Baker, who turned 8 in September, was diagnosed with brain cancer about 14 months ago. He had surgery to remove tumors from his brain two days after the diagnosis, his mother, Mary Baker, said. After the operation, Joshua had to crawl until he learned to walk again. He also had to give up testing for a Tae Kwon Do belt he’d really wanted.
In gym class at Northside, boys basketball coach Byron Dinkins noticed the kid with the infectious smile. Joshua was bald after going through radiation treatments. Dinkins and the team befriended Joshua, wearing buttons to school that said “Kick Cancer In The Butt, Joshua!” Opening night of the 2011-12 season was dedicated to Joshua and the school made him a huge banner.
“We just wanted to do something for him,” Dinkins said Tuesday. “I had him in my PE class. I couldn’t believe he had cancer. I was like, ‘What can we do for him?’ I immediately thought of dedicating the season to him.”
Northside finished 31-1 last season and won the state championship. Before it played local rival Davidson Day in the finals, Joshua left Dinkins a message. He said, “You guys score 100.”
Northside didn’t score 100 points, but it won 59-55.
This year’s team is stocked with talent. Former Olympic starter Austin Dasent and former South Meck center Phillip Reed have transferred in along with Gaston Day’s Keyshawn Woods, who averaged nearly 30 points per game last season. The Knights also have 6-4 junior James Demery, who is ranked among the state’s top 10 recruits in the junior class.
“I guess last year we were getting recognized,” Dinkins said. “This year, we have the recognition. We know we’ll get the best from people. This year will be different.”
One thing that won’t be different, Dinkins said, is the team’s devotion to Joshua.
Joshua began six monthly cycles of chemotherapy in January. He’s gone three months without any tumors showing up on brain scans.
“For his birthday, we bought cake for the entire school,” Mary Baker said. “Everybody put up signs. Without everyone’s support, he wouldn’t have made it to his 8th birthday.”
Joshua is running again. He played soccer this fall and went trick-or-treating dressed as his favorite Northside player, 6-foot-8 senior Luke Morrison. On Friday, Joshua will test for that Tae Kwon Do belt he was going for last year.
“We’re so very happy with the progress he’s made, and that he’s cancer free,” Dinkins said. “That’s the power of prayer, everybody coming together and just being a part of this for him. He’s been instrumental in us forgetting about basketball for a minute and thinking about life. And that’s important.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertz