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Lakewood basketball team is dressed for the cure

ST. PETERSBURG — As the Lakewood High girls basketball players sprinted onto the court, they stood out like neon orchids.

Gone were the trademark black and gold uniforms, replaced by hot pink jerseys seamlessly tucked into hot pink baggy shorts.

For years, the Spartans kept their jerseys sacrosanct, staving off any changes. The color scheme was the same when coach Necole Tunsil played 20 years ago. But Tunsil decided to go with a new look for home games this month.

"This is not for any kind of fashion statement," Tunsil said. "This is to make people aware of something that's bigger than basketball."

Pink signifies breast cancer awareness. Tunsil has become all too familiar with the disease through the years.

In high school, Tunsil was recruited by North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, who died Saturday after a long battle with breast cancer. Tunsil turned down the Wolfpack to play for Iowa, then coached by C. Vivian Stringer. Stringer, now at Rutgers, announced publicly in her book last year that she is a breast cancer survivor.

One of Tunsil's cousins also is battling breast cancer in an intensive-care unit in Brandon.

"This is something that has hit very close to home for me," she said.

Tunsil was unsure how much the disease impacted her team. So she asked players if they knew someone who had breast cancer.

Nearly half did.

"We never really thought about breast cancer before," Lakewood guard Latesha Johnson said. "But Coach Tunsil has talked to us a lot about it and let us know that it can happen to anyone.

"It's pretty serious."

Last year, Lakewood used one of its home games to raise money for a cure. At that game, Tunsil asked a friend, Jacqueline Brown, to speak to the team. Brown was battling breast cancer and thought it was in remission.

She died in September.

"That was an eye-opener for us when Jackie died," Lakewood forward Jenae Wilson said. "We know the importance of getting examined early."

Other girls basketball teams in the area, such as Academy of the Holy Names, Indian Rocks Christian, St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Tech, have held games to raise awareness for breast cancer.

Tunsil wanted to go beyond just a game. So with permission from the Pinellas County athletic department, she was able to purchase pink uniforms to be worn at regular-season home contests in January.

Wednesday's game against Clearwater was the last one. Tunsil donated money from the concession stand and from T-shirts and wristbands sold to the Women's Basketball Coaches Association/Kay Yow Foundation.

"I think it's great what Necole is trying to do," Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. "There have been so many people affected by breast cancer."

When the game ended, the players headed back to the locker room. The hot pink uniforms will not be worn again on the court this season.

But the players will sport them Saturday in the TD Cassaway walkathon at North Straub Park. The event, which starts at 8 a.m. and kicks off a day of music and other festivities, is hosted by Winky Wright, Deion Sanders and Diddy. Beyonce is expected to make an appearance.

"The kids are now into finding a cure," Tunsil said. "They want to do their part."

Lakewood basketball team is dressed for the cure 01/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 11:06pm]

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