Former Memphis women’s basketball coach Joye Lee-McNelis fights cancer
Backing down from a challenge has never been in Joye Lee-McNelis’ DNA. She cherishes a fight. Tell her she can’t do something and then step back and watch her do all in her power to prove you’ve misjudged her.
The former, successful University of Memphis women’s basketball coach – the last to take the program to the NCAA Tournament – finds herself in another fight, perhaps the most difficult of her life. Cancer, which she defeated several years ago, has returned, attempting to disrupt the non-stop schedule of a college coach, mother and grandmother.
“Only God knows when I’m going to leave this world,” Lee-McNelis said. “The medication I’m on is going to determine what the next step is going to be, how it’s going to treat the cancer. It’s just an unknown.”
A scrappy guard in college at Southern Miss and one of the program’s first 1,000-point scorers, Lee-McNelis was a fast-rising assistant coach at Southwest Texas State in the mid-1980s and, in short order, an accomplished head coach at Memphis. She spent 13 years at the U of M after serving as an assistant at her alma mater from 1986 to ‘91.
She has spent the past 17 seasons coaching the Southern Miss women’s basketball team. Her next victory will give her 500 career wins.
Her brash coaching style, colorful quotes, deep-Southern drawl and genuine nature made her a popular figure with the Memphis women’s basketball fan base and the media.
At the U of M, she won 229 games and took the Tigers to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments starting in 1995. The team had five straight 20-win seasons, four straight conference championships and entered the Top 25 poll in 1999 for the first time in 14 years. After the 1995 season, she was a finalist for national coach of the year honors.
“It was a magical time,” she said.
Now she’s preparing to fight cancer a second time. It first surfaced in 2017 and reappeared in January when a biopsy revealed she had Stage 4 lung cancer. She was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma non-small cell lung cancer, the same cancer she battled four years earlier.
Her doctors have a strategy, one that could add time.
“It’s called targeted therapy,” Lee-McNelis said. “This cancer and my first cancer is an exact match. That’s why I’m able to take (targeted therapy in the form of a drug called Tagrisso).
“The first time, in 2017, the cancer was in the upper left lobe of my lung. So they took that upper lobe out and they took all lymph nodes out surrounding that. What they said was there must have been a molecule somewhere that they didn’t get.”
This cancer is in the same lung, but in the lower left lobe, according to Lee-McNelis, who turns 59 in June. And there is a concern with this discovery.
“(The cancer) is in the fluid of the lung,” she said. “And there is a small tumor. The concern is will (the cancer) go to the rest of my body since it’s in the fluid? I’ll have scans again in a few weeks. I’m just praying for the very best.”
Her daughter, Whitney Wilkinson, has been an invaluable source on this difficult journey, not only as a loving daughter but as a medical professional. A former Southern Miss basketball player under her mom, Wilkinson works at the Forrest General Cancer Center in Hattiesburg, where she is a nurse practitioner in radiation oncology. She’s been able to walk her mom through some difficult steps.
“I’ve been able to help with the lingo and different things she is going through,” Wilkinson said. “When the (doctors) say something, I help explain it better to her so she can understand. I kind of know how she thinks. I’ve been around her almost 31 years. Sometimes when she asks a question I know what she’s trying to get at.”
Wilkinson describes her mom’s cancer as “not curative, but it is treatable.”
“We’re able to treat it with the advances in medicine now and especially with the genetic testing that we had done to find out that she does have a targeted mutation,” Wilkinson said. “The advances are wonderful. Her doctor in Dallas said lung cancer used to be considered a death sentence, now we’re trying to turn it into more of a chronic disease.”
Wilkinson was among the first to post on Facebook about her mom’s condition. Last month she confidently posted: “She (Joye) is the strongest and most hard working woman I know!!”
Wilkinson, who grew up around the Memphis program, still sleeps in her mom’s old U of M sweats, the one’s she first wore when Lee-McNelis coached in Memphis. Wilkinson’s brother, Connor McNelis, is a women’s college basketball assistant coach at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. His dream is to one day roam the same Memphis sidelines his mom did.
If the return of cancer wasn’t enough of a jolt during the season, Lee-McNelis had to confront another setback. She tested positive for COVID-19 in November.
“Oh, I was a sick kid,” she said. “I was OK the first two days, but on the third day it felt like I had been shot in the back. I ran a high fever. I was just really, really sick.”
Lee-McNelis was on oxygen for six weeks, but kept coaching from the sidelines. She had an oxygen tank – with a long extension cord – near the bench when Southern Miss played at El Paso, Texas, against UTEP Jan. 1 and 2.
She said her lengthy bout with COVID-19 convinced doctors to order a lung scan, which revealed the cancer.
“I guess you could look at it like having Covid may have saved my life,” she said.
U of M still close to her heart
Lee-McNelis will always hold Memphis close. And Memphis will similarly embrace her. Shortly after her initial cancer diagnosis four years ago, a contingent of her former U of M players drove to Hattiesburg to visit and attend a game.
“That was really special,” Lee-McNelis said. “They came the day before a game and we had dinner and they told some crazy stories about me. It was really a special time. I was (honored) they took time out of their schedules to do that.”
She admits she’ll always remain interested in the welfare of the U of M program. She called Memphis athletics director Laird Veatch recently to offer suggestions on potential replacements for Melissa McFerrin, who resigned late during the 2020-21 season.
“We talked a few times,” she said. “I love Memphis. I love the community. I love that it’s a basketball city and that basketball is so important to so many people.
“I believe sports brings cities, small towns, communities together. They will rally together over a sporting event. The city and the university rallied around me and my family and our program when we were there. We grew in every aspect of our lives when we were there.”
‘Fight to the finish’
Her daughter remains optimistic because the testing of the original tumor came back with EGFR mutation. EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) is a protein expressed on the surface of cells. According to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, EGFR is the first biomarker identified as a potential target for personalized treatments in lung cancer.
“That is very good . . . she will be able to take targeted therapy,” Wilkinson said.
Lee-McNelis grew accustomed to handling the effects of the treatments during the season. She was able to squeeze in an extra hour of sleep before games with the help of her staff, which includes former Memphis high school standout Patosha Jeffery, a player at the U of M in the late 1990s.
When asked if she was going to finish out the season, or if she was going to consider retirement, Lee-McNelis quickly suppressed the talk saying “none of that ever entered my brain.” She wanted to impress upon her players that “when life throws you a curveball, you still have to able to hit it.”
Those responses come as no surprise to former U of M associate athletics director Lynn Parkes, who hired a young Southern Miss assistant to become only the second women’s basketball coach in Memphis history. Parkes respected her pedigree, her ties to Mississippi, her success recruiting in Louisiana and Texas and her flair for marketing.
“Joye could sell an icebox to an Eskimo,” Parkes said. “She got a lot of people around here excited about our women’s basketball program.”
When Lee-McNelis was hired at Memphis, she and her family spent their first few weeks staying with Parkes, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during that stretch. Lee-McNelis kept Parkes thinking positive thoughts. Parkes expects Lee-McNelis to stay positive as she battles again.
“I think she’ll approach it the way she prepares for a basketball game,” Parkes said. “She’ll give it everything she has. It’s going to be a fight to the finish. And knowing Joye as I know her, it’ll probably go into overtime.”
Freelancer Phil Stukenborg is a former staff writer and deputy sports editor for The Commercial Appeal. You can e-mail him at [email protected]