Sky's Breland basks in all-star aura
This is a pretty big year for Jessica Breland, not to make the biggest understatement of the year.
The 6-foot-3 Chicago Sky forward, acquired during the off-season in free agency, is putting up the best numbers in her three WNBA seasons. By far.
A starter in the league for the very first time, Breland is scoring 11.6 points per game, almost double her career average of 6.5 points per game, which includes stints on four different teams. She is also among the WNBA's leaders in blocks (1.8 bpg) and rebounds (7.7 rpg) this season.
On Tuesday, Breland was justly rewarded for her shotgun start and named a WNBA all-star for the first time in her career. She is a reserve for the Eastern Conference in today's all-star game in Phoenix (2:30 p.m., ESPN).
And yet, believe it or not, none of that -- the starting, the statistics, the all-star nod -- will be at the top of the list for the best and biggest moment of the year for Breland.
That will come in November, when pending good news from her doctor, she will officially be considered cancer-free, five years in remission from Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system that she discovered in 2009, prior to her senior season at the University of North Carolina.
Breland had chest pains, night sweats and a sore throat that just wouldn't go away. Once she got her diagnosis, she started treatments right away.
"There are days now that I feel great, and there are still days I don't really feel too well," Breland told me this week before leaving for Phoenix. "But on a scale of 1 to 10, I'm an 8. Way better than I used to feel, which is one of the biggest reasons I've been able to do what I'm doing now.
"I'm just so excited about being an all-star. I'm speechless. This is going to be such a special experience and memory for me that no one can take away."
Until recently, Breland wasn't convinced she'd make any more basketball-related memories, let alone one of this magnitude.
Although she returned to basketball after missing just one season at North Carolina and got selected in the 2011 WNBA draft, Breland knew she wasn't quite herself. Her strength wasn't there, and neither was her stamina.
She played in only 13 games during her rookie summer and bounced between three teams -- Minnesota, Connecticut and New York.
Breland skipped what would have been her second WNBA season in 2012.
"I went back home to North Carolina and trained on campus because I knew there were still things I needed to work on," Breland said. "I lost a lot of weight and muscle and foot quickness. The cancer also damaged one of my lungs. To build all that back up was the hard part.
"I was just glad to be back (in the WNBA last season with Indiana). This year, I was thinking that the opportunity to be selected to the all-star team might be there, but I never really thought it would happen to me because of everything I've been through. With the cancer thing, and bouncing around to different teams, and never being a starter until this year, it's such a blessing to get to this point. I'm just so grateful."
The Sky is grateful to have Breland.
In a season that has been defined by a lack of continuity in the starting lineup due to injury, illness and personal problems, Breland has been a stablizer. She has missed only two games and averages 28 minutes per game.
"I think I've been a player who gets it done on both sides of the floor for us," Breland said. "I'm able to knock down open shots and I get rebounds and I can help on defense with my shot-blocking."
Breland also helps in the motivation department. Her teammates can't help but be inspired by her.
In fact, star forward Elena Delle Donne, who is battling her own health problems, just got some Breland inspiration delivered right to her front door. She's at home in Delaware battling a flare-up with her Lyme disease.
"I just sent Elena an Edible Arrangement," a bubbly Breland said. "I've talked with Elena a lot about her situation and I kind of try to relate it to what I went through. It's different, but I can understand what she's going through.
"You never know how strong you are until you go through something like this. I look back now and I'm like, 'Wow! I can get through anything.' I just try as often as I can to take a step back, take a deep breath and thank God for where I'm at right now."
• Patricia Babcock McGraw has been covering the Sky since its inception in 2006. She is a sideline reporter for Sky television broadcasts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw