Pink shoes. Pink headbands. Pink warmup shirts with the words “Hope, Fight, Cure” printed on the front. Sunday, it was clear that the players of the Michigan women’s basketball team weren’t competing for the hardest-working team in America.
Instead, the Wolverines were competing for the hardest-working individuals in America.
Michigan didn’t skip a beat in pulling off a 92-76 win over Minnesota during its annual Pink Game, which serves to promote breast cancer awareness as well as celebrate the life of former North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, who passed away from stage 4 breast cancer in 2009.
The pink game also celebrates survivorship for those in attendance at Crisler Center and across the nation. Six breast-cancer survivors were invited to dinner with the team Friday, introduced the starting lineup Sunday and received a pink basketball from the player they introduced — a tradition that began with the arrival of Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico in 2012.
One of those survivors is Barnes Arico’s stepmother Donna, a 10-year cancer survivor who has made the trip from New York to the Pink Game every year.
“This is one of the greatest days of the year for our program,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s really a special (thing) for us to honor those women — those strong, powerful, determined women that are persevering through struggles that are much tougher than a basketball game.”
For Barnes Arico, she didn’t just want her team to throw on some pink-colored apparel without it carrying some weight. Instead, she wanted the outfits to speak on a personal level with her players and have a special meaning behind it.
So Friday night, the team had dinner with a group of survivors at the Ron and Eileen Weiser Family Club inside Crisler Center. The survivors — hand-selected by Abby Samuels, the senior community manager for special events at the American Cancer Society’s Southeast Michigan office — told stories of their battles with breast cancer and answered questions from the team about how to be more proactive with their own health.
“It’s really special to have a dinner with the ladies that get to teach us so much about life that we don’t get to see all the time,” said senior guard Madison Ristovski. “Everybody here is always curious about it.
“At the end of the day, it’s in the back of people’s minds that, ‘What if that happens to me?’ ”
Samuels’ network at the American Cancer Society and strong volunteer outreach enabled her to find individuals to invite to the dinner. The leading factor in the decision was an the individuals' involvement with the organization in recent months — for example, attending the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk held in October at Washtenaw Community College.
The Wolverines, of course, were waiting at the end of the walk, high-fiving survivors, giving them roses and cheering them on as they crossed the finish line.
“They’re amazing volunteers,” Samuels said. “Them coming out to Making Strides allows them to see the impact they’re making with things like the Pink Game. … One of the great things about Michigan and Michigan athletics is that they teach integrity, and those women really have integrity.”
At age 25, just months before her wedding, Christy Rodriguez was diagnosed with breast cancer. The longtime Michigan fan was invited to Barnes Arico’s dinner Friday night after completing the Making Strides walk.
Now in her late 20s, Rodriguez has been cancer-free for three years.
“I’m really happy that I got invited to be a part of it,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s super awesome that they do something like this every year … Being up there at the beginning and getting the basketball from the player, that was really awesome. Probably one of the coolest things I’ve done. I’ve gotten a lot of different opportunities I didn’t expect from having breast cancer, and things like this are some of the positive things that come out of it.”
Rodriguez joined a group of survivors on the court during halftime and were given a “survivor sash” by Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, who donned a pink No. 15 jersey of her own.
According to Samuels, Barnes Arico and Hutchins’ vision to emphasize the “game of life” within their programs ensures their players walk away with valuable life lessons aside from just what they learn from playing on the court or the diamond.
Now in her fourth year at the helm, Barnes Arico sees education as a major cornerstone of the program she’s leading. She wants to educate her players on what breast cancer is, because, as she mentioned, “You’re never too young to get it.”
More importantly, she wants her team to see the value in having a positive attitude, being focused and staying determined. Friday, it was these three lessons that the six survivors spoke of when describing their path toward a cancer-free life — in addition to faith and family.
Barnes Arico wants her team, by understanding the adversity these women have had to face, to understand that life isn’t always about basketball, and reality doesn’t exist within a perfect bubble.
“We’re playing college basketball at the highest level and we’re at the University of Michigan on a college scholarship, that there are people out there that are going through struggles and different hard times in their lives,” Barnes Arico said. “Sometimes it’s a great reminder when we get to be surrounded by people that are overcoming such great obstacles and such big challenges.
“At the end of the day, a basketball game is a basketball game, and this is about the survival in their lives.”
Added Ristovski: “Sometimes being a Division I basketball player, you think everything revolves around the game. You really identify as a basketball player — that’s your identity. You don’t really realize the bigger picture and the bigger things going on in life.
“Having the women talk to us (Friday), you see, ‘Wow, there are bigger problems in the world that can’t be fixed all the time.’ ”
As for Michigan’s role in the fight against breast cancer, it can continue to provide an outlet of empowerment for survivors in the meantime. The Pink Game gives survivors like Donna Barnes and Christy Rodriguez the opportunity to come together and share their stories of survival while promoting awareness for those still fighting the battle.
“I think that basketball is a vehicle to teach (our players) about perseverance and about hard work and being part of our team,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s part of our mantra, that we are the hardest-working team in America.
“But really, if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you have to be the hardest-working individual to overcome that.”
Friday’s stories of perseverance must have hit the right emotional note with the Wolverines on Sunday afternoon as they pulled ahead of Minnesota down the stretch — all in front of a sea of pink.
Little things made the difference for Michigan in its victory — defense, free throws, intangibles. Playing in honor of the women who have gone through great adversity not only spurred the Wolverines to a 16-point victory, but it also motivated freshman center Hallie Thome enough to score a career-best 31 points.
“It was kind of a thing in the back of my head this game that I’m not just playing basketball for a team,” Thome said. “I’m playing for a greater cause.”
But then there were the little things, such as a pink basketball, that made the difference for survivors in their own victory.
When Ann Arbor native Mimi Schork returned to her seat before the game, she waved her newest momento around in the air while wearing a wide smile. She looked as if she had just won an award, and those sitting around her began to cheer.
In most ways, the pink basketball was an award. It was a reminder of what she had been through and how she overcame it. She deserved the cheering, as did the rest of the survivors who received a standing ovation at halftime.
They hoped, fought and continued to work toward a cure. For that, they were recognized as the hardest-working individuals in America.