PITTSBURGH — When it comes to seeking attention Pitt women’s basketball junior guard Kyla Nelson is one of the most grounded student-athletes you will find, but Tuesday as a national audience tuned in, watching her story, she relented.
Tuesday evening after making her return to the court following successful cancer surgery in October, she answered all of the questions one last time with openness and a sense of humor.
Nelson not only survived cancer, but made her return to the court earlier than expected, playing over 12 minutes of live action.
“I don’t think I have processed it because I think I processed it from three months ago,” she said. “It’s hard to put things into words but like I said, it’s just been great being back with the team and I want to be a part of that and help coach and help the team in any way I can. It felt good being back out there though and I felt a bit slow and a bit rusty, but hopefully I’ll get there and give me extra cardio. I’m excited to be back out there just in time for conference play.”
Fighter (noun): @kylanelson_ 💪🙏
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) December 17, 2019
What started as an apparent stomach ache turned into months of fighting and having to maintain positive spirits but even when Nelson was not on the court, basketball never left her.
Sure, Nelson had six weeks with absolutely no basketball after the surgery, but the day she was released from the hospital, she put on the Pitt jersey once again doing a video shoot and even when the season started she watched her teammates figuring out what she could do to improve.
One those six weeks passed, it was time for “preseason 2.0” as Nelson began touching a basketball and putting up shots while away for Thanksgiving. She then did halfcourt drills less than two weeks ago and it has been a week since starting full-court drills.
The process of returning to the court has been a humbling one and Nelson credits it towards assisting her resiliency and vulnerability.
“I’ve struggled to let emotions out or let others help me and I felt like that was a time I had to be carried and allowed people to carry me and I’m just grateful for that,” said Nelson. “So that’s one thing I learned. Just to put things into perspective. Coach knows that I worry about every little thing and after going through something like, that it’s made me realize that I’m okay. I can brush things off easier and I can focus on what’s important.”
Nelson is quick to credit her teammates and though she did not play Tuesday night, Aysia Bugg was credited as an example.
The pair have a running joke that eventually they will play together. Bugg is in her sixth and final year of eligibility after being hit hard by injuries in the previous two seasons and of course Nelson’s recovery from cancer surgery had prevented her from seeing the court.
On his end, Pitt coach Lance White agreed that Nelson has become more open and asking for assistance and grinned ear to ear as she described this process.
Even when Nelson found out and had to get surgery, White was there regardless of the hour.
“Whenever we first heard the news of Kyla, it was her parents and, ‘how do we help Kyla and help her through this,” White said. “We get to come and we get to play a game. We get to play this awesome game of basketball and this is life. This is real stuff. Whenever you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it just changes your perspective on everything. So that’s what I think I learned through it. Just that everything takes time but you can overcome it, so it’s been fun to watch Kyla do it. Now she’s back on the court, which is which is awesome.”
Admittedly Nelson was huffing and puffing a bit Tuesday, but she was just happy to get back on the court and help her team out.
“I’m so excited she’s back and what an inspiration she is to so many people to overcome cancer and get back on the court playing the sport she loves,” Pitt coach Lance White said. “We’ve all been touched by somebody whose had it. Basketball is a vehicle for life and this is it right here beside me. You have to face challenges and hear things you don’t want to hear and battle it. To get herself back at the D-I level with all of that is a testament to Kyla.”
MEETING A HERO
ESPN’s Holly Rowe was ordering flowers for Nelson debating whether it would be an NCAA violation were she to send them, but then she asked herself if she could do one better.
So Rowe made a phone call asking to change her flight.
No one told Nelson that she had a special guest waiting outside of the Pitt locker room Tuesday, but when Rowe, a fellow cancer survivor was on the other side of the door, an exception can certainly be made.
Not only was Nelson’s hero going to attend the game, but Rowe specifically changed her plans and would serve as sideline reporter for the game.
“Sometimes life works out in beautiful ways,” Rowe said. “I knew I was heading to Pittsburgh tomorrow morning, I just wish I could be there earlier. I called (Lowry) and asked if she would approve me changing my flight and she said ‘oh my gosh, yes’.”
Rowe was already heading to Pittsburgh because she will serve in the same sideline role for the NCAA Volleyball Division I semifinals and finals, both of which will take place at PPG Paints Arena.
This is not the first time Rowe has met a Pitt athlete as she was in consistent contact with current Pittsburgh Steeler running back James Conner during his cancer battle. Through this time, Rowe built a close friendship with Executive Athletic Director of Media Relations E.J. Borghetti.
Rowe learned through Pitt women’s basketball SID Louie Spina of Nelson’s cancer and the two connected on Facetime and have remained in touch.
“She’s been with me throughout my entire journey and I’m so grateful for that,” Nelson said of Rowe. “She told me she changed her flights and I’m thinking ‘I’m not that special’. I appreciated it so much and it was nice to see her in person after texting and FaceTiming. She is a huge inspiration after everything she’s been through and she’s still standing there doing her job as well as she does. I wish someone had told me because I had not done my hair yet, my hair was a bit of a mess. Nobody told me I was going to meet Holly Rowe but it’s okay.”
It is that sense of humor that not only drew Rowe to Nelson but immediately helped her know that the Pitt guard was going to win this battle.
When Conner helped Rowe through her cancer battle, she called him a hero and through Nelson, there was a chance to return the favor.
Being diagnosed with cancer provides overwhelming emotions that are hard for anyone who has not been diagnosed to understand.
“You don’t want to be in this club, it is a weird club and yet once you’re in it, you hear other people and come together,” she said. “There is an instant spirit of ‘how can I help you, what do you need’. It’s strangers in life but anyone who’s had cancer that comes up to you, you just automatically hug and hold each other. It’s a weird club, but beautiful at the same time.”
As Rowe prepared to do sideline reporting for this game, the typical journalism balance was hard to ignore. Yes, she now has a relationship with Nelson but there also was the game itself and the obligations that come with that.
This circumstance was an interesting one and with the ACC Network discussing Nelson at length, including a video package, she decided to talk to Miami coach DeUnna Hendrix before the game.
“I did not want this to seem biased in any way, so I apologized before the game,” said Rowe. “I told her we were going to do a lot about Kyla and to please not think we’re biased. Then I thought, ‘of course that’s ridiculous’ because of course everyone is rooting for this kid and it’s okay to root for this kid in this moment.”
Though being on the court in a game is a big step for Nelson, she will be all too happy to put Tuesday behind her and move on.
“I can’t wait for this not to be about me,” she said. “I am ready to focus on the team and get better. I’m just another person on the Pitt basketball team now. We’ve all grown from that and it’s time to move on.”