The busiest, craziest, saddest summer in Levon Kendall’s life

Kendall played for Canada at the 2005 Under-21 World Championships against the U.S., scoring 40 points in one of the greatest performances by a Canadian basketball player. (AP/Ricardo Arduengo)

The plan was to watch the game. The Canadian men’s national team finally had a chance to qualify for the Olympics—its best chance in years. And in the busiest, craziest, saddest summer he’s ever had, national-team veteran Levon Kendall was still excited about that and had made a point to turn on the TV and watch Canada play Venezuela for the right to go to Rio 2016.

Of course, this being this summer, he missed it. “We had a bit of a fiasco,” he says. Short version: His one-year-old son Skyler pulled his PICC line out of his arm the day before the game. “Blood all over the place.”

They were in Seattle, so they had to drive to Vancouver rather than get hit with a U.S. emergency-room bill.

By the time the procedure to fix the damage was done on the Friday, the game was over. He saw the score and knew that Canada’s best shot at qualifying had gone off the rails.

Off the rails? He could relate.

Playing for Canada at the Olympics had been Kendall’s dream since he first played internationally in 2004. The former Kitsilano, B.C., high school star had been a stalwart during some of the tough times for the national team, a six-foot-10 forward whose savvy, all-around game made him a prototypical international front-court player. Kendall’s 40-point game at the 2005 Under-21 World Championships against a Team USA that featured J.J. Redick, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay is one of the greatest performances ever by a Canadian basketball player, and helped make Kendall one of the few Canadians who has won a basketball game against the U.S. and earned a medal (bronze) at a world championship. “The last thing for me on the list for Canada Basketball was playing in the Olympics,” he says.

It’s almost certainly not going to happen, and not because Canada lost to Venezuela. Kendall’s national-team career has been paused at its most pivotal stage because of the most awful set of circumstances any parent can imagine.

In May, Kendall was living in a kind of idyll. He was playing for Gran Canaria in Spain’s top league, arguably the best in the world outside the NBA. His team was headed to the playoffs. He was married to Alexandra, a model from just outside Toronto. The son of a musician (Kendall was named after Levon Helm), he’d recorded his first record. And best of all, he was nine months into fatherhood with a bouncing baby boy who loved music, and loved to laugh.

Kendall was heading to practice one afternoon in May when he got a call from Alexandra telling him to come home, that Skyler, who’d been ill for a couple of days, was getting worse. He turned the car around and hasn’t been at a practice since.

What followed was a blur, although Kendall can recall images with photographic clarity. He remembers curling up with Skyler in a CT-scan machine, helping to keep him still. He remembers the doctor telling him in Spanish, “Look, I’ve got some really bad news—Skyler has a tumour on his brain and he needs surgery.” He remembers his wife being frantic as he tried to process the news and figure out how to translate it into English.

All too suddenly, there were decisions to make. The team’s insurance coverage would pay for Skyler to be treated in Madrid. But everyone told Kendall his best bet was at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

There was a medevac flight and a five-hour surgery to untangle the tumour from Skyler’s brain stem and a nearby artery. Then more bad news: He had ependymoma, a rare form of cancer that was rarer still in children and even more so in infants. “The tricky part is there are so few cases [like this],” says Kendall. “So they’ve really shied away from saying too much about numbers and odds.”

All this was going on while the national team was training for the Pan Am Games and the FIBA Americas. Coach Jay Triano dropped in to see him at Sick Kids, as did long-time manager Mat Yorke, who left him with some national-team gear. “Gotta represent,” says Kendall. “Even in hospital.”

Once Skyler stabilized, it was home to Vancouver and—since just before Labour Day—the next stage in his epic battle: a cycle of 30 radiation treatments in a Seattle centre specializing in patients so young and vulnerable. While his Canadian teammates were steamrolling through the competition in Mexico City, Kendall, Alexandra and Skyler were settling in at Ronald McDonald House, one of the few places on the planet where they can talk with people who understand their nightmare.

So far, so good, but Kendall knows his family is in for a long fight. It’s complicated, because neither he nor his wife can work now or in the near future, and they’ve had a GoFundMe account started on their behalf to help defray some of their expenses. Encountering the kindness of friends and strangers has been a pleasant surprise in the ordeal. Seeing their son’s spirit shine through has been another. “The most inspiring and moving part of the whole thing is that he’s all smiles, always happy, flirting with all the nurses and winning over the doctors and smiling and clapping,” says Kendall. “It’s really amazing. Total warrior.”

Though he’s not playing basketball anymore, Kendall is still subscribing to an athlete’s way of coping. “A lot of it is the old cliché: You take it day by day,” he says. “He’s just a kid. He wants to go and go—it’s just a different destination.”

There’s a court behind Ronald McDonald House. One day, he managed to sneak out there during one of Skyler’s naps—one of the only times he’s touched a ball since he had to miss that practice months ago. It helped clear his mind for a few brief moments.

He also eventually found time to watch a recording of the second half of Canada’s loss to Venezuela. He could see a young team speeding up when they didn’t have to, being thrown off their game by a scrappy, veteran team. “It was tough to watch,” Kendall says.

He feels like he could have helped. He knows the Venezuelan team well, and remaining calm under pressure is one of his strengths.

Playing for the national team may not be on his radar for now, but those strengths are being tested as never before.


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