BILLINGS – Watch Marissa Van Atta play basketball, and you’ll learn one thing very quickly: you’d rather be with her than against her.
“She’s got a nose for the ball,” said Rocky Mountain College head coach Wes Keller. “She’s a tremendous offensive rebounder.”
“She gets everything,” added Rocky guard Mikayla Jones. “A rebound, a 50/50 ball.”
“You just don’t see it coming,” forward Justyn Juhl summed up.
Van Atta did it to Rocky as a freshman at MSU Billings.
“We had a chance to sweep MSUB,” said Keller. “We were up five after half, and the next thing you know, she rips off eight straight points and we’re down.”
So Rocky jumped at the chance to sign the former Billings Senior Bronc for her senior collegiate season.
“That’s what we needed,” said Jones, “that person who got those 50-50 balls, the rebounds, the loose balls. She was up and down the court – we were huffing and puffing after her.”
Which is why no one saw it coming.
“When I found out, it didn’t click,” said Van Atta. “The doctor came in at like 5:30 in the morning, told us I had leukemia, and he said, ‘You’re going to start treatment and we’re sending you to Denver now.’”
A radiant, seemingly healthy 22-year-old college athlete was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on Sept. 22. In a sense, the diagnosis came out of nowhere. But Van Atta has dealt with issues for years.
“I went in to the doctor countless times for upper respiratory issues,” said the fifth-year senior, “and I actually didn’t recover going into my junior season. I played pretty much the whole season with pneumonia, which was really difficult. But I love basketball too much, and I can’t sit the bench.”
Finally, in March, doctors gave it a name: Over-training syndrome.
“It was almost a relief that I wasn’t going crazy,” Van Atta said. “There was a part of me that was like, ‘Am I just making this up?’ Was I just being a wuss?”
And everyone was relieved to hear what it wasn’t.
“They originally thought cancer back then,” Van Atta said of her doctor visits at the beginning of the year. “I was sleeping for two days straight. I missed an early morning practice one day because I didn’t wake up through my alarm, so [the doctor] did all the blood work. When I called Coach Keller, I was feeling awesome.”
“The one thing that Marissa has done a very nice job of is communicating with our staff,” said Keller. “I don’t know if she talked to you about the bruising, but that was a concern of ours.”
“I’d wake up and have new bruises,” said Van Atta. “I thought, ‘We haven’t been doing contact. I don’t know where this is coming from.’”
Van Atta’s blood platelets plummeted – and a rare gene mutation made matters worse. Chemotherapy was the beginning of a very long month.
“I’m always one to be moving, doing something, whether it’s going to basketball practice, school,” Van Atta said. “So for me to have to be limited to a floor was very difficult. Pretty much I got up, I ate, I walked around, did a little workout. Eat, sleep, workout, repeat.”
What made matters worse was the only thing she could think about from 500 miles away.
“I feel like I came here to play basketball, and then I got cancer,” Van Atta said. “That’s just not one thing you do. If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I just don’t like letting people down.”
While going through the biggest battle of her life, Van Atta actually felt guilty for not being at practice.
“That’s just who she is,” said Juhl. “That’s why we go out every day and play for her.”
“It’s so much bigger than us and Rocky basketball,” added Keller. “This is about her fight right now.”
“She should not feel guilty about anything, because she busted her butt,” stressed Jones. “For her to be out here running these lines, beating everyone down the court with cancer, I mean, you don’t know what tough is until you’re in her shoes.”
Exhibit A – exactly one month after receiving the leukemia diagnosis, on her second day back in Billings, Van Atta was in Rocky’s gym shooting free throws. And how do think she did?
“I don’t want to brag, but I made the first one,” Van Atta laughed, “and I shot 80 percent.”
Not bad for someone who could barely see the basket.
“When I was sick, because my platelets were low, either I coughed or I sneezed and I ended up getting bleeding in my eyes. It sounds worse than it is.”
Just one more in a long line of setbacks. Van Atta’s fight is far from over. Soon, she’ll head to Seattle for the big one – a bone marrow transplant, which means at least three more months away from home. She said she is scared – but she’ll never let cancer know that.
“I just have to have faith in myself and just faith in general that it’s going to be ok,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot of tough things in my life, and that’s all you got to do. And the scaredness – you can’t have it because that’s negativity. When you walk on to the basketball court, if you’re scared of your opponent, that’s the death.”
This is the latest opponent expecting to get the best of Marissa Van Atta. Ask everyone else how that goes.