We are familiar with basketball’s pressure situations. Close game, final seconds, a player has the ball and must score to win the game. For some the pressure is overwhelming. For others it’s an opportunity to rise to the occasion. For Heiko Schaffartzik, such situations are simply part of the beauty of the game of basketball.
Schaffartzik has faced much greater challenges in his life. And his love of basketball played a role in his ability to overcome them.
“The diagnosis came when I was 13 years old,” Schaffartzik said. “I was at a training camp with the Berlin squad, where they keep the best players from Berlin. I felt really tired and had a headache. My parents and my father, who was a doctor, took me to take some blood tests. Then they diagnosed it - the leukemia."
He was forced to give up his life for a while. Schaffartzik was hospitalized for treatment and could not attend school nor play basketball. But when he was able to spend time with his teammates, that was some of his best medicine.
“[basketball] most of all was a distraction, that you don’t have to think about being in the hospital and getting chemotherapy and everything, but you have the feeling that you’re a normal kid again,” he recalled. “At least for a while. I think that and maybe also the comradery that you feel within a basketball team. That was really helpful.”
Schaffartzik was fortunate that his treatments were successful. “I took this illness, this leukemia, as an injury phase. So I asked them how long it would take, they told me half a year or three-quarters of a year, so in my head I was thinking that I could play for the runner-up for the national championship, the preliminaries. I already had that in my head, and that's how I went about it. I never thought about if I would get healthy - I was just thinking of when."
When he was hospitalized, he was fortunate to be visited by some of the ALBA Berlin stars. “Back then ALBA came and visited me,” Schaffartzik remembered. “That was the first year that they did it - they didn't do it because of me, but it was a coincidence. Henning Harnisch and Jorg Lutke came to my room and talked to me. I felt cool, because I watched them play basketball so much."
With lofty goals set for on and off the court, Schaffartzik was able to make a full recovery and to eventually become a professional player, a German champion with both ALBA Berlin and again with his current team, FC Bayern Munch, and a regular on the German national team. He learned many life lessons from his battle with leukemia, but urges that no one think he changed too much. “I can’t say I live every day like it’s my last. That’s not how I roll. “
In recent years, Schaffartzik has been able to combine his status as a basketball star and his experience as a cancer survivor to inspire other children. “That actually feels pretty good. We went to the hospital in Berlin. It was the same station I was at when I was a kid,” Schaffartzik said. "I told the [kids], ‘I used to be you, sitting right where you are sitting.’-Ad there were a lot of nurses that still remembered me, that I was the kid from room 6 who never did what we told him to do, it was kind of cool. And the kids' eyes lit up and they were saying: ‘so you were in here too?’ like ‘wow.’ I think for them it gave them the feeling that there were possibilities of what you can do after overcoming leukemia or cancer or whatever."
And when one watches the magic Schaffartzik performs on the court for Bayern, the ease with which he drains three-pointers and whips passes to open teammates, it can be a reminder that after overcoming leukemia, the possibilities are endless.