Tony Brown: Honestly, I don’t know what’s in store …

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Tony Brown: As I watch the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns play for an NBA championship, I can’t help but revisit this stage of the season a year ago. It was Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat. LeBron James against Jimmy Butler. The NBA bubble. It was also, in Game 4, the moment I reached the pinnacle of my professional career. After 19 years as an NBA referee, after over 1,000 regular-season and 35 playoff games, I stepped on the court to work my first Finals.
Tony Brown: Most eyes at tipoff were, I’m sure, focused on the star players who are the driving force in this league. I’m sure back home in Atlanta the eyes of my wife and my three kids were focused on me as I finally got the opportunity to work the NBA’s premier event. It was career validation: I was considered one of the best referees in the world. When this season began, my goal was to experience that exhilarating moment again. But life threw me a curveball. Pancreatic cancer. Stage 4.
Tony Brown: The first sign my body wasn’t right came after a sushi run while in Miami working the April 8 Heat-Lakers game. Stomach pain led to a doctor’s visit, and I was told it was probably a case of food poisoning. But the stomach pain lingered through the following week and my wife Tina insisted on a follow-up doctor’s visit. When I returned to Atlanta, I scheduled an appointment that turned out to be far from routine. A blood test revealed an abnormal alkaline blood number of 355 — over five times higher than in December when it registered at 66 during my preseason physical. ‘You’re healthy, so I’m not overly concerned,’ the doctor told me. ‘But let’s do some scans just to be safe.’
Tony Brown: I underwent an ultrasound and an MRI, and when something abnormal was spotted on my liver, the doctors ordered a biopsy — the removal of tissue that can be further analyzed. That was the first time someone suggested I see an oncologist — a cancer doctor. ‘No problem,’ was my response. ‘I’m in great shape; whatever’s showing up has to be benign.’ The oncologist ordered a CT scan, which I took before our meeting. ‘Don’t expect this to be an issue,’ he told me. ‘This allows us to have everything in front of us.’ I had the scan at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, April 30, hours before my 11:30 a.m. meeting with the oncologist. With a trip scheduled to Chicago later that day, I used the four-hour gap to drive to the Atlanta Hawks training facility to take a COVID-19 test. As I pulled into the facility, my phone rang. It’s an oncologist, but not the one I’m scheduled to meet.
Tony Brown: Everything else from that day is a blur. As soon as I arrive at Emory Hospital, I’m given blood thinners to treat multiple pulmonary embolisms, the blood clots in my lungs. I was lucky, as the risk of death from blood clots increases tenfold when you fly. ‘Had you gotten on that plane to Chicago,’ a doctor told me, ‘there’s a chance the blood clots would have killed you.’ After being treated for the blood clots, I was wheeled to the oncology floor. My wife and I are confused about being taken to a cancer floor, and when a call doctor stopped by to check on me, we asked what was going on.
Tony Brown: The doctor, startled by our unawareness of my situation, delivered a sledgehammer. ‘You have stage 4 pancreatic cancer. ‘It has spread to your liver.’ Wait, what? Cancer? I had never seen an oncologist before that day, had never had any ailments and I was the picture of health — you have to be in my profession as an NBA referee. I’m still emotionally wrecked as I think back to that moment.
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