Before turning into a winner in basketball, New Castle's Micah Fulena beat leukemia
February 12, 2016 12:00 AM
New Castle guard Micah Fulena drives to the hoop in a game last month at Beaver Falls.
New Castle's Micah Fulena, left, is a point guard who continues to inspire his teammates with what he has done on the court and off of it in his life.
New Castle's Micah Fulena grabs a loose ball against Indiana's Blake Shields and Kevin Jack in a playoff game last season at North Allegheny.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Micah Fulena is hoping for one last playoff run, because his career as a New Castle High School basketball player has been all about winning. In four years on the varsity, Fulena has been part of 103 wins and eight losses.
But the statistic that tells the most about Fulena, his inspiration to New Castle’s team and his life is this:
Fulena 1, Leukemia 0.
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The scoreboard of life says Fulena is one big winner. No wonder when he runs on the court for New Castle’s first WPIAL playoff game Tuesday, Paul Fulena will fixate on his son like he always does in pregame. And dad will give thanks.
“I thank God every time I see him come out of the locker room,” said Paul Fulena. “Just because I know what could have happened.”
The youngest of Paul and Karen Fulena’s three sons could have died about a decade ago from leukemia. That was no sinus infection that doctors originally said Micah had at Thanksgiving when he was 9. A few weeks later, he was in Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh being treated for acute myeloid leukemia.
Over the next year and a half, Micah went through numerous chemotherapy treatments. Paul Fulena admits things looked bleak at times. What saved Micah was a bone marrow transplant — from his second-oldest brother, Tonio.
“What we did is we broke down the thing down into quarters like a basketball game,” said Paul Fulena. “The fourth quarter was the bone marrow transplant.
“You think about what could have happened, especially when we were at Children’s Hospital. I mean, you see little ones there and, two days later, they’re gone. It was a tough time.”
For years, Micah wouldn’t talk about the leukemia ordeal. He wouldn’t talk about it with his family because it made them emotional. His mother politely declined to be interviewed for this story because it makes her too emotional. Micah never talked about it with his friends, and certainly not the media.
But in the past few months, Micah changed his tune drastically. New Castle coach Ralph Blundo convinced Micah to share his story. Why?
“Because I think he’s an inspiration,” Blundo said. “He and I talked, and I think with his career coming to an end, telling his story might impact some other youngster going through this.”
Micah is now 19 (he repeated sixth grade after missing so much school because of leukemia treatments). He is a 5-foot-9, 160-pound senior whose story makes you want to root for him. He’s well spoken and has a 3.9 grade-point average. He will not play basketball after this season, opting to attend San Diego State as just a student. His oldest brother, Paul, lives near San Diego.
Micah has been vital to New Castle’s basketball success (the Red Hurricanes are 21-1 and the No. 1 seed for the WPIAL Class AAA tournament). He averages 8 points and 7 assists a game and shoots 36 percent from 3-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio is an impressive 6 to 1.
“I was never very open to other people about [the leukemia] because it was something I went through and overcame and I just wanted that to be it,” Micah said. “I didn’t want to be a person defined by it, treated special, and I didn’t want anything just given to me. But lately, I’ve realized maybe it is pretty awesome to overcome something like that and share it with other people.”
After the leukemia went into remission, doctors recommended Micah never play football again because they were worried about his kidneys. There was also question about how successful he would be in any sport.
“Sometimes, I have flashbacks,” said Paul Fulena. “It’s really something he’s where he is now.”
Blundo knew Micah before leukemia took hold.
“To see Micah go through that, I didn’t think there would be any possible way he would have the career he’s had as a player,” Blundo said. “He became great friends with a couple of former players here, Anthony Richards and Brandon Domenick. Micah kind of fell into line of being a gym rat like them. But Micah is also the type of kid who will pick up one of my young sons four times a week to go work out with him and then take him out to eat after.”
To this day, Micah and his family are still amazed at what the New Castle community did for him. Two different fundraising events raised about $40,000
“This is not something I overcame myself,” Micah said. “This is something my family overcame, with so many friends and New Castle behind me. I remember they had a bingo for me here in town and raised something like $20,000. That’s absurd. You don’t hear that stuff everywhere. Only here in New Castle.
“After our last [regular-season] game Monday, I didn’t go home. I was just driving around. Everything sort of hit me that this is my last go-round, my last playoff run with this group of guys and friends. But rather than thinking about this coming to an end, I am just so thankful to even be playing right now.”
Mike White: email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.
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