Cassie Harberts is among the nation’s top-ranked girls’ basketball players, but the San Clemente High senior spent much of her early childhood in a hospital surrounded by feeding bags, tubes and IVs.
Her older brother, Daniel, was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer when he was 3. The cancer eventually spread to his heart, and he had open-heart and liver surgeries before he ever set foot in kindergarten.
Daniel, now 20, has been cancer-free for 15 years. Although he’s still in and out of doctors’ offices because of complications from years of chemotherapy, he doesn’t acknowledge limitations.
“His story has majorly inspired me,” Cassie said. “His whole life, the way he’s had to live, has inspired me.”
Harberts thinks of her brother when she comes home after a grueling three-hour practice and wants to hit the bed instead of her books. Daniel has a weak heart and is plagued by constant fatigue, yet he finds the energy to study mechanical engineering at Cal State Northridge.
She also thinks of her brother when she’s completely drained and her coach demands one more sprint. Even though Daniel’s body can’t produce adrenaline, he plays soccer.
“I look at Daniel; he’s worked so hard for everything. I look at me, and my life hasn’t been nearly as hard,” Harberts said. “I might have to do something I don’t want to, but Daniel’s had to deal with that his whole life.”
Harberts averages 25 points a game and is the nation’s No. 11 high school senior, according to one ranking.
At 6 feet 2, Harberts operates mostly around the basket for her club team, Cal Swish, which won a national championship last summer.
For San Clemente, she does that and more, even occasionally playing point guard.
In college, she will play for USC after an on-off-on recruiting dance with the Trojans.
Harberts committed to USC last February, but after Trojans coach Mark Trakh resigned, she was persuaded by her father and her club coach to switch to Arizona State.
The change didn’t last until signing day, however.
Harberts’ mother, Dorothy, could tell something was wrong, and she occasionally noticed Cassie forlornly pointing toward USC bumper stickers on passing vehicles.
Advised to follow her heart, Harberts reconnected with USC.
It seems like playing for USC and Coach Michael Cooper might have been fate all along.
Dorothy Harberts recalls meeting Cooper about 21 years ago at an airport while she was traveling with her husband, and timidly asking for his autograph.
She has kept it stored away in an envelope ever since.
During Cassie’s official visit to USC, Dorothy, envelope in hand, approached Cooper and asked him if it was authentic.
The coach nodded.
Of course, she already knew.
“You gave it to me 21 years ago, and now you’ll be coaching my daughter,” she told him.