenzie is a tough girl, she is not going to quit. That is where the girls got their strength from this season — from her.”
With her teammates’ support, Mackenzie averaged a career-high 13.7 points and seven rebounds to lead the Bulldogs (25-6) to 14-game win streak and berth in the Class 7A state semifinals.
The most meaningful victory for Mackenzie during that streak was the Bulldogs’ BCAA Big 8 championship, her father’s favorite tournament.
Mackenzie believes the most fitting way to honor her father is to chase a milestone they both expected to experience together — signing a college scholarship.
“It has always been my dream to play college basketball,” Mackenzie said. “The main thing for me is how strong my dad was in his life. I don’t want his passing to be the focal point. It is tragic and my dad is my best friend but he would want me to be strong and keep doing what I’m doing.”