Family comes first for former Shaw basketball coach

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Joel Hopkins resigned last week as head basketball coach at Shaw University. It marked the end of his second stint as the Bears basketball boss, a tenure highlighted by one CIAA championship, a trip to the D2 Elite 8 and several divisional titles.

Hopkins coached NBA talents Flip Murray and Amir Hinton while with the Bears and previously ushered Tracy McGrady straight from Durham to the NBA as the head coach at Mount Zion Christian Academy.

He's got stories for days from his time in the game and maybe even a book to come at some point.

His basketball life is in the past now though. Not wanting to give less than his best to the Bears, Hopkins stepped aside to devote the entirety of his energy to his family and related business ventures.

It's the family that comes first for Joel. And for good reason. They've been through a lot.

His son Joell, a former basketball player at Florida State and Shaw is a recent cancer survivor. Diagnosed two years ago with germ cell tumor, an exceedingly rare form of testicular cancer, especially for African-American men, Joell has traveled an incredibly tough path. His dad called it the "shock of his life" when he received the initial news.

Initial chemo treatments were not successful in Joell's case, so he was eventually transferred to the North Carolina Cancer Center's Bone Marrow Transplant wing.

There, as his dad said, "they take out your entire immune system and replace it."

It was months and months of intensely hard work. Always the player, Joell said he'd rather endure an entire lifetime of preseason conditioning drills every day then go through it again.

While in treatment, he met another patient, a year younger. They forged a brotherhood, helping each other cope with the difficulties of recovery. Joell also had his father by his side and the support of the entire Shaw and Florida State communities.

Leonard Hamilton and his staff were constantly in touch, supporting him. The UNC basketball team also showed up occasionally to encourage him. His father readily admits to shedding countless tears, often retreating to the hospital's Starbucks and finding a corner to let his emotions out.

Joel also says he picked up yoga, finding it helpful in relieving the stress and worry.

Both father and son leaned heavily on their faith during those months, and credit God with all the healing. That said, they are incredibly passionate about the staff at the Cancer Center as well. The caregivers were incredible, they say with a grateful smile. Financial planners at the hospital also found ways to alleviate more than a million dollars of their medical bills.

Thankfully, Joell is now in remission. He still visits the Bone Marrow Treatment wing to encourage others. He and his dad's relationship has grown throughout the process. They were close already, closer now.

"I take nothing for granted," Joel said. "Nothing is promised to us. I love just talking to Joell ... I want to watch him grow old, have kids."

Both father and son are now committed to spreading the word in their community about getting screened routinely, even at a young age when you feel indestructible.

That, unfortunately, is only part of Joel Hopkins' family weight. His father, John, is suffering from dementia. While he says his father has lived a great life, it has been anything but easy watching his condition deteriorate.

As a father, you want to protect your children. As a son, you look up to your father. In both cases, Hopkins has been powerless against cancer and dementia. Still, he says he is thankful for all that he's been given in life.
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