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Grieving her father’s death and battling lung cancer, Southern Miss’ coach pulled off a defining upset
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Grieving her father’s death and battling lung cancer, Southern Miss’ coach pulled off a defining upset

Grieving her father’s death and battling lung cancer, Southern Miss’ coach pulled off a defining upset

In 2017, Joye Lee-McNelis began writing her obituary.

Where she was born. In the southern Mississippi community of Leetown.

Preceded in death by. Then a blank space, not knowing if she would die before her parents.

A note of thanks to her family, to the players she had coached, to the staffs she had worked with and the administrations she had worked for.

McNelis had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. While thinking about her death, she focused on how her life would be remembered. Her husband, Dennis, thought she was crazy. She reassured him she wasn’t concerned about the act of dying. “I just want to plan it all out,” she told him. “There’s no need having you and our children worrying about it.” She wanted it to feel like a celebration.

McNelis is now 61 and in her 20th season as Southern Mississippi’s head coach. She hasn’t looked back at what she wrote. But one afternoon earlier this fall, McNelis and her father, Louis, sat outside on her patio talking about their prospective funerals. Louis, 87, had Parkinson’s disease and congestive heart failure. Every artery in his heart had been bypassed. McNelis, meanwhile, was in the midst of a third fight with lung cancer. Her second came in late 2020. Having been diagnosed again in August, this time, for the first time, she was undergoing chemotherapy.

They talked about tombstones. McNelis’ parents had already purchased and set up theirs. McNelis realized she probably should buy hers too, just to be prepared.

Their conversation turned to music. When she wrote her obituary six years earlier, she jotted down songs she wanted sung at her funeral. “I may die before you, and you need to know what my songs are going to be,” she told him. There was one on both of their lists: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

The song is an old gospel hymn. Religion is among the threads that run through the McNelises. “There’s two things in our family,” she says, “and that is trusting God and basketball.”

McNelis grew up on a farm in southern Mississippi. She learned to hitch a trailer and to bottle-feed calves. Louis, who listened to ministers on cassette tapes every evening, told her if she wanted to get out of doing work on their land, she could learn to shoot baskets on the dirt court the family had stamped out on grass. But before she could take any jumpers, McNelis had to run the family’s cows off the court and shovel the manure they left behind.

On Nov. 24, a few weeks after their patio conversation, Louis died. McNelis says, “Things went south” the previous evening. His breathing was labored until it stopped. McNelis’ dad was her hero. “My first love as a kid,” she says. After growing up in Leetown and starring at Southern Miss as a player, she returned to the area two decades ago to coach closer to family.

The Monday after his death, in nearby Picayune, his funeral was held at Lee’s Chapel #2 Baptist Church. Her fourth chemotherapy session was scheduled for the next day. Southern Miss’ matchup against then-No. 19 Ole Miss loomed that Saturday. But her own fight, and her team’s preparations, could wait. She eulogized him and heard their song.

Have trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

McNelis hopes that her most recent chemotherapy session will be her last. To deal with her latest bout of stage 4, the treatments have occurred every three weeks since late September, with each lasting around two hours. The effects linger much longer than that. After her first treatment, she was a “sick cat” for two weeks. She felt the second’s impact for nine days. On Day 8, she started feeling better following her third. Six days after her fourth session, she finally felt like she would have a “good day.”

It’s the nausea and fatigue that weigh on her. “When I feel like I can’t get my head off the pillow,” she says. When she gets really tired, she sometimes throws up.

Throughout it all McNelis has been resilient. She gets up each day. She says a prayer in bed and reads devotions with her coffee. If she’s able, she makes her way to practice or a game. That’s how her dad would have wanted her to handle this season. Around the gym. With her team. Teaching, game planning, finding wrinkles the Golden Eagles can attack. When McNelis missed Southern Miss’ contest against Valparaiso on Nov. 21 to visit him in Forrest General Hospital, where the roof of Reed Green Coliseum was visible from his hospital room, he repeatedly told her, “This doesn’t make sense why you’re laying in bed with me and your team’s playing.”

“Dad, it’s OK, I’m where I need to be,” she said she responded.

“A lot of people in life think that the world cannot exist if they’re not in it,” she says. “Well, guess what? It can happen. My team can continue to run whether I’m here or not. … I’m just very grateful for the people who have supported me and have helped me through it.”

Back in August, a PET scan revealed areas of activity in her left lung. Her doctors were surprised when her cancer returned. For more than two years, she believed she was in remission. All her scans had come back clean, until they didn’t any longer.

McNelis led Southern Miss to a program- and career-defining upset of Ole Miss. (Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)

Like she had been in the past, this summer McNelis was open with her team about her diagnosis. “The one thing I can promise you is I will give you my best. I don’t know what my best is, but I will give you my best,” she said. During the 2020-21 season, that meant sometimes coaching while hooked up to a portable oxygen concentrator. She has missed several shootarounds this year to preserve her energy and sleep as much as she can.

“We watch Coach fight every day,” senior guard Dominique Davis says. “She’s fighting for her life, and while she’s doing that she’s still fighting to be with us every day.”

McNelis feels called to the sideline. Through basketball, she seeks to teach her players about sacrifice. About assertiveness. “To help them understand what it takes to live a dream,” she says. “It is our responsibility to help them see a path.”

She adds: “You have choices to be positive or you have a choice to be negative, and that’s every day you wake up. God is giving you the opportunity to wake up and have another day.” She cites a Lynn Anderson song’s interpretation of another passage of scripture.

I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There’s gotta be a little rain sometime.

Saturday, Southern Miss hosted in-state foe Ole Miss in its lung cancer awareness game. McNelis’ oncologist, Dr. Bo Hrom, served as the Golden Eagles’ honorary coach. Leading up to tipoff, McNelis’ thoughts about her father were interspersed with questions related to the contest — the biggest being, how are we going to score?

Davis, one of two senior captains, said she entered wanting to win especially badly. For McNelis. For Southern Miss. “With all of this going on, why not go harder?” Davis says.

The Rebels led by four points after the first quarter and played their opponent even in the second. Ole Miss stretched its lead to 11 midway through the third, but the Golden Eagles clawed back and trailed by only five heading into the final 10 minutes. Southern Miss’ defense stiffened in the fourth quarter, allowing just 10 points. Davis finished with a game-high 25 points, including an acrobatic layup with 15 seconds to play to provide a three-point lead Southern Miss wouldn’t relinquish. The win kept the Golden Eagles’ undefeated season alive and marked their first win over a ranked opponent since the 1999-2000 season.

In the locker room, players doused each other with water. They leaped in euphoria. But the celebration was still emotionally difficult for McNelis. After every game, she would call her parents. McNelis FaceTimed with her mother, Nell, who watched the win on TV, as soon as she got to her phone. But she couldn’t tell her dad about Davis’ late basket, or freshman guard Morgan Sieper’s game-high four 3-pointers, or junior guard Nyla Jean’s steal to seal the win.

The result remained on McNelis’ mind when she awoke at 7 the next morning. Right away, she asked her husband, “Is this real?”

“Yes, it’s real,” he replied.

“It was a historic win and my week was an emotional whirlwind,” she says.

She looked around her house and saw countless bouquets that had been dropped off at her father’s wake earlier in the week. Like her father, McNelis has a fondness for flowers. One stuck out, a Cypress plant that had been a gift, already decorated with Christmas ornaments. She thought about how as a child, she and her two younger brothers would go into the woods with their parents to look for a Christmas tree.

This fall, while McNelis has received treatment for cancer a third time, others in the basketball community have been a source of support. DePaul women’s basketball players and staff signed a poster that read, “In this battle, nobody fights alone.”

Texas coach Vic Schaefer had #McNelisStrong T-shirts made for his program. Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, who coached at Memphis while McNelis led the Tigers’ women’s program, recorded a video backing the movement. So too did Ole Miss’ Yolett McPhee-McCuin.

Those are just some of the small, yet meaningful gestures. With the support of the school, she’s raising money for the Hospital Patient Navigation Program at Forrest General to assist other cancer patients in need. “I have truly been blessed,” she says. “There’s a lot of people that have been kind to me.”

McNelis still takes medication. At the end of the month, she’ll undergo a scan to see if she needs additional chemotherapy, and if not, how she’ll process. But she said she isn’t afraid of death. She thinks about the celebration. And about the hymns she wants played at her funeral.

I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown.

(Top photo of Joye Lee-McNelis: Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)