Lymphoma proves just another challenge for Danielle O’Banion


Women’s basketball coach Danielle O’Banion during a game Nov. 6, 2013.

Jimmy Miller

Women’s basketball coach Danielle O’Banion wants to make one thing painstakingly clear: This story is not to be turned into a sob story. This story is not to distract her team as they prepare for Mid-American Conference play in January. This story is not to make anybody feel pity.

This story, in fact, is supposed to be told as if lymphoma is a side note.

“I think it’s very easy in our situation, when we’re continuing to build our program…you’re very easily distracted by things you can’t control,” O’Banion said. “We want to focus on the things we can control and control them. The diagnosis is part of life.”

Despite her recent diagnosis with lymphoma, O’Banion tells her story while sitting in heavy Pittsburgh traffic, traveling with the team. The Flashes had a game with Duquesne University Wednesday afternoon, and it is this game that’s what matters to O’Banion on this trip, not the fact that she recently started chemotherapy treatments.

“Quite honestly, we talk about it only when necessary,” O’Banion said. “If there’s going to be a segment of practice that I’m missing for an appointment, then I’ll let them know. Again, in terms of what we’re building, it’s not something that is an acceptable excuse for a distraction. We have a lot of work to do.”

O’Banion said she has never liked to appear soft to anyone. Even the inception of “Danny,” her nickname around the team, stems from her desire to be considered strong enough to play football or basketball with the boys she grew up with in her neighborhood.

“The nickname Danny, I wasn’t excited about initially,” O’Banion said. “Growing up, I was a tomboy. I had one aunt that I ever allowed to call me ‘Danny’ because in my mind, Danny would be spelled ‘D-A-N-I’ with a heart on top.”

With this tough mentality and mindset, assistant coach Geoff Lanier said O’Banion is ready to take on any challenges lymphoma presents.

“It’s just another hurdle to get over during the day, and she’s facing it just like having to go play Central Michigan, who’s the number one team in the conference,” Lanier said. “If she hadn’t told us, we would never know.”

O’Banion admitted she didn’t see the diagnosis coming. She felt no pain and still doesn’t, and no episode of any sort triggered a realization she might be dealing with cancer. She retains her high energy and good spirits for now, even with the start of treatments, and credits her staff with keeping a sense of normalcy during the whole process.

A few weeks before the announcement, O’Banion called the coaches into a private meeting and informed them of the diagnosis. Prior to the press release, Lanier said players began to wonder if O’Banion served as a ninja because she kept missing practices. During a meeting with the team, she told them why.

“There were obviously a lot of tears,” Lanier said. “People were very concerned. Coach Danny means a lot to them. It was as lighthearted as one of those conversations could be.”

Perhaps there is reason to be lighthearted after all. Doctors caught O’Banion’s lymphoma early and seem optimistic about the situation, as she received a positive prognosis.

Now, O’Banion said the treatments have been manageable. Chemotherapy began Nov. 24, and once every three weeks, she will sit in a chair with a tube up her chest watching game film and movies. Twice during each cycle, she will get an injection in her back to put medicine in her spinal column to ensure there are no cancerous cells in that area.

Treatments are primarily scheduled to take place on early mornings so O’Banion can continue to work with her squad.

“Focusing on our team is the best medicine for me, from my perspective,” O’Banion said.

If O’Banion needs to take a leave of absence, Lanier will fill in as head coach during her treatment process. While he feels prepared for the role — he spent five years as head coach of the women’s North Dakota State College of Science team — he said he wouldn’t be surprised if he never needs to fill in.

“She gives us all enough leeway and responsibility during the year that if anything were to happen to any one of us, then we are all very capable of stepping into that next role,” Lanier said. “She’s prepared us all very well. I think it’d be a pretty smooth transition if it happens that way.”

And this isn’t the first time O’Banion has faced an uphill challenge since arriving at Kent State three years ago, either. The Flashes hadn’t won a Mid-American Conference title since 2002, and only made it out of the conference quarterfinals once since 2007. As O’Banion puts it, the team was in full rebuilding mode.

“It’s a difficult process, but it’s very rewarding when you look at the development of the players both on and off the court,” O’Banion said. “As a basketball coach, you always look for situations where you can be successful, and Kent State has a rich tradition, specifically in women’s basketball, that was appealing.”

Even now, the team continues to be a work in progress. O’Banion’s squad owns a 1-6 record after their bout with Duquesne, and posted 10 wins in her first two seasons at the helm.

But, as Lanier said, O’Banion possesses the right attitude to steer the program in the right direction and beat lymphoma.  

“She’s a winner, she’s built stuff before, she’s driven,” Lanier said. “All those things that it takes to build a program… she’s exhibited those before she got here, and they’re even more prevalent now that we’re here, and we get to see them every day.”

Lanier recounted a story of a coach in the department entering O’Banion’s office after the announcement of the prognosis, and said the coach offered his condolences and prayers. O’Banion made it thirty seconds before asking the coach about how he was doing.

“We haven’t changed our routine one bit in the office, and I think that tells you a lot about the kind of person that she is,” Lanier said. “Those daily traits are just going to help her as she fights through this. As she said, it’s just another chapter in the book.”

Contact Jimmy Miller at [email protected].