PURCHASE, N.Y. – AJ Buchanan has become the heart and soul of the Manhattanville men’s basketball team without making a single basket or grabbing even one rebound.
Fighting an ongoing battle with cancerous brain tumors, 14-year-old AJ has proven to be the team’s most valiant Valiant, wearing his No. 5 jersey in support of the young men who have adopted him and are now sponsoring a fundraising effort to help the brave youngster.
"AJ has been a true blessing not only for our team, but for our college, families and friends,” Valiants' head coach Pat Scanlon said. “He has been an unbelievable inspiration to everyone. His courage and strength would be amazing for any person, but especially so for someone so young. Our team is so fortunate in having a teammate to teach us so much about how to live. We are grateful for the chance to spend time with him at Westchester Medical Center, but we need AJ to rejoin us on the bench where he excels at encouraging our players and getting on the refs."
The Valiants have been right there beside AJ since the spring of 2010, when the youngster joined the team through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which brings together children battling brain tumors and college athletic teams. The program currently has more 300 children paired with athletic teams.
But AJ’s courage goes much further than the illness he fights each day. Diagnosed with the first tumors at the age of nine, he spent nine months in the hospital battling the cancer. His younger brother Devon was born at the same time in a different wing of the same hospital in which AJ was fighting for his life. AJ barely survived his ordeal thanks in large part to a stem cell donation and started the road back to living a relatively normal life.
Five years later, and just five days after Manhattanville’s graduation in May 2010, AJ’s mother died unexpectedly, leaving AJ’s 20-year old sister LaToya to raise him, younger brother Devon, and a 17-year old sister without parental help. AJ was left to the challenge of fighting cancer for a second time, this time without his mother.
Valiants’ players have been by AJ’s side constantly through the passing of his mother and ever since his return to the hospital, playing video games with him on the good days and spending the night at his bedside during the not-so-good ones. The best days, however, are when AJ joins the team for practices and sits on the bench next to the players and coaches during games. Although he hasn’t been on the Valiant bench yet this year in his familiar No. 5 jersey, the team still draws on him for support and inspiration.
AJ’s plight has now reached the hearts of other basketball programs, beginning with the men’s team at Elms College and its coach Ed Silva, who reached out earlier this month.
“I found out about AJ through the Valiant website, as Pat Scanlon is a friend and from time to time I check out how the Valiants are doing,” Silva said. “When I read AJ's story and his involvement with the basketball team, I was deeply touched. I went to my captains and spoke with them about AJ and without hesitation they thought that giving our meal money ($10 each for the game) was something they wanted to do. As a coach, this is one of the valuable examples that we use to teach life lessons. We are hoping Pat and his Valiant players get AJ back on the bench soon.”
The Elms players sacrifice of their precious meal money has provided the impetus to form the “AJ5 Fund” and spread AJ’s story to a larger audience with the hope of providing crucial support to him and his siblings as he continues his daily fight with cancer, a fight that was come to the forefront again after a brain tumor returned and necessitated his return to the care of doctors at The Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center.
“I'm still humbled by the generosity of Coach Silva and the Elms basketball team,” Scanlon said. “I've known Coach Silva for a few years, and I think he's a great coach and an even better person. So, upon reflection it's not surprising that his team thought to do this for AJ. I think it's just a great example of what a team is capable of doing off the court. It's a powerful message they sent, not because of the amount of money, which is very generous, but more so because it's a group of ‘strangers’ stepping up with action to support and encourage a young man and family who could use it.”
The Valiants currently wears special powder blue warm-up tops with “AJ” and his No. 5 on the back, but the squad hopes that other teams can step up to provide more support for AJ and his family as well.
"The love, support and friendship that the Manhattanville basketball team has given to AJ have truly made a difference. Manhattanville College embodies the very nature of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation," said Suzanne Jacobs, Adoption Coordinator at the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
For more information on AJ or donating to the “AJ5 Fund”, please email Pat Scanlon at Pat.Scanlon@mville.edu or call (914) 323-7271.