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How Ja Morant's kindness connects a cancer survivor to his grandfather

Gavin Schooley is one of 12 winners of Morant's Christmas shoe giveaway. His connection to Morant goes far beyond his basketball fandom.

PADUCAH, Ky. — Ja Morant’s off-the-court troubles grab national attention, and the point guard is serving a 25 game suspension for the upcoming season for his second instance flashing a gun on Instagram Live. Despite his struggles, one thing Grizzlies nation has fallen in love with is Morant's giving heart.

That kindness has some fans standing behind him no matter what.

During the holidays Ja Morant announced his Ja’s 12 Days of Christmas Campaign, aimed at giving 12 of his biggest fans a free pair of his signature sneaker.

14-year-old Gavin Schooley was one of those fans, but what Morant couldn’t have known was how much his act of kindness would connect Gavin to one of his biggest influences.

There are two things Paducah, Kentucky native loves - one is collectibles. The Schooley family has four rooms full of Funko Pop figurines, comic book and cartoon action figures, Lego sets, and sports memorabilia.

Gavins's room alone has a wall full of the Funko Pop toys along with enough pop culture and sports memorabilia to make any fan drool.

The second thing he loves is Ja Morant.

"I got two Ja rookies (trading cards), when he started playing," Gavin said, showing off the cards with a smile.

In another room, he points out a Morant bobblehead next to an action figure of the point guard in a Grizzlies uniform. A third wall has a shadow box with another Morant trading card with a piece of his jersey in it.

Gavin's newest treasures might be some of the sweetest, and not ones that sit in his room. It's a pair of Nike Ja 1 sneakers straight from Morant himself.

"I was waiting because I heard the Christmas game, he was gonna reveal them. So the whole ride up to my grandparents and back I was just waiting to see when he would reveal them to see what they looked like," Gavin said.

Gavin’s love for Morant started before the point guard came to Memphis. It began at Murray State where Morant spent two years dominating college basketball for the Racers.

The Schooley’s roots at Murray State run deep. Gavin’s parents, Brian and Michele, met there. His grandfather Phil worked there for decades. The whole family got an up close and personal look at Morant long before Grizz nation did.

"Ja Morant is, when he was at Murray State, he was Murray State for those two years," Brian said. "There's a picture that we have of him shaking Gavin's hand, and you can just see the admiration and just how much Gavin looks up to him."

So when Brian found out Morant was giving away pairs of his then unreleased signature sneaker, he knew his son had to have a pair, but for a reason much bigger than just his fandom. 

"(Gavin) was at daycare and my wife got a phone call. They said, 'we found a lump on the side of his hip when we were putting his diaper on, we want you to come see it,'" Brian said.

The Schooley’s took Gavin to a local emergency room and then Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, there Brian and Michele heard the word no parent wants to hear.

"Both of us when they first said the word cancer, I mean we were floored. You know? How can a nine-month-old get cancer?" Brian said.

Gavin had Stage III Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. After doctors removed it, the nine-month-old had to go through 40 weeks of chemotherapy and 4 weeks of radiation.

"It was tough, because they had to put him to sleep. I mean, because he had to be perfectly still"

"Even then it's like to the good Lord reached out and knew what he was gonna go through and just gave him the sweetest deposition," Brian said. "You look back at it now and you're like, 'How in the world did we do that?' But then at the time, you didn't think about doing it, because you had to."

Gavin finished treatment in February of 2010. His parents took him to Disney World to celebrate, the infant won his battle with childhood cancer but now his family helps fight the war.

It started with Gavin’s kindergarten teacher, Rachel Dotson who came up with the idea to start Gavin's Gold.

Children at Heath Elementary School paid $1 to dress up to a theme each day - superheroes, crazy socks or a hat.

At the end of the week, they donated the money to the Lane Goodwin Foundation. The next year, they added the local middle school.

To date Gavin’s Gold – now called Pirates Against Cancer has raised over $15,000 to help fight childhood cancer for a number of organizations, including Memphis' own St. Jude Children's Hospital.

"I think it's just great. You can take one bad situation, it kind of snowballs," Gavin said. "It's something that's great to help thousands instead of helping fight one bad thing and know many people are backing you while you get through it."

Fast forward to 2023 – Gavin has been cancer free for 13 years and helping fight the disease for eight. His dad Brian decided now was the time to reward him.

Brian entered Gavin’s story into Morant’s - Ja’s 12 Days of Christmas Campaign, completely in secret.

"I think I tweeted retweeted every day until they picked," Brian said. "Just to be able for them to think that he was worthy to be 1 of 12 people meant the world to him and meant the world to me that he gave a little justification to what (Gavin) had to go through and what he did with his opportunity afterwards."

"It was just utter shock. You don't know what it is. Because if it's a surprise, there's many things you could think what it's gonna be," Gavin said.

Gavin’s reaction when we told him him won the Ja’s. 😊

Posted by Brian Schooley on Thursday, January 12, 2023

Without a doubt a legendary gift, but the Ja 1s Gavin wears aren’t number one in his memorabilia collection.

"The shoes are probably number two, because the posters and stuff that are signed were given to me by my grandpa," Gavin said.

Phil Schooley, Gavin’s grandfather, was a staff regent at Murray State for over 20 years. He passed away suddenly from a heart attack in 2021. The Murray State posters, basketballs and gear signed by Morant were given to Gavin by his grandpa. He even got the two to meet.

"It’s just tough to think about him sometimes. I miss him," Gavin said. "My grandpa was a big part of Murray I'd say and whenever I think of Murray I don't just think of getting to see Ja (Morant) play. I also think of (his grandfather) and it's just cool to think about having wonderful memories to think about from there.

So now when Gavin sees a high flying dunk or a flashy assist from Morant in a Grizzlies uniform taking care of his teammates, he can look at his own feet and know Morant and his grandfather are taking care of him too.

"It just shows that he cares for the people and knows and sees what they go through. And for me, it just it uh it's just shocking to see how much he cares."

Gavin has since snagged himself another pair of Ja 1s – the red and blue hunger edition. His childhood cancer drive – Pirates Against Cancer runs every year in September which is childhood cancer awareness month. It’s also Gavin’s birth month.

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