For Amanda Zeno, a junior guard on the Marist women’s basketball team, the dream of playing Division I college basketball eventually became a reality. However, unlike most high school athletes who make it to Division I, Zeno’s journey to collegiate athletics was far more difficult in nature.
Zeno, who grew up just about an hour outside of Poughkeepsie in Fallsburg, New York, fell in love with the game of basketball at a young age.
“My older brother played basketball. He’s only four years older than me so I watched him play it,” Zeno said. “I started in third grade, so he was just starting to play modified basketball, so as I watched his games, I started getting into it. I started doing intramurals in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade and realized I was kind of good at it as I won MVP in the little intramural things.”
“I then got an email that there were some trainers coming into our area and they wanted to do some free workouts in the area just to pick up clients, so I started working out seriously in sixth grade, and from there I just fell in love with the game and practiced my butt off for the next couple of years,” she continued.
In sixth grade, Zeno started playing basketball more competitively, joining AAU teams. From there, she thought a basketball career was something she potentially wanted, at least at the college level.
While attending Fallsburg High School, Zeno was a 1,000-point scorer during her junior year. During her sophomore and junior year, Zeno was a part of the NYSSWA Girls Basketball All-State Team. She was on the BCANY Top Players list for girls during 2019-2020 and was a three-time BCANY Top 50 of Section 9 girls basketball.
As soon as her sophomore year, she was awarded the Sullivan County Democrat Co-Player of the Year and was also a three-time Sullivan County Basketball All-Star First Team recipient. Off the court, she excelled as a phenomenal student in the classroom.
Zeno was the valedictorian of her class and also served as her grade’s class president. She received an excellence award in both social studies and mathematics and was a member of the National Honor Society all four years of high school. For her leadership in and out of the classroom, she was awarded the Dwight D. Eisenhower Leadership Award.
“Academics was always a priority for me. Basketball was secondary because I knew academics could get you somewhere and even past a collegiate basketball career, you need your brain,” Zeno said. “You need to have good grades, so I just loved school. I loved learning, and I loved math and science, so it was more of just fun for me. I also loved being competitive. It’s a competition of who gets the higher grades. All of my friends were ranked one through five in my class, so it was a competition.”
Everything was going the way Zeno had hoped entering her summer of AAU play with her dream of playing Division I basketball remaining her goal.
Zeno was an accomplished player at the high school level (photos from Amanda Zeno)
Everything changed starting in May 2019.
“I got sick just thinking it was an ear infection, maybe a little cold,” she said. “I went to urgent care and got some antibiotics, called it a day there, and took my course of antibiotics but I wasn’t getting any better. I started to get dots all over my face, feeling extra tired, falling asleep in study hall and stuff, and didn’t really think much of it other than maybe the antibiotics were not really working.”
Zeno went on with these lingering symptoms of tiredness and the dots on her face. In June and July, Zeno began her final AAU season before college. Zeno knew the weight of importance this final season had in her recruitment process and played through the pain. She began to feel as though she was getting cuts in her eyes and had numerous asthma attacks. However, even with these pains she continued to play and went out to Kentucky for her first game of the summer.
“I went out to Kentucky first and played in my first game and after my first game my face was completely broken out, it was scary how tired I was, I could barely breathe. We went to an Urgent Care out there in Kentucky. They looked in my eyes and said it’s probably an antibiotic thing, so they changed my antibiotic again and I just kept trying to play but it was not working out well,” Zeno said.
While she sat most of her games in Kentucky, her next stop was in Indianapolis where she was hoping for a better result as more coaches on the recruiting train were in town. In her first game in Indianapolis, Zeno ran up and down the court once and could not endure the pain any longer.
“I said ‘I’m gonna pass out coach, I can’t do it, I want to show them that I can play, but I physically can’t right now.’ I ended up having to sit out that game and explain to the coach what was going on. By that time, my lymph nodes were swollen. The coach said I looked like a football player because I was so swollen. I decided to cut the tournament short in Indianapolis and go to a hospital that would hopefully find out what was really going on.”
Zeno and her family drove straight to Westchester Medical Center at Maria Ferrari’s Children’s Hospital where they finally got the diagnosis; acute myeloid leukemia.
Acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, is rare. There are only about 200,000 cases of acute myeloid leukemia a year in the United States and accounts for about 1% of all cancers overall. It is also the most fatal type of leukemia with a five-year diagnosis rate of 29.5%.
Given little time to process the diagnosis, Zeno was in surgery the next day to have a central line put in to start chemotherapy. After completing a ten-day cycle of chemo, Zeno was told she was in remission.
“You hear the word remission and you’re like ‘Yay! I’m done!’ but with the type of cancer I had, it is scarier, so they have to check you for other genetic markers that will indicate if it is going to come back or not,” she said.
Zeno’s life turned upside down when she received her diagnosis (photos from Amanda Zeno)
Unfortunately, Zeno was told she had a mutation that would increase the likelihood that the cancer would come back, and because of that, the doctors recommended that a bone marrow or stem cell transplant be performed.
Testing everyone in the family, Zeno recalls how everyone close to her wanted to get tested to see if they were the best match for her. Her brothers were tested as well as all of her other family members, only to find out that none other than her father was the best match for her.
“My dad was amazing. He didn’t complain throughout any of the process. The bone marrow process for him was a lot. It was a lot more for me too, but he did go through it too,” she said. “He had to take some shots that would increase his blood production and then they would have to sit him on a machine for eight hours and collect, so it was a lot. The bone marrow transplant process is way more crucial than the ten-day cycle of chemo and it is what kept me in the hospital for about a year from that and all the other complications I had during it.”
After going through the bone marrow transplant process, Zeno was in the hospital for about a year after dealing with complications from other health issues. In the summer of 2020, Zeno was finally released from the hospital and as a celebration, her family traveled upstate for a little family road trip where her dream of playing Division I basketball sparked again.
“In the summer of 2020, I remember getting released from the hospital and going on a little trip upstate with my family and shooting a ball for the first time back since everything had happened. I just remember being like, ‘Wow, I miss this,’” she said.
“When you’re in the hospital for so long, you miss that stress reliever of playing a sport or exercising at all. When I realized that I could still shoot a ball, and that was with a port and not in the best condition still, I was like ‘You know, I am gonna start working for this.’ I was already in the back of my mind working for it, when I was in the hospital I would do push-ups with the nurses, and I would do my laps around the unit to try and get the cardio in, but that was the moment that I was like ‘You know what, I’m gonna work for this.’”
With the dream of Division I basketball diminishing from the mind of Zeno during her treatment, Zeno’s focus began to shift to focusing on her academics, and with that decided to attend Marist due to the proximity of the school to her home. A biomedical science major, Zeno revisited the love for math and science she had in high school.
“It was honestly a last-minute decision, it was not on my list of schools at all when I was in high school, but then I got sick and I wanted to stay close to home and this was definitely one of the better schools in the area. They had a lot of accommodations for people who needed them and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go to Marist!’” Zeno said. “I didn’t even consider the basketball program, that wasn’t what was on my mind at that time, it was just wanting to go to school even though I was fighting a lot of medical stuff.”.
In the aftermath of the summer trip with her family, the dream of playing basketball still lingered in the back of Zeno’s mind. As a result, she started reaching out to the coaches at Marist to see how they would feel about her being a manager, and from there the connections started to form.
While serving as a manager for the women’s basketball team last season, she started attending physical therapy more regularly with the vision of getting back on the court. A year later, after learning from the girls and seeing how they meshed and learning from the coaches from a managerial standpoint, Zeno decided to try out for the team this year and made it.
After trying out and making the team, Zeno noticed some shoulder pain and after weeks of worsening pain, Zeno’s shoulder was checked out by a specialist who found out that she needed a shoulder replacement. The specialist discovered she had vascular necrosis as a result of the chemotherapy and steroids she had taken from her cancer diagnosis.
While Zeno has yet to step on the court for a game, she has absorbed a great deal in her first season back on the floor as a player.
“I am just taking away everything I have learned and using it as a learning opportunity to get to know the program and how the coaching staff works and how the girls jive,” she said. “I got to know the girls so much better this season and I learned a lot about basketball. I learned so much from Coach Giorgis while he was here and I am glad to have gotten the opportunity to learn from him in his last season.”
As grueling and frustrating as Zeno’s journey to Division I basketball has been, her positive attitude and spirit have not diminished and she remains determined to play in a game one day soon.
“My main thing now is don’t take life for granted and live every day, be grateful for every day, make the most of every day. I was hesitant to try out for the team, but when you have this history, and when I think about how I almost died three times throughout my treatment, that made me think – God forbid I was to get the cancer again, I don’t want to be mad I didn’t take this opportunity while I had it. Live every day like it’s your last and take advantage of your life while you have it. People are fighting for their lives every day.”
Edited by Andrew Hard & Luke Sassa
Header photo provided by Amanda Zeno