ADAMS TWP — Steve Cress sat in a chair, chemotherapy drugs coursing through his body from an IV hanging above him.
For six hours a day he sat there, alone, with nothing to do but think.
He thought about how fleeting life is. He thought about his family. He thought about his triumphs and regrets. He thought about ... basketball?
“A lot, actually,” Cress said. “It was a strange thing to think about when you are sitting there trying to stay positive and fighting for your life, but I thought about how much I wanted to play again. I thought about how much I wanted to give it another shot.
“I thought about how short life is.”
The one thing Cress never thought about was a second chance to play the sport he grew up loving. During his treatment for testicular cancer, his focus was solely on getter better.
Now in remission, the 23-year-old Cress is getting another chance to play basketball. He still has one year of eligibility remaining and he’s cashing it in at Westminster College.
“I figured if I could get through chemotherapy, I can get through another year of basketball,” Cress said. “I didn’t like the way my career ended.”
Following two injury-filled and disappointing seasons, Cress decided to leave the Titans’ basketball program.
“It just wasn’t going the way I thought or hoped it would,” Cress said. “I thought I was done.”
Cress was an athletic 6-5 force on the basketball court for Mars High, finishing his four-year varsity career with 1,208 points.
His play made Mars a popular destination for college coaches eager to recruit the forward. Cress whittled down his choices and eventually opted to play at Division II Edinboro University.
Cress, though, was unhappy there from the start. An ankle injury cut short his freshman season and soon after, he transferred to Westminster.
Cress would later face adversity more formidable than anything on the basketball court.
In the spring of 2012, Cress discovered a small lump in his testicle. He knew immediately what that meant — his father battled testicular cancer. So did his grandfather.
“My dad was diagnosed when I was in the second grade,” Cress said. “The doctor told him he had 60 days to live.”
Cress’ father, Bill, bucked the odds and survived. Watching his father fight the disease stuck with him and made him very cognizant of the fact that he was at high risk of developing a tumor in young adulthood, too.
“It made me be conscious of it,” Cress said. “It helped me ultimately find it. The doctor said that it was a pretty good find, that I caught it early, which is the key.”
Cress had surgery to remove the tumor, but blood work in November discovered that the cancer was still there.
“They were hoping I wouldn’t need chemo,” Cress said. “But when they found one of the cancer markers, they knew I had to have it.”
So began the most grueling 63 days of Cress’ life.
He underwent three 21-day rounds of chemotherapy. The first week of each round required six-hour daily treatments. It was during that time that Cress had several epiphanies.
“It definitely opened my eyes up,” Cress said. “When you are young, you feel invincible. You feel like nothing can touch you. Then you get slapped in the face.”
During his treatment, he attended Mars High basketball practices and worked with the promising Planets, who went on to the WPIAL semifinals and won a PIAA tournament game.
“Just those two hours meant a lot to me,” Cress said. “It helped take my mind off of what I was going through.”
It wasn’t easy for Cress. Weakened from his chemotherapy, he could barely run the length of the court before needing to rest.
The worst part of Cress was not being able to do the things that were once second nature to him.
“It was rough because I was always active, always out running and jumping,” Cress said. “They warn you that you are going to be tired. But I thought, ‘I’ve been tired before.’ I thought I knew what being tired was. Nothing can prepare you for this kind of tired. Any kind of movement was a chore. I’d just get up off the couch and feel like I needed to take a nap for an hour.”
Still, Cress showed up to practice each day. The players noticed the toll the chemotherapy was taking on Cress. His hair began thinning, then fell out. He looked weak.
But he was there.
“It’s a very unique and inspirational story,” Rob Carmody, Mars basketball coach, said.
“I think I can really help them, and I get to play hoops again,” Cress said. “I’m alive. What else could I ask for?”