Torrey Pines basketball player overcomes bone cancer
The news hit Nick Herrmann like he’d just taken a charge from a 280-pound forward — but was whistled for a block.
Before the first game of last season, a doctor at UCLA put her hands on Nick’s shoulders and told him he’d never play basketball again.
“We hugged. We both cried,” Herrmann said. “But that doctor didn’t know me very well.
“I used that day as inspiration. I was determined to prove her wrong.”
In September 2018, Herrmann was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancerous tumor in his left leg.
While the survival rate is 70-90 percent, there was a chance he could lose the leg.
Herrmann underwent four surgeries and spent 70 days in the hospital.
He missed all last basketball season as well as a year of school as he dragged his left leg behind him — held together by 44 staples and encased in a hip-to-toe, straight-leg cast.
Reclassified as a junior, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard is back, averaging 10.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists for Torrey Pines (14-4), the No. 4-ranked team in the county.
“Honestly, it’s a miracle,” said Torrey Pines coach John Olive. “Not only that he’s playing basketball, but that he’s walking.
“There was nerve damage in the leg. He had drop foot. He was white and pasty, didn’t look well at all. So now to be playing at a high level is truly amazing.”
Nick started treatment in September 2018. In January 2019, his mother, Nicole Elliott Herrmann, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent surgery.
“My whole life was taking care of Nick,” said Nicole, a college tennis player at Cal and now a nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital. “I was at his side nearly round the clock.
“Then, suddenly, I was in one hospital (Sharp Memorial) and he was in another.
“My daughter (Anna) was 16, and it was very hard on her. It was an awful year of treatments.
“We still have scans and testing, and it’s day-to-day. But we’re both in the clear now.”
After 10 months of treatment, Nicole returned to work in October 2019.
In July 2018, Nick was tearing it up during a tournament in Las Vegas.
“He was really playing well,” said Griffin Jimenez, a 2013 Torrey Pines graduate and assistant coach at the school. “But by the fourth game, he could hardly walk.
“He thought it was a bad case of shinsplints. Turns out he had a broken tibia.”
X-rays, then an MRI, revealed the break was caused by a tumor on the bone. While more than 90 percent of tumors are benign, Herrmann’s was cancerous.
“He was crying when he called to tell me,” Jimenez said. “When all the treatments were over, he had to start over. He had to learn how to run again.”
Four months into treatment, Herrmann had nerve damage in his foot. For six months, he couldn’t raise the limb. He had to have a special orthotic designed for his left shoe to overcome the condition.
“So, yeah, after all that, I’d say he’s doing really well,” Jimenez said.
Herrmann spent parts of 21 weeks in Rady Children’s Hospital.
One of the things that kept him going was college basketball.
“At 4 p.m., games came on TV,” Herrmann said. “There were a lot of choices, but I was pulled to Marquette games and fell in love with how Markus Howard plays.”
So when it was Herrmann’s turn for a Make-A-Wish, he chose a trip to Milwaukee recently to see Marquette host Villanova, John Olive’s old school.
Herrmann, his mother Nicole and sister Anna, a varsity softball pitcher at Cathedral Catholic as a sophomore last season, went to the Marquette game and later to see the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Nick got to spend quality time with Howard, a 5-11 guard who was a second-team All-American last season and who scored 29 points in a 71-60 win over Villanova.
“Spending time with Nick and his family was a joy,” Howard said. “He’s an unbelievable kid.
“After what he has been through, it meant a lot to all of us on the team to have him sitting in our locker room.
“I got to know him beyond basketball. He’s a good person and a good player. We played H-O-R-S-E, and he gave me trouble.
“What struck me was his smile and his humility.
“His visit is what sports is all about. I was honored he chose to visit me. The Marquette program was honored he chose to visit us.”
Herrmann said Howard’s friendship and the visit to Marquette have pushed him to be a better player and inspired him to be a role model.
“I have a platform now to help others,” Herrmann said. “I preach being strong mentally to do the best with what you have, to have a good attitude.
“My goal is to not let this experience affect anything I do. It won’t change my way of life.
“Being an athlete, getting through this, maybe I can motivate others. I’m going to use sports to get my story out.
“Everyone at Rady Children’s Hospital was so nice. I go back now and then to try and help others.”
Herrmann credits the Torrey Pines staff for getting him back on the floor.
Assistant coach Nick Diaz handled all the details of getting Nick reclassified as a junior after missing a year of school.
Jake Gilliam, an all-county player at Torrey Pines, was available any day, any time with workouts to help Nick get his basketball skills back.
“I put in a lot of hard work, so I’m not surprised it has come back,” Herrmann said. “I am surprised it came back so quickly.”
Tanner McEntee, a Torrey Pines assistant coach, who played for the Falcons in 2008, then at Endicott College in the Boston area, also worked with Herrmann.
“All our conversations centered around how he could get better,” McEntee said. “I’d go to the hospital and we’d watch our games on video. He’d ask a lot of questions, questions about strategy, spacing, things like that.
“He may have been worried, but he never said so. He always believed he’d be OK.”
Herrmann had 10 points against Westview in his 2019-20 debut and scored in double figures in his first four games.
He had a career-high 24 against No. 6 Poway and has scored 13, 10, 13, 10 and 13 in his last five games.
“Nick’s back was to the wall,” said Brandon Angel, Torrey Pines’ leading scorer and a player who has signed to play at Stanford next season.
“The biggest thing to me is Nick’s perseverance. He just never quit. His struggles, his approach to life has affected me, inspired me. A lot of people doubted he could come back. I never did.”
As painful as the last 18 months have been, Nicole Elliott Herrmann said the experience has brought the family closer together.
“Every weekend there was the hustle and bustle of driving to softball for Anna or basketball for Nick,” Nicole said. “So we cherish our time together much more now.
“The time together at Marquette was amazing. We were treated like royalty. Marquette was so excited to have us.
“I can’t say enough about the way we were treated.
“What all this has shown us, though, is that you’re nothing if you don’t have your health.”
6: Inches of fibula that were removed
10.4: Average points per game this season
16: Inches covering size of scar on outside of left leg
24: Career-high points vs. No. 6 Poway
44: Staples in left leg after surgery
70: Days in the hospital
— John Meffei is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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