Maybe it’s the many years she spent playing and watching basketball. Or maybe she possesses a sixth sense of sorts.
Whatever the reason, Becky Hankel has an uncanny knack for identifying basketball talent. Take for example several years ago, when she became intrigued with a toothpick guard playing for Davidson — a small NCAA Division I college.
Hankel believed that young player, who was flying under the national radar, could someday play at an elite level in the NBA.
“Becky kept saying to me, ‘You got to see this guy play,’ ’’ said Barry Hankel, Becky’s husband and an avid sports fan. “So, I watched him play and I said to her, ‘He’s OK.’
“I was actually putting him down. I was saying he can’t dribble; he can’t pass; there’s no way he’s going to be in the pros. We got into constant arguments about him.
“Clearly, I was wrong.’’
The subject of those good-natured Hankel debates was Steph Curry, who transcended his relative collegiate anonymity to become arguably the greatest and most entertaining player on the planet.
Curry was the MVP driving force behind the Golden State Warriors winning the 2014-2015 NBA title last season. This season, Curry fueled the Warriors’ 24-0 start, the best in NBA history.
When the unbeaten Warriors rolled into Milwaukee on Dec. 12 for their only appearance against the Milwaukee Bucks, Barry Hankel wanted to give his wife a special present — tickets to the game and perhaps the opportunity to meet her favorite player.
Barry sought to bring some joy to his wife, who has been living a nightmare for almost two years. In March of 2014, while the Hankels were residing in Green Bay, Becky learned she had a myofibroblastic tumor, a rare cancer that occurs mainly in the soft tissue and internal body organs.
“The doctor who gave me the results was taken aback,’’ said Becky, a 2001 graduate of Union Grove High School whose maiden name is Thom. “He had never heard about it. It’s not very common.’’
The cancer settled in Becky’s lower left leg. She underwent radiation treatment followed by surgery in June of 2014 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
An infection arose and lingered, eventually creeping into a bone and necessitating another trip to the Mayo Clinic, where she underwent three more surgeries.
At that point, Becky said the pain had become almost intolerable.
“After the second surgery, I had such pain in the leg that it got to the point where I contemplated having it amputated,’’ Becky said.
Becky’s problems didn’t stop there. Three months ago in Janesville, she broke her leg while waiting in her car for her two children — Lexie, 8, and Liam, 5 — to get out of school.
“And all of a sudden, I heard a pop,’’ Becky recalled. “I felt immediate pain.”
That meant yet another trip to the Mayo Clinic for her fifth operation. This time, doctors determined Becky needed to have her leg amputated below the knee.
The surgery was deemed successful and Becky said she is cancer free. While she is using a wheelchair, a prosthetic is on the way. Finally, there is light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel for the Hankels.
“We’ve been to hell and back as a family,’’ said Barry, a 1999 graduate of St. Catherine’s High School, who finished second in the WISAA state tennis tournament his senior year. “Honestly, it’s been very, very tough on Becky and it’s been rough on us. I know I gained 40 pounds in the last year or so.’’
Considering the physical and mental hardships his wife had to endure and the strain his family has been under, Barry thought attending the Bucks-Warriors game would be therapeutic.
And it was. In the days leading up to the game, Becky excitedly went online and purchased Curry jerseys for the entire family.
The game was thrilling and memorable as well. Before a raucous capacity crowd of 18,717 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Bucks — Becky’s favorite team — snapped the Warriors’ winning streak. Curry, Becky’s favorite player, finished with 28 points.
Becky’s memorable night didn’t end there. Raymond Ridder, the Warriors vice president of communications, arranged for Becky and her family to have a private meeting with Curry, just outside the Warriors’ locker room.
“Becky was ecstatic,’’ Barry said. “She’s wanted to meet him forever. When he came out of the locker room, Becky got up out of her wheelchair and said to him, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’
“She started crying, not sobbing, but crying. She had to compose herself.’’
Barry then laughed and added, “She didn’t do that at our wedding. I’ve never seen her react that way.
“She was buzzing about meeting Steph for the next couple of days. He answered our questions and made conversation with us. He never tried to break off the conversation. He was unbelievable. Our time with him was surreal.’’
Becky agreed it was an unforgettable occasion, saying she’s still having difficulty comprehending that she got to meet Curry.
“I remember seeing people who would meet a celebrity, like their favorite singer or player, and they’d start to cry,’’ Becky said. “And I would say to myself, ‘Why would they do that?’ But when he came out of the locker room, this emotion came over and I said ‘Oh, my God’ and cried.
“He was really such a nice guy and so down to earth. He made eye contact the whole time we were talking. He looked at our kids and said it made him think about his girls and how he missed them.
“I know some athletes can be jerks, but I guess I picked a good one to be my favorite. I still can’t believe I got to meet him. When I woke up the next day, the whole thing was like a dream.
“We had a tough year and half and to have something so positive to end out our year was definitely great for our family.’’
Gery Woelfel is a sports reporter for The Journal Times. Gery can be reached by calling 262-631-1713 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org