Caris LeVert one year later — an appreciation for health, basketball and the scars that remind him daily
It was on Jan. 14 last year when the Pacers medical staff observed a small mass on his left kidney. It was removed and likely saved his life.
Caris LeVert hadn’t showered yet. There was a lot to consider after another loss. He arrived to a postgame press conference in shorts and a white Nike dri-fit tank top, and carried with him an orange Gatorade rather than a basketball as he so often does.
Basketball means everything to LeVert and 365 days ago, he wasn’t sure what was next for him. In basketball or in life.
January 14 is a day LeVert, a 27-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, will never forget. It was on that day in 2021 when LeVert was undergoing a physical with the Pacers and something out of the ordinary was observed.
There was a small mass on his left kidney and tests confirmed that it was cancerous. “I'm super confident that we're going to have him on the court,” team president Kevin Pritchard said a few days later.
A review of previous injuries, blood work, heart test and general overview are typical after a new player joins the team. The Pacers got involved in a four-team trade that sent James Harden to Brooklyn, Victor Oladipo to Houston and re-routed LeVert back to the midwest — to Indianapolis, where he was alone during this vulnerable and jarring moment.
“It’s been extremely tough, but I’m extremely grateful to be still playing this game at a high level against the best players in the world,” LeVert reflected on Friday night, one year later.
His left kidney was removed a week after the trade, which likely saved his life. Because without it, who knows when the cancerous tumor may have been discovered.
At the end of the season? Next year? Three years later after the cancer had spread?
“If this cancer was left untreated, at some point it would spread through other parts of the body,” his surgeon, Dr. Jason Sprunger, told Fieldhouse Files last year. “And kidney cancer can go anywhere. When I say anywhere, it can go to the skin, it typically goes to the lungs. That’s the first place it usually goes. It can go to lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain, skin — all kinds of places.”
There was not a preseason X-ray scan done on LeVert’s back by the Nets, and he played a dozen games for them without discomfort. He was asymptomatic and unaware — and thank goodness the trade happened and surgery soon followed.
“It’s definitely been some trying times for sure, for myself and my family,” LeVert said after undergoing surgery. “From being traded to finding out the news about my body and what’s going on, I think amongst everything, it’s just very grateful for such support I’ve received.”
He then amazingly made his Pacers debut in mid-March, less than seven months after he underwent surgery.
LeVert is just 27 but he’s already been through a lot — losing his dad at 15 due to heart failure, frequent injuries that could have derailed his young career, the trade and cancer diagnosis. In 2021, during a pandemic, he moved to a new city, played for a coach that lacked people skills, and then he was unavailable for the Pacers’ play-in games because he entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
“I feel like I’ve worked my way here and it’s where I belong,” LeVert said. “A lot of people have helped me get to this point — teammates, coaches, family members, friends — and I can’t thank them enough for it. It’s definitely been a tough year and I think it’s only going to make myself stronger going forward.”
I wondered if he thought about January 14 daily, whether he took a moment each day to remind him of what he’s overcome and appreciate how far he’s come.
“I got the scars right on my stomach,” he said with a grin. “Every single day it just reminds me of what happened. It’s crazy that a year has already gone by.”
He loves basketball. It’s his happy place and where he can tune out the rest of the world. And LeVert being acquired by Indiana set off a chain of events that were life-altering. For that and much more, he is grateful.
This time for reflection came more than a half hour after the Pacers’ 112-94 loss to the Suns, a team coming off an NBA Finals appearance and, at 32-9, owners of the best current record in the league. They are a well-balanced team with Chris Paul (12 points, nine assists) leading and running the point, Devin Booker (35) piling up points on the wing and Deandre Ayton (27) in the middle.
The game was tight until the fourth quarter when the Suns blasted off and used a 23-2 run to grow a double-digit lead and hand the Pacers their 12th loss in 15 games.
“They played together for about two seasons now and it seemed like they kind of just know where each other is on the floor — and you saw that in how they finished the game,” LeVert said. “That’s definitely somewhere where we aspire to be, finishing games like that, because for the first 36 minutes of that game, we felt like we were neck and neck.”
These two teams got together on draft night 2019 and brought T.J. Warren to the Pacers for cash considerations and draft pick. Warren starred in the bubble, but has been unavailable last season and today because of a fracture to his left foot that has healed slowly.
The teams have went in opposite directions since. The Suns are atop the standings while the Pacers, on their third coach in three seasons, keep falling back and are due for an overhaul of the roster.