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Mailbag:  UVA hoops fan, two-time cancer survivor, puts things in perspective

Chris Graham
uva 2019 national title
Photo: Chris Graham/AFP

This is certainly different sort of letter. I hope you will indulge me for a few minutes of your time. It recounts my love of UVA hoops, my childhood memories in Charlottesville, and my fight against cancer. As bizarre as it may seem, they all go hand in hand.

First, I am a son of Virginia. Born in Norfolk and raised throughout the state, I spent four years in the late 1970s in Charlottesville while my father was receiving his PhD from UVA. I lived on Copeley Hill, near U-Hall, spending every free moment I could watching the wonderful Terry Holland lead Jeff Lamp, Marc Iavaroni, Bobby and Ricky Stokes and the great Ralph Sampson on both practice and during games. Those teams took me in and not only tolerated me and showed me how to play the game, but how to be a young man coming of age. Those memories are forever etched in my very being.

Life then moved on and took me on a journey for the ages, across four continents. And so, five years ago, we pick up the story again.

In the spring of 2018, I was diagnosed with Stage 3c prostate cancer. It had spread to my lymph nodes, and I was not in good shape. I lived (and continue to live) in Berlin, Germany, where thankfully there is universal healthcare. After undergoing radical surgery and months and months of radiation and other therapies, my body finally gave out, and I had a heart attack, ending up in a hospital emergency room yet again, clinging to life. And I fought back. But I had help. I had my wonderful family and friends, amazing doctors and medical facilities, and the 2018-2019 Virginia Basketball team.

Through the darkest days of winter that year, I watched every game, forcing myself to stay awake to see Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Co. valiantly battle their way to the Natty.

Like them, I had suffered a crippling setback the year before. And like them, I refused to go quietly into that good night, kicking down the doors of defeat, emerging out the other side. And what a victory it was! I will always owe them a debt more than thanks as a fan for a championship. They really helped me pull through.

Fast forward to spring 2023. In April, I found out the cancer had returned with a vengeance. It was now Stage IV and had spread to my bones literally head to toe. Two major hospitals informed me my status was terminal and that there was no effective treatment, and that I should get my affairs in order. It was a matter of weeks, months at best. I felt that the universe had finally caught up with me, and it was time. However, I was directed to an oncologist who, while being very realistic, offered me a chance and a choice. He explained that the treatments he was recommending were extremely difficult and that there was absolutely no guarantee of success. But I have a burning love for life and three amazing children. So, I weighed my options carefully, deciding that the possible benefits were worth the pain and risk, and I took it.

Suffice it to say that the summer, autumn, and winter of 2023 were not the funnest of my life. I leaned on my family and friends, who selflessly carried me. And during this time, my “other” university, Michigan, won the Natty in football. This really gave me hope and joy as the basketball season rolled around. And of course, as I have forever, I tuned in to Virginia Basketball, not only seeing but literally feeling the ups and downs this season has brought. I experienced the strength of will and dogged determination of this team every time they took the court.

From my bed, I fought alongside Reece Beekman, Ryan Dunn, and iMac every step of the way, never giving up hope (OK, OK … Wisconsin, Memphis and Notre Dame were bloody hard to watch :-)).

But we kept coming back, never throwing in the towel.  And eight months and a few lifetimes later, against all odds, I got a W. I just found out my cancer has been beating into remission. It is still there, and if I don’t fall out the window, I will eventually die from it. But that time is not now — hopefully not for at least another few years. And I have the Virginia Men’s Basketball Team keeping me company on this insane journey.

I will follow them, cheer them on, and always be thankful that Coach Bennett and team are making all us ‘Hoos proud, no matter what the outcome. I will stay awake to watch them live, never accepting to settle for the highlights.

I know this may all sound a bit silly (and definitely somewhat long-winded), but I want you and them to know that it has all somehow taken on more meaning than that of a game for me. In a good way. I will always rejoice in their victories, but it is their persistence and grit that really garners my respect. I say this because it is my wish to let them know that all their efforts in playing this beautiful game, for this beautiful university, is quite special for me. Win or lose, it matters not here. I just wanted to thank them for all their help. I will be cheering for them at 3 a.m. from here in Berlin across to JPJ.

Dear Chris, if you ever cross paths with the team or Coach Bennett, and feel the moment is right, I would truly appreciate it if you took the opportunity to convey my thanks to them.

I am simply moved by the good news to write a note of thanks. As I have always been an avid reader of the AFP and with you being the founder and editor, I selfishly decided to burden you with this story. Thank you, Sir.

Warmest regards,

Akram Baker
Berlin, Germany


uva basketball
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

This is what sports does to us, if we let it.

We get to be part of something bigger than just ourselves.

You can just wear a hat or T-shirt, and a total stranger who roots for the same team can come up to you and strike up a conversation about how the game went, how the season is going, whatever.

Or you get an email like this from a fellow UVA fan who lives in Germany, and stays up way, way late to watch the games live – Berlin is six hours ahead of us, so a 7 p.m. ET start is 1 a.m. there, and don’t even think about those 9 p.m. ET games that we think are late nights.

Some of us like to say that we live and die with our team; for Akram Baker, that 2019 title run was what helped him get through a year battling cancer, so, yeah.

We, of course, forwarded this over to the staff so that Akram’s letter can get in front of Coach Bennett.

One of CTB’s Five Pillars is humility; I’m humbled that I was asked to share this message, not only with Coach Bennett, but also the UVA fan base.

– Chris

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].