South Broward basketball standout Mackenzie Sadaka has a simple goal.
“I just want to be tough like my dad,” she said.
Sadaka, a 5-10 junior shooting guard, already is, and making it to the Class 7A state semifinals Friday in Lakeland — after everything she has been through — proves that.
For about eight months last year, Sadaka would make a morning trip to Hollywood’s Memorial Regional Hospital before heading to school and basketball practices or games. She would then return to the hospital at night to be with her sick father.
“She would sit in a hospital chair and do her homework until 10 or 11 o’clock,” said Kelli Sadaka, Mackenzie’s mother.
Sadaka did more than that just homework — she also got the idea to start a GoFundMe page to help with the family’s medical bills, getting 123 donations and raising more than $26,000 in one month.
Her father, Mike, had battled cancer — specifically, multiple myeloma — since 2009. He beat it, initially, and had a bone marrow transplant before succumbing to the incurable disease on Sept. 23, 2015. He was 52.
While Sadaka, 16, lost her father, his absence this season has been felt by the entire South Broward team.
There was no bigger backer of South Broward basketball than Mike Sadaka. He loved all sports, but basketball was his favorite.
He rarely missed a practice he was allowed to attend, let alone a game.
“He was close to everyone on our team,” South Broward guard Natalia Leaks said. “He was like our team dad.”
Kelli Sadaka said she was stunned at the large turnout of more than 250 friends and family members for Mike’s funeral service.
The entire South Broward team was there — the girls all wore their red-and-gold Bulldogs shirts.
They have further honored Mike’s memory by the way they have played this season, posting a 25-5 record heading into the noon tipoff against Winter Haven (24-3) at the Lakeland Center.
Winter Haven has made it to the state semifinals for the sixth time in the past seven years but has yet to win a title during that stretch.
The motivation for Winter Haven figures to be intense, but the same can be said for the spirit on South Broward.
After a three-game skid between Christmas and New Year’s, South Broward has responded with a 14-game win streak.
That includes the BCAA Big 8 championship, which was annually Mike’s favorite tournament.
“He would go to the Big 8 every year, even if Mackenzie wasn’t playing,” Kelli said. “He’d rather watch high school basketball than the Miami Heat.”
Mackenzie said she thinks of her father daily, but the Big 8 win was special, and she noted that it came on the four-month anniversary of his death.
“I would hear him at our games,” Mackenzie said. “He was always screaming at the refs. The refs were probably the only people who didn’t like my dad.”
Mackenzie, who attended Princeton University’s basketball camp last summer and is interested in attending an Ivy League school, is averaging 13.7 points and 7.0 rebounds this season.
She is even more impressive in the classroom, where she has a 4.8 grade-point average (3.8 unweighted).
Kelli, who was with her husband for 32 years and married for 22, said her daughter’s grades slipped a bit this year after his death.
“I don’t think that child had one ‘B’ in her whole career, and then she got a couple this [school] year,” Kelli said. “It was hard for her to sit in a math class and focus, you know? But she’s getting it back.”
South Broward is getting it back, too. This is the Bulldogs’ first trip to state since they lost in the 2011 semifinals to Orlando Dr. Phillips.
He had cancer, and he never complained. He never said one word about dying. He was in the hospital, and he would say he was on vacation. He was tough.
Mike saw this championship run coming, Kelli and Mackenzie said.
“Now she’s made it,” Kelli said, weeping softly, “and he’s not here to see it.”
Mackenzie said no one would have been more excited to make the drive to Lakeland than her dad, and that’s why she wants so badly to win for him.
“He had cancer, and he never complained,” she said. “He never said one word about dying. He was in the hospital, and he would say he was on vacation. He was tough.”
Toughness, it would seem, runs in the Sadaka family.