A college coach is asked to carry a program and the lives of each one of his or her athletes to new heights in not just their professional lives but in their personal lives as well.
Things are different, however, when the players must carry their coach.
“It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t easy,” said senior guard Brittanny Dinkins. “When you have someone who demands excellence and demands hard work every day, with that, it holds us accountable as players to know what she allows and what she doesn’t allow.”
The 13-year Southern Miss women’s basketball Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis was always a tough individual. As a child with two brothers, there were not many activities for her to enjoy alone. So she had to adapt. That meant picking up pecans to earn Christmas money and competing with her brothers to see who could get the most.
The competitive Lee-McNelis sees most things as a challenge and as a battle to the finish.
“I’ve been the kid who wanted to prove to somebody that I could do something,” Lee-McNelis said. “No matter what it was. I’m very competitive.”
Even when adversity strikes, Lee-McNelis strives to achieve her personal best in her Lady Eagle program and her family.
“At the bottom of the day, we’re all in a boat and we’re all rowing in the same direction,” Lee-McNelis said. “It’s a shared vision. There’s been events throughout my life, that I can’t do it by myself. Family is in it, friends are in it — they’re in it with me.”
Dinkins always credits her coach for teaching her players the efforts of hard work and dedication. So when her coach had to miss time on the sidelines, she had a few words to say about the work ethic not going away, just because Coach Lee-McNelis was not present.
“Would [we work as hard] if she was here?” Dinkins said. “You [need to work as hard] when eyes are not looking.”
Lee-McNelis’ family has a previous history of heart conditions, so she had a hunch that she may have been sick but never realized it would actually affect her.
A few days after the Lady Eagles dropped a 79 – 53 game at Western Kentucky, Lee-McNelis was feeling pains in her chest. That was when she thought heart cancer had finally caught up with her. However, her heart was not the problem.
After consulting a doctor, Lee-McNelis received news that would change her life forever.
“When that doctor walked in and told me and my husband that I had lung cancer, that’s scary,” Lee-McNelis said. “That rocks your world. Never me, I didn’t smoke. I’ve never been around smoke. How could I have lung cancer?”
Lee-McNelis, one of the greatest basketball players in Southern Miss history, has never been one to mess with her health. Smoking, was way out of the question. So, she was surprised at the diagnosis.
She came back to the team and told them the news, allowing Assistant Coach Kiley Hill to lead the team to a 74 – 71 victory over Texas-San Antonio. Lee-McNelis sat in the stands near the top of the stadium as a precautionary measure after her procedures.
“It was a bit emotional for me to walk in and know I wasn’t on that sideline,” Lee-McNelis said. “It was hard for me.”
Instead of pouting about being sidelined, Lee-McNelis decided to be proactive in the stands.
“You look at it a little differently because you’re not calling plays,” Lee-McNelis said. “It’s a total different perspective. The thing I tried to look at is if I was scouting them, what would I have to do? That’s the way I looked at the game against UTSA.”
The coach returned to the court Feb. 24 but gave the grave news to the community about her condition.
The community immediately stepped in to try to help her out. One woman who checked on Lee-McNelis early in her treatment was able to get her a treatment plan in Jackson three days earlier than her original appointment – just so the coach could be on the sidelines.
“There’s been so many people in this community that have reached out to help me because they know that I want to be able to continue to fight with this time as we have an opportunity to go into postseason play,” Lee-McNelis said. “I can’t fight this by myself. That’s true in this case – you can’t do it alone. You’re never guaranteed tomorrow. Live each day to the fullest.”
Living each day to the fullest is something that she does for the community, her family, her faith and for her team. She knows that if she leaves, whether it’s the basketball team or this Earth, she will be solely missed.
“I don’t plan on kicking the bucket tomorrow,” Lee-McNelis said. “One day it’s going to happen, but I’m not there yet. We will fight this fight, but we will fight this together.”
Lee-McNelis said she still wonders how her cancer formed.
“For years, I have worn my cell phone where my lung cancer is – in my sports bra,” she said. “I’m interested to know if that plays a part in it. If it provides a platform to young people to not put their phones places, then I want to be the leader in that platform to share that with others. Be careful where you put your phone. I do think there’s a correlation.”
The Lady Eagles will be going for it all in the C-USA tournament, starting on Mar. 8, with Lee-McNelis back on the sidelines.