‘It’s bigger than me’: DePaul alumni starting TBT team to raise awareness for sickle cell disease

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Josh Leff | The DePaulia

Former DePaul men’s basketball player Billy Garrett Jr. is creating a TBT team to help raise awareness for sickle cell disease.

Billy Garrett Jr. didn’t think much of it at first. He started to feel something funny in his body following the end of a walk-through practice with DePaul during his freshman year. The Blue Demons were getting ready to board a plane to travel to New Jersey for a Big East game. 

The pain, however, kept getting worse. It didn’t take long for Garrett to realize what was happening — he was going through a crisis. 

A crisis is a painful episode that occurs when sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood vessels; blood and oxygen can’t get to your tissues, causing pain. This happens in people who have sickle cell anemia, which Garrett was diagnosed with at birth. 

“Growing up, I knew I had it, but I was never afraid of it,” he said.

Garrett took Tylenol to relieve the pain. It did not work. 

When DePaul got to its hotel in New Jersey, Garrett had to be taken to the hospital. There, he received stronger pain medications. Those did not work. So, he had to be rushed to another hospital where he could receive better treatment. After a couple of days letting the pain subside, Garrett was released from the hospital. 

“It was a lesson to be learned,” he said. “It taught me that I’m not indestructible, especially in college you feel like you are kind of indestructible when I thought I could fight it off. And it taught me how to be more disciplined in taking care of my body.”

Garrett overcame extreme odds to play basketball in college and then again to go on to play professionally. In 2019, he became the first player ever to play in the NBA with sickle cell disease. 

Since his crisis in 2013, Garrett said he hasn’t had to deal with something of that extreme nature since. He has, however, embraced his diagnosis with the disease and believes it has guided him to where he is now. 

“It’s taught me to really value every second of my basketball career because it didn’t have to go like this, it could have went left at any moment,” he said. “And it’s allowed me to take that mentality and apply it to other aspects of my life outside of sport.” 

Garrett’s basketball career could have ended at any moment. The time he spent in the hospital during his freshman year could have been that moment. But he always tested the limits of how far his basketball talent and work ethic could take him. 

To do so, Garrett has needed support to push him through those tough times, which he said he received through his parents. 

“I first got to credit my parents, honestly,” Garrett said. “From a young age, they never allowed me to use sickle cell as a crutch. It’s a serious disease and they did a great job of balancing out allowing me to test my limits. At the same time, keeping me out of like seriously harming myself.”

Garrett, who went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft, spent a couple of seasons with the Westchester Knicks before getting called up by New York two years ago. The 26-year-old has also played in Europe for two seasons before returning to play with the Lakeland Magic last season. 

As Garrett was sitting in a parking lot during his G League season, he called one of his former DePaul teammates — Edwind McGhee — with an idea. Garrett has always wanted to help spread awareness about sickle cell disease. So, he and McGhee decided to start a team in The Basketball Tournament (TBT) that will give them national exposure for their platform. 

“[Garrett] called me back a couple of days later, he’s like ‘Hey man, I got an idea, let’s partner with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and start a TBT team where our main goal is to bring awareness to sickle cell disease,’” McGhee said. “You know if we win, they will give a percentage of their earnings to the association.”

Currently, their team — called SCD Hoops — has five players already committed to play in the tournament, including another former DePaul player, Myke Henry. The TBT is an open application, single elimination tournament played each summer since 2014. 

In 2020, the tournament featured 24 teams and the format is a little bit different than the collegiate and professional games. Games are 36 minutes long and the final quarter uses an Elam Ending, which is when the game clock is turned off with four minutes remaining and the teams play to final target score. 

“I thought what better way to try to spread awareness for sickle cell through the TBT, something that is nationally televised and it’s basketball —  something that I have been doing my entire life,” Garrett said. “I thought that I could put together a team good enough to be able to make it through the tournament, and really be able to do something special.

“It’s bigger than me.”

Garrett and McGhee have stayed close since graduating DePaul. When Garrett got called up by the Knicks in 2019, McGhee made sure to go and watch his friend. Now, the two are back competing together on the basketball court while looking to inspire other people with sickle cell. 

“Billy is probably one of my best friends that I’ve developed a relationship with, so that stuff means a lot until now,” McGhee said. “So, hopefully, this team we [will] get it off the ground and rolling. Hopefully this team can bring that awareness to not just the association, but also to young men and women in the world that have this disease that may feel down some days about their ability to play long periods of time. At the end of the day, you know we have representation on our team that shows you can do it at the highest level.” 

Garrett has always had that competitive drive to win every game he has played in. That has never changed and it’s not changing now. Now with this new team and an opportunity to win, Garrett hopes to inspire kids with sickle cell that they can also play sports.  

“What better way to make those kids and those parents proud than to bring home the trophy?” he said.