Will Adams

Will Adams, a freshman shooting guard at Towson, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in as a senior in high school. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / July 13, 2011)

Will Adams, freshman basketball player at Towson University, could be mad at the world about all the misfortune life dumped at his Philadelphia doorstep.

There was the woman, his birth mother, who abandoned him to a series of foster homes at 3. There was the hit-and-run driver, racing through a yellow light, who dragged him and his bike a full city block, leaving Adams with compound fractures in both legs at 9. There was the cancer that ate away at his athlete's body for months before anyone knew, devouring his basketball dream when he was 18.

It was as if he had a personal curse writing the storyline of his life. It would have been easy to be bitter, and lots of people are over less. But Adams, 21, who has been in remission since last winter, is not.

Instead, he is eager to embrace his second chance. He wants to play basketball at Towson and earn a college degree and already is contemplating ways to repay the support his inner-city community gave him through the bad times.

Seated on a couch in the office of Tigers basketball coach Pat Skerry during a break from summer school, Adams looked like any healthy, well-adjusted college freshman — older, perhaps, and certainly more muscular. He laughed, joked and smiled frequently. No scars were visible except those that curled wickedly below both knees, the reminder of being run over by the car.

More than two years after he was first diagnosed with an advanced stage of Hodgkin's lymphoma and told he was lucky to get the diagnosis when he did, Adams can speak to the unrelenting ordeal he faced growing up in North Philadelphia as if it were a basketball game.

"I can't buy a bucket, I can't win," is how he remembers staring down the prospect of cancer. "That's what I thought: I can't win."

But the difference with Adams is, he handled it beautifully, with a grace that was amazing for a young man left to fend for himself at a young age.

How did he get through his trial by fire? With a keen sense of perspective, and by listening to words of encouragement from coaches and doctors, teachers and counselors.

"Somebody out there is in a worse situation than me," Adams said about his mindset. "I thought about that. 'People have worse situations than me. I can get through this.' Kids in the hospital motivated me, too. So many kids in the hospital were walking around and didn't even know what was going on."

It was nine months after the shooting guard signed to play for Pat Kennedy at Towson that his body began to break down. He was coming off his junior season at Imhotep Charter School in Philadelphia, where his team won the All City and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 2A boys championships. He was a shooter and scorer with range that started just inside the gym. He was tall (6feet4) and athletic.

He was a major recruit for downtrodden Towson. He liked the idea of playing in a mid-major conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, for a team that hadn't won before. He liked the distance, too, from Philadelphia.

'Seemed like he had the flu'

At an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Las Vegas in late July 2008, his vision started to blur. By September, he was getting chills regularly, even when it was 90 degrees in the gym. He would wear a hoodie and still be cold.

Then the fainting started. Adams said he would "blink out," or fall to the ground and be out for 10 to 15 minutes. It happened about five times. He went to a clinic in October, but nothing came of it. He thought he had the flu. With his senior season approaching, he launched his own 5a.m. workouts. Except he was exhausted before he started and couldn't finish.

The night sweats came next. He would wake up in the middle of the night and his sheets were dripping wet. Weight loss followed. Pounds melted off. A sculpted, 207-pound body became a skinny, 163-pound walking ghost by the end of the basketball season. But still, he kept playing.

When Imhotep reached the playoffs a second straight season — the Panthers went 59-5 those two years — he pulled himself out of the starting lineup and came off the bench. One Philadelphia newspaper reported that Adams played with "flulike symptoms."

No one suspected a more insidious cause. Not his Imhotep coach, Andre Noble, or the neighborhood friend who helped get him into the school, Rasool Hajj. They were two of the most influential men in Adams' life. Adams describes Hajj as his mentor, and to this day when he goes home, he sleeps on Noble's couch.

"It seemed like he had the flu," said Hajj, a youth counselor at the Juvenile Justice Center in Phillip. "He'd go to the clinic and they'd say he's got the flu. They didn't pick up on it. Will was hiding it, too. He didn't know what he had, but he was hiding it because he wanted to play basketball. He went through the whole season without anybody knowing. … Nothing was going to stop him from playing basketball."