Larry Nance Jr. is using his battle with Crohn's disease to show young patients they can do anything

Larry Nance Jr. signs a cap for Evan Sherman — a Crohn's patient who attended the Athletes Vs. Crohn's and Colitis event in Chicago. (Courtesy of Katie Sherman)
Larry Nance Jr. signs a cap for Evan Sherman, a Crohn's patient who attended the Athletes vs. Crohn's and Colitis event in Chicago. (Courtesy of Katie Sherman)

CHICAGO — Larry Nance Jr. wanted to quit. As the 16-year-old son of a three-time NBA All Star, Nance was supposed to be dominating for his high school JV team. Instead, he was riding the bench. On the rare occasion when Nance got into a game, he was downright bad.

Things weren’t much better away from basketball. Nance had no energy. All he wanted to do was sleep. When he was awake, Nance battled stomach cramps and constantly found himself making trips to the bathroom. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t gain weight.

His family knew something was up and took Nance to the Cleveland Clinic. It was there that Nance was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract. The disease has no cure, but can go into remission with proper treatment. Over 3.1 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with IBD.

As he received treatment, Nance’s life improved both on and off the court. He played well enough to be selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft. Two and a half seasons later, Nance was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was back in his hometown — the same place he decided he wasn’t going to quit.

“I’m just thankful I didn’t, obviously,” Nance told Yahoo Sports.

Making a difference

That message stuck with Nance throughout his career, but it wasn’t until he heard from another young Crohn’s patient that Nance decided to use his platform to give back. Noah Weber, 16, reached out to Nance on Instagram after watching Olympic swimmer Kathleen Baker — another Crohn’s patient — take home two medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Following those wins, Baker opened an interview thanking her family, friends and her doctors. Weber knew there had to be more athletes out there who excelled in spite of the disease.

Weber’s Instagram message worked. It helped that Nance could relate to Weber being inspired by Baker. Former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard — who also has Crohn’s — was someone Nance “looked up to the most” on his journey to the NBA.

Nance and Weber eventually met, and the two decided to start Athletes vs. Crohn’s and Colitis, a foundation created to raise awareness for the disease and to show young patients that Crohn’s — and ulcerative colitis — didn’t have to hold them back.

The organization, which was founded in 2017, took a major step forward when Nance was traded to Cleveland in 2018. That June, Larry’s sister — Casey Nance — took over as the foundation’s director of operations. Casey had spent the previous five years as the event and experience coordinator for the Cleveland Indians.

That experience — combined with Larry Nance’s personal connection to the disease — made her the perfect person to guide the foundation.

“It’s been extremely challenging but extremely fun to get to work alongside people who I love with a cause that is very near and dear to my heart,” Casey Nance said.

Casey can remember what Larry went through before he was diagnosed. To see him overcome that and play in the NBA sends a message Casey believes is worth passing along.

“When Larry was diagnosed, I was actually away at college,” Casey said. “I was in my freshman year, and I just remember every time that I came home … that kid was getting less and less — he was less and less present.

“It was very interesting watching him go through that process. And while it was painful at times, it’s definitely worth it now to see him really achieve his dreams and goals. He is just proof that this condition or any chronic illness can’t stop you from reaching whatever your highest aspirations are and that stands for both personally and athletically. There’s nothing that you can’t accomplish.”

Athletes vs. Crohn’s and Colitis hosts seven to nine events per year — often at basketball arenas. Both the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls are among the teams that currently hold annual events for Athletes vs. Crohn’s and Colitis. During a January event in Chicago, Larry Nance met with patients on the court before the game. He then recorded a message to be played to everyone in attendance.

Athletes Vs. Crohn's and Colitis hosts 7-9 events per year, often at basketball arenas like the United Center. (Yahoo Sports)
Athletes vs. Crohn's and Colitis hosts seven to nine events per year, often at basketball arenas like the United Center. (Yahoo Sports)

While those events are aimed at raising money for the cause, they also serve another important role: To bring patients and their families together.

“When Larry and Noah were diagnosed, a lot of feedback that they said is they felt very isolated and alone and they didn’t know anyone else at their school or on their sports team who were going through the same struggles that they were,” Casey said. “So to be able to have the platform to bring these families together under one roof to talk about sports or colonoscopies or really anything, just to be around people who understand what they are going through is huge.”

Over the past three years, Athletes vs. Crohn’s and Colitis has raised about $300,000. That money funds scholarships for high school athletes battling the disease, and goes toward IBD research.

An ongoing struggle

There is currently no cure for Crohn’s, but Larry Nance’s disease has been mostly held in check, thanks to a drug called Remicade. During the season, Nance receives a 2 1/2 to 3 hour infusion every six weeks. While that’s kept Nance on the court throughout his professional career, it hasn’t completely stopped him from having complications.

During his freshman year at Wyoming, Nance had a bad flareup after eating popcorn — which is difficult to digest, and can be especially rough on Crohn’s patients.

“I had to take two weeks off, I lost about 20 pounds and I missed a whole lot of games of my freshmen year, so that was not great,” Nance says. “Since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been very fortunate [that I] haven’t really had any flareups.

Until there’s a cure, Nance knows he’ll have to battle the disease for the rest of his life. But the fact that he’s dealt with symptoms and still achieved his dreams is important. It shows kids who were in his position that Crohn’s disease doesn’t have to hold them back.

“The overarching goal would be a cure,” Nance says. “That would be the dream come true. But for us, it’s more so about showing kids and showing people that even though you’re dealing with a chronic illness and even though you’re dealing with something that you’re going to have to monitor and manage for the rest of your life, it shouldn’t stop you from being and achieving anything that you want to.”

Nance is the perfect example of that.

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