Bout with leukemia teaches Sterett a lesson

Hollywood would start Keith Sterett's story with a shot of his spindly arms raised in jubilation.


He scored 62 points for Alleluia Community School on Monday against the CSRA Warriors. He made 19 three-pointers on 41 attempts from that range.

Sterett played 20 minutes and made one two-point shot. He watched from the bench the rest of the game. That's a feat even if the area's best player did that against an all-freshman team.

"It was something I could not fathom," Alleluia teammate Joe Veihman said. "Nineteen threes? One game? Sixty-two points? Being on the court with a guy that hit 19 threes is a game that lives on forever."

But that's the wrong introduction to a senior class treasurer who wears the Shaquille O'Neal brand shoe found at Payless.

"These are my old shoes," Sterett said of his game-day gear. "I was going to throw them out but I got insoles from my dad. The insoles from his old shoes. I put his old insoles in these old shoes."

The label on the shoe is not what makes Sterett's shot soar.

The opening shot into his world has him in a Boy Scout uniform. Keith was going for a merit badge in medicine. He asked a friend in medical school to go over the process of giving a physical.

He laid Keith on the couch and tried to palpate his stomach. It led to a strange discovery and a professional physical.

His spleen was about five times the size of what it should be. Picture his stomach as America. The spleen should be cozy on the North Carolina coast. It stretched down and west all the way out to California instead.

"My mom said I looked two months pregnant," Keith said.

It led to a leukemia diagnosis in March 2004.

Keith's view of everything mentioned above has a twist. He does not dwell on basketball. He laughs at the thought of karma stealing away a year of his life only to fill his 19th year on Earth with glory days.

"If there's anything I learned from having cancer it is to do stuff," he said. "Do everything possible every hour of every day. That's the way to live a life."

FIRST QUARTER : Keith's work ethic was questioned his freshman year. No one thought he'd score 12 points in any one quarter of basketball like he did Monday.

It was the cancer. Keith describes it as pushing the accelerator down on a car out of fuel.

"Lazy or didn't care was what we thought," Veihman said. "He was tired a lot. He didn't want to play hard in the fourth quarter. We all felt like idiots when it turned out he had the cancer."

The merit badge quest led to a deeper personal trial. He was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Keith was told 98 kids across America are found with that each year. His survival rate was right at 70 percent.

When he began treatment in December of his sophomore year, the game plan was eight days of chemotherapy. The first few days were the best days.

"It was just like sit there and eat the time up," he said. "But then that's when it got terrible. Chemo basically rips up your cells. You pretty much throw up and go diarrhea eight, nine times a day. Just constant feeling terrible."

His Alleluia team assumed he was near death. They prayed. They did blood drives. They dedicated game after game to him. Then they sent him game tapes.

Keith has five brothers and two sisters. A strong family bond grew tighter through this.

His oldest brother Eric was the closest match for the bone marrow transplant Keith needed to survive.

"After my 14th day they brought Eric to Atlanta and drilled into his hip," Keith said. "They sucked out the bone marrow and infused it in me. Most of the time in the hospital came after transplant recovering and rebuilding my cells."

He was hospitalized for six weeks. After he left the hospital, he had to stay within a 30-minutes drive of the hospital until 100 days had passed after his transplant. He had to make sure the cancer was out of his system.

His mother Charlotte was at his side. She just happened to be a registered nurse.

SECOND QUARTER : Keith at one time called himself a "junmore."

The treatment for his leukemia cut short his sophomore year in December 2004. He didn't return to Alleluia until September 2005. He only scored 66 points in all of his sophomore year.

During those 50-or-so days after he left the hospital, that basement was his recovery room.

"I read a book and listened to music," he said. "I had a puzzle. A dartboard. I had an Xbox, but it was not the time. It's hard to play Xbox feeling terrible all day."

Keith would wake up every day and throw up. Then repeat. He had a Make-A-Wish experience as a result of his cancer treatment. He asked for a grand piano.

"I wanted something that wasn't going to be over in a day," he said.

"Pianos last a hundred years. Disney or shopping sprees or days with Michael Jordan last a day. A piano will still be around after that one moment."

His immune system was so compromised that cold sores on a visitor were a threat to his life.

Keith said the "Why me" moments lasted about a week.

"The lowest point physically was the hospital," he said. "The throwing up and diarrhea. The low mental point was the basement. Just me and Mom. I love my Mom. She's great. But think of every day just you and your Mom."

Keith woke up every day. Then ate a banana. He watched Tom and Jerry at 2 p.m. and then the Andy Griffith Show.

He'd try to stomach food and then go to bed.

"We'd also say prayers every day," he said.

It was a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. Except replace all the laughter with fear.

HALFTIME : Keith will not play college ball. His body type says chess club, not college prospect.

"I could maybe bench press 90 pounds seven or eight times," he said. "If you put me at half-court and told me to go to the hoop, I don't know if I could get it there."

He takes his three-point shots from about 24 or 25 feet out.

If you told him to place a bet on how many three-pointers he'd hit just shooting in the gym, he knows he'd be within five shots either way of 66 made shots out of 100.

Those totals were tracked in all of his team's early workouts. Veihman has seen him make 18, 19 three-point shots in a row.

"His shot is a slingshot," Alleluia coach Dennis McBride said. "You cannot believe it goes in. But it does."

But he's no complete player.

"He's not real mobile," McBride said. "He's got one slick move. He's got a head fake and a dribbles to the left or right."

Mr. 62 points already wants to be a dentist one day.

THIRD QUARTER : Keith's true junior year did not start out strong.

"I was weak after the cancer," he said. "I couldn't jump over one coffee table I was so weak."

Then he started to flash the streak shooting midway through his junior season.

"It was like he was different," McBride said. "I think the cancer must have had a lot to do with it. I told him before the season if he wanted to be a shooter instead of a power forward to work on his three-point shot. I imagine from the improvement he must have shot in his yard all summer long."

The Disney script would have him doing that silhouetted in front of a dying street light. It would be the dramatic dabble with truth.

Veihman lives on the same street. He knows Keith wasn't shooting 1,000 shots a day.

"I am not the most committed person to basketball," Sterett said. "I can't say cancer changed me into a better player. It didn't. What it did to was make me from a kid who didn't do a lot with his life into somebody who tried to maximize my life. Once I got cancer, I just started doing more because I wanted to do stuff before I maybe wouldn't always have that. Just living. I can't stand to not be doing something. Cancer affected my desire to just get better in every part of my life and not just basketball."

The Alleluia principal shares a clear view of the youth that walks the halls of his school each day.

"He had to dig deep to get through his trial," Alleluia principal Dan Funsch said. "He found a character he has to lean on and internal will and determination. He learned about overcoming. Once he got all that started, it was like a runaway train he could not stop."

Keith Sterett is now about as all-around as can be.

"He's essentially a self-taught musician although he's had some piano lessons," Funsch said. "I've seen him with at least three different musical instruments he plays with a high level of skill. It was piano, now he plays bass guitar and he picked up the harmonica a year ago. The lesson from his life is who knows what gifts you have. A lot of gifts are hidden from teens until they get the gumption to try new things."

FOURTH QUARTER : Keith had the whole gym cheering by the fourth quarter. The Warriors were congratulating him after each made shot. The gym exploded as he set the school record with his 15th three-pointer of the game.

The sight was touching. Veihman said "nobody can say they're human if they didn't get a good feeling inside" watching shot by shot go down."

Sterett's previous career highs were 33 points and nine treys in a game.

Sterett trails only Veihman nationally on with his 144 three-pointers this year. Sterett's taken 438 three-pointers and just 66 two-point shots.

Veihman would have been the Angel most likely to hit 19 treys in a game.

Not Keith. But that's Keith in a nutshell.

No one really expects that out of the Student Council president.

"If I had to live my life over, I would have to include the cancer part," he said. "I know that's by no means logical. The reason why I say that is I wouldn't have all the friends I do now. It allowed me to become more outgoing and reach out and touch more of life. It woke me up."

The most satisfying part of the young man's life is the transformation along the journey.

He's went from the "Kid with the cancer card" in the eyes of his peers to the kid who's scored 62 points in a night.

They'll remember him for that just as much as the cancer at his school five years from now. Maybe even more so.

High school is all about initial impressions and labels. Just not with this kid.

"It's been great getting used to Keith becoming a player for us the last two years," Veihman said. "That's the Keith we all see now. It's not the kid who had cancer anymore. He's a teammate, he's a great player and a guy we need to win. We don't need to focus on that cancer thing with Keith now."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or


Here is Sterett's point production on Monday against the CSRA Warriors. His 62-point night ranks as one of the top scoring nights in area basketball history.


NEXT UP: Sterett's Alleluia Community School (18-9) team competes in the Georgia Association of Christian Schools. The Angels have a sub-state playoff game tonight at the St. Mary's on the Hill school against Cumberland Christian Academy. The boys will tip of at approximately 7:15 p.m.