Chicago Sky forward Jessica Breland has had to overcome a lot in her lifetime, from overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma to placing her career on hold; all on the path of becoming an WNBA All-star. Breland’s story is for basketball fans worldwide, in hopes that they will find strength in her struggle to overcome.
On a basketball court, there are five players on one team. The team goal: to promote unity, solidarity and togetherness.
But life doesn’t always work that way, especially when we are facing personal trials and tribulations. Chicago Sky forward Jessica Breland is a prime example of that.
As a forward for the North Carolina Lady Tar Heels, Breland had just finished a successful junior season when in the spring of 2009, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Otherwise known as Hodgkin’s disease, it is a cancer of the lymph nodes which attacks the immune system.
At that time, Breland wasn’t sure what to feel, or how she was going to defeat it. She thought her once promising career had come to a halt at the young age of 21.
“Going through chemotherapy I didn’t have a person to look up to. I didn’t know anyone who has had or who were currently fighting cancer,” Breland said in an interview with Swish Appeal. “Therefore I didn’t know what to expect. In some sense, it was very scary because cancer was so foreign to me.”
Fortunately, Breland did not have to fight cancer alone. She had the support of her teammates, family, and an unlikely source of inspiration: her newborn niece, Ariana.
“She was only a couple of months old when I started chemotherapy; I was able to see God’s work by watching her grow and develop,” Breland said.
“Seeing God’s work through someone so young and so pure can bring life to anyone who may be facing a deadly disease. She made me stronger than she will ever know.”
After missing the 2009-10 season while undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Breland came back for her senior season in 2010-11. And she didn’t just come back; she attacked the floor with a vengeance. She averaged 12.4 points, and 7.1 rebounds a game in 34 games; earning Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) All-Tournament honors, as well as the Bob Bradley Spirit and Courage Award.
Breland’s strong finish to her college career caught the eye of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, who would draft her 13th overall in the 2011 WNBA Draft. However, after being traded the same night to the New York Liberty and bouncing between the Liberty and Connecticut Sun her rookie year, she felt something was wrong. Her overall game was not quite right; her conditioning wasn’t on par.
“After ending my chemo treatments in November 2009, I lost a lot of muscle mass. The effects my illness played were life changing,” Breland said. “I had to fight much harder to get back to a sport that once came easy to me.”
So after being released by Connecticut in the spring of 2012, and not making the Washington Mystics roster, Breland made a difficult choice: she was going to sit out the 2012 season.
“I told my agent not to look for another WNBA team for me that summer, and that I needed to get in the weight room/gym with Coach Jason (Jason Beaulieu, UNC strength and conditioning coach),” she said.
“The teams I was released from never told me I wasn’t talented enough to play on this level. They just said I needed to get my body in better shape and healthier.”
After getting her life and health back in order, Breland came back for the 2013 season. She played a year with the Indiana Fever before getting a call from Chicago Sky head coach/general manager Pokey Chatman. Chatman was looking at Breland to become a full-time starter, something Breland had not had to do in her pro career up to that point.
Like most of the obstacles she had faced in the year prior, however, Breland took it upon herself to prove she can do it. And as a result, Breland became a WNBA All-star for the first time in 2014; helping the team get all the way to the WNBA Finals, where they would get swept by the Phoenix Mercury.
Throughout the 2014 season, and up to this current season, coach Chatman has called on Breland to be one of the team’s leaders. And Breland has grown more comfortable with each passing game.
“My role here in Chicago has helped me become more secure and more decisive in my abilities,” Breland said. “Knocking down shots, rebounding and getting stops on defense has helped to define me as a player who can play both sides of the court.”
While being looked at as one of the team’s main defensive stoppers, Breland doesn’t take all the credit for the team’s current success. She looks at one of her teammates, point guard Courtney Vandersloot, as a beacon of leadership for the Sky squad.
“When I think about Slooty I think about how she leads by example. Hands down, she is one of the most feistiest, hard working point guards I have had the pleasure of playing with,” Breland said.
“She respects me, and she knows how to reach me in a way that makes me want to give all I have.”
That type of leadership and camaraderie is why the Sky are still one of the favorites to make the playoffs this season; the team is currently 17-11 and only two games behind the New York Liberty for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Breland, while succeeding on the basketball court, doesn’t limit her hard work to just the gym. After she had become a pro, she established the Jessica Breland Comeback Kids Fund. The fund helps to support cancer research and treatment at UNC’s pediatric oncology program.
After her career is over, she wants to work with children; she has an affinity for kids with troubled pasts.
“I can see myself working with youths at-risk,” Breland said. “Coach Lyons (her middle/high school coach) is such an inspiration and a huge part of my success.”
“I want to do what she has done for me for other kids.”