Toughened by Some Mothering

Toughened by Some Mothering

February 14, 2013 

Sweets Underwood can still hear her mom's voice, a dozen years later.

"No excuses," she recalls her saying. "You can't use anything as an excuse."

Gayla Sulcer was dying of breast cancer at the time.

Melissa Zornig will never forget how her own mother's smile remained unbowed a decade ago, even after the death-sentence diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"She was still the happiest person I knew," she said of Wendy Zornig, who smiles to this day as a two-time cancer survivor. "I was only 9 or 10 when she was told that she had just six months to live, and I don't remember a lot of it - but I do know that she stayed positive.

"Whenever I saw her, she was never down or crying. She was really just trying to stay positive ... Stay positive for her kids."

When the game of basketball seems too tough for Underwood and Zornig, they know where to go for strength.

UCSB's two stars will take thoughts of Gayla Sulcer and Wendy Zornig onto the court with them on Saturday at 2 p.m. when the Gauchos play Cal Poly in their annual Play 4Kay Game to raise breast-cancer awareness.

"Everyone on my team knows someone affected by this," Zornig said. "So we'll go out there and play hard for them. Play for the ones who've survived, for those who are going through it ... and for those who've died."

The Play 4Kay initiative, created by the Women's Basketball Coaches' Association as the "Pink Zone," has raised more than $2 million the last five years in support of women's cancer research.

Each UCSB player will decorate and wear a special pink warm-up shirt that can be purchased through a silent auction. Pink pom-pons will also be given away, with 10 percent of all purchases going to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

"There isn't a day that passes by when I don't think about my mother," Underwood said. "It's not a sad feeling, just more about wanting to make my mother feel proud, that I want to do this for her.

"That's really emphasized during moments like these, and especially during the time when we're hosting the Pink Zone game."

Underwood, a senior who leads the Gauchos with averages of 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, has helped propel them to six wins in their last eight games and a share of second place in the Big West Conference with Cal Poly and Hawaii. UCSB (11-12, 7-4 Big West) was floundering with a 2-3 record in league when she began taking charge, winning conference Player of the Week honors twice since then.

"That toughness is something that coach Mitch (Carlene Mitchell) emphasizes to us, from a basketball perspective," Underwood said. "It's 'Play with ice water in your veins ... mental toughness ... you have to keep going.'

"That was something that was instilled in me at a very young age. I can't imagine how much pain my mom was in during her last days, but not once did she let me and my siblings see that. I remember her with a smile on her face, every single day, and that was just a reminder to me that you can always make a way out of no way."

Underwood was raised by her aunt Corletta and uncle Isaac Adams, who passed away last November. She will graduate this spring with a degree in feminist studies, but she admits that she's "already having the post-graduate nightmares."

"I have no clue what I'll do next, but I'm pretty confident some doors will open somewhere," she said. "I just have to believe that."

Confidence is also the key for Zornig, a junior guard who averages 9.0 points and leads UCSB in 3-point shooting.

"If you have a negative attitude, it's going to reflect in your game, " she said.

But hard work also had to come in the bargain. Zornig admitted that she wasn't much of a defender until coach Mitchell forced her to make it a priority.

"She's not joking around when she says, 'You're not going to play unless you play defense, I don't care how many points you score,'" she said.

The lowest point of Zornig's life came during her mother's hospitalization at the City of Hope.

"I wasn't able to see her that often," she said. "They just told me that she was going to be gone for awhile, and try to get better."

Wendy Zornig did just that. The experience bonded her entire family - husband Scott, son Jeff and daughter Melissa - even closer together.

And on Saturday, Mom will arrive at the Thunderdome as a living triumph in the battle against cancer.

"I talk to her every day, and it's her positive attitude that helps keep me going," Zornig said. "It's funny, because sometimes when I know I've played badly - when I know I've had a bad game - she'll go, 'No, I'm so proud of you ... You did so well!'"

They are words she chose to live by a long time ago.