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Prep boys basketball: Hibbing coach McDonald dealing with bladder cancer

Hibbing boys basketball coach Joel McDonald presents the game ball to his father, Bob, after the elder McDonald logged his 1,000th career victory in 2013. Joel McDonald was diagnosed recently with bladder cancer. (News Tribune file photo)
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The words stung Joel McDonald when he first heard them in mid-October: bladder cancer.

The Hibbing boys basketball coach had lost his mother, Darlene, to a similar fate more than 22 years earlier, and now doctors told him he had a tumor that needed to be removed from his bladder.

“Without question, the toughest time in my life was watching the end of her life. That was a brutal time for all of us,” McDonald recalled of June 1997, just three weeks before he married his wife, Carrie. “It instantly takes you back to the devastating situation with her. You hope for the best, but you worry about the worst.”

The 47-year-old McDonald had surgery to remove the tumor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on Nov. 1, shortly before the start of his 21st season as head coach of the Bluejackets.

On his way home, Minnesota’s former all-time leading basketball scorer spent the night at his sister-in-law’s in Blaine. It wasn’t long before McDonald woke up in a crisis situation.


“I woke up in the middle of the night and my catheter was full of blood,” he said.

Driven to a hospital emergency room in nearby Fridley, McDonald slipped into critical condition due to massive blood loss.

“My blood pressure dropped substantially and they put me in an ambulance to get me back down to the Mayo,” McDonald said.

After another surgery and two nights in intensive care, McDonald finally made it home.

The good news for McDonald is that while tests showed the tumor to be “high-grade,” the cancer has not spread to other areas of his body.

“They were pretty confident it wasn’t invasive,” McDonald said of Mayo doctors. “I was fortunate to have caught it kind of early.”

Instead of chemotherapy, McDonald opted for an immunotherapy treatment known as Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, where live tuberculosis bacteria is inserted into the bladder in the hopes of producing antibodies to build up immunity to the cancer cells. That procedure and a lack of side effects has allowed him to continue to coach the Bluejackets as well as teach high school history and geography four days a week, taking Wednesdays off to drive down to Rochester to receive the two-minute treatment.

McDonald, who graduated from Chisholm High School with a state-best 3,292 points in 1991 — a mark that stood 15 years — chose to visit Mayo after his favorable experience with doctors there in 2007, when he suffered severe atrial fibrillation that required the permanent insertion of three stents in his pulmonary veins.


He will have a cystoscopy in eight weeks to determine how successful the procedure has been.

“Cancer really doesn’t have a game plan, it’s different for every person,” McDonald said. “You just go through the steps of treatment and try to do the right things. I do feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to coach because it’s been a great diversion.”

Perhaps the toughest part of the ordeal for McDonald was telling his two children, one of whom, 15-year-old Ayden, is the star sophomore point guard on the basketball team, and the rest of his players on back-to-back days.

“During the meeting (with players), I broke down in front of them and Ayden did the same thing,” McDonald recounted. “They’ve been there for him and been very supportive of him, and in situations like this you need that from people around you.”

Ayden, a teenager wise beyond his years, called the situation “scary” and has gained additional respect watching his father battle the disease.

“It’s crazy to me how strong he’s stayed throughout the whole process, being able to coach and make the long trips each week to Rochester,” he said. “It makes you realize you have to cherish every single second you have with people because you never know how long you have with them.”

Complicating matters during the fall and early winter were issues in moving Bob McDonald, Joel’s father and Minnesota’s all-time winningest basketball coach with 1,012 victories in a 59-year career, from an assisted-living facility in Chisholm to another care center in Hibbing. Joel, the youngest of Bob's and Darlene’s six children, has been the primary caretaker for his father.

Meanwhile, Joel’s daughter, Abbey, transferred from St. Cloud State to St. Scholastica and quit basketball due to nutritional concerns.


Rhett McDonald, Joel’s nephew and Duluth East’s boys basketball coach, isn’t surprised his uncle has juggled everything so well, all while keeping his family first.

“Growing up, for me, Joel and my uncle Tom were like second fathers a lot of the time,” Rhett said. “There are not many guys as good as him as a dad. Both he and Carrie do their best to provide whatever those kids need. They have been so invested in their kids. If you want a sign of how good of parents they are, just look at their kids.

“The fact that he is continuing to coach and putting his own kids first, even when he has health-related issues, really says a lot about him.”

Inadvertently, the incident has brought the Bluejackets closer as a team, Ayden says. Hibbing is 14-6 and is contending to reach its first state tournament since 1989.

“The team has been there for him and me, which has helped. We are like brothers,” Ayden said. “Most of the kids on the team have been together since third grade. We’re definitely close.”

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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