Reggie Holmes' jersey, like all his teammates',… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
Wherever Morgan State's basketball team goes this season, the Bears take Anthony Anderson with them.
He was in Winston-Salem, N.C., last week - in spirit, at least - when they won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship. And he'll be in Buffalo's HSBC Arena on Friday - emotionally - when they play West Virginia in an opening-round game in the NCAA East Regional.
Physically, the 19-year-old from St. Charles remains at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has been waging a fight against acute myeloid leukemia since October.
If things had gone better, Anderson would have joined his teammates in Buffalo, a reward for four rounds of chemotherapy. He asked his teammates a week ago to win the MEAC so he could go to an NCAA tournament.
But his blood cell count was too low, and Anderson's dream trip was denied.
"He had his hopes up, I had my hopes up," his mother, TaWanna Williams, said on Wednesday. "I talked to him this morning, and he said, 'Mom, it's OK, I'm not going to let it get me down any worse than what this has gotten me.' He's had his moments. His back pain was so bad this morning, he was crying."
Fighting through his own pain and tears, Anderson, a 6-foot-10 post player known as "Big Ant," has become the rallying cry for the Bears.
They have worn an orange patch with his number 4 on their jerseys all season. Several players, including Reggie Holmes, Troy Smith, Adam Braswell and Ameer Ali, had that number shaved into their heads before the final home game of the season.
Before each game, Holmes taps his chest over his heart in honor of Anderson. When he broke Marvin Webster's school scoring record, Holmes acknowledged his sick teammate. And immediately after winning the MEAC championship, the senior flashed four fingers in obvious reference to him.
"I was overwhelmed by the support he's gotten," Anderson's father, Daniel, said. "It shows the story of how players can be competitive and compassionate, too. It's not only helped Anthony, but it's helping the team just as much."
All this for a player who has yet to appear in a game for the Bears and who spent last year at Morgan becoming eligible to play. During his first year at the school, he became close with DeWayne Jackson, who this season was named Freshman of the Year in the MEAC.
Jackson, from Bowie, describes Anderson as his best friend and said he text-messages him every day.
"If we leave [campus] for a weekend, he'll come over to my house and chill with me," Jackson said. "We'll go out to party together. ... I know it's real serious, but he's handled it very well. He's in good spirits. When we went up [to Johns Hopkins] to see him, it's not like we were making him laugh, he's making us laugh. He was telling jokes, talking about stuff that went on at practice."
Anderson had become sick last summer with bronchitis. His mother said he was always tired, lost his appetite and couldn't shake off a cold. It wasn't until he got to Morgan that more serious symptoms emerged. He developed "knots" in the back of his neck, TaWanna Williams said, and felt weak and dizzy. That was when he went first to Union Memorial Hospital, which transferred him to Hopkins.
TaWanna remembers the call she received from him as she was driving on the Beltway to the hospital to meet with doctors.
"He called me, crying," she said. "I said, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'They're telling me I have cancer.' I said, 'Oh, no, you don't have cancer. There's no cancer in this family.' He said, 'They're telling me I can't play basketball this year.' "
By that time, both mother and son were in tears. Shortly after that, Anderson called Morgan coach Todd Bozeman to break the news. It started a chain reaction of more tears and disbelief.
That day, the first day of practice in October, Bozeman - eyes red and watery - brought the team together in a circle at midcourt in Hill Field House, where he gave players the news. Immediately, the team wanted to dedicate its season to Anderson, a suggestion that came from Holmes.
Holmes got to know Anderson at summer school last year.
"I was using his microwave, and I'd keep asking for plates and stuff," Holmes said. "Anthony is a great guy, a nice young kid. He's so funny. You never know; that can happen to anybody."
It was Anderson's message during a team visit to Hopkins before the Bears played in the MEAC tournament that resonated with Holmes. Win the MEAC and Anderson could go to the NCAA tournament.
"That was on our mind the whole week," Holmes said. "That's what I was thinking about: If we lose that, I would have felt that I let him down. He's in there fighting, we're here fighting. He meant a lot to me this year."
The Bears came back with the hardware. Bozeman, who visits Anderson regularly, gave him a championship cap, T-shirt - and the championship game ball, which the team signed, as well.
"He's one of the nicest, sweetest kids you could meet. He's very special," said Danny Smith, a junior college transfer who joined the team this year.
Last year, when the Bears went to Kansas City for their first NCAA Division I tournament, Anderson asked his father to drive him there for the game against Oklahoma. Daniel declined, but Anthony's loyalty registered.
"He definitely loves the team and has a relationship with all the players," the elder Anderson said.
"They've been so supportive, from the athletic director [Floyd Kerr] to Coach Boze to the players. It really helps keep his spirits up."
The team, in turn, loves Anderson. In fact, it feeds off his personality.
"He's a great kid," Bozeman said, "and that's no understatement. I know people say that all the time and I'm not just saying that because he has cancer. This kid is emotional and everybody loves him. He's just a good old country boy who says honest things that might sound corny to other folks, but with Big Anthony, that's just how he is."