This past Labor Day weekend, 58-year-old Winston Davis, Blake High's 34-year veteran boys basketball coach, was experiencing something he could not explain.
It started with headaches, but soon he began dropping items out of his left hand. His wife told him he had also developed a habit of drifting to the left as he walked.
As the symptoms progressed, his equilibrium deteriorated. Unexpectedly, he would stumble to the ground.
After seeking medical attention, it was revealed he had a significant mass around his brain. Finally, doctors told Davis he had a brain tumor.
"I was lost," Davis said. "It was hard to believe. But my wife told me, 'I'm with you all the way,' and that did a lot for me."
On Nov. 4, just three weeks before the start of the boys basketball season, Davis underwent surgery to remove the tumor. The procedure was performed before the tumor had a chance to develop into anything incurable, Davis said, and seven weeks later, he began radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
"I felt like it was God letting me know, (He's) still in control," Davis said. "I felt like I couldn't be hurt and He showed me I could."
Amazingly, his struggle is the fuel behind Blake's most successful season since the school reopened in 1997. Entering this week's district tournament, Blake owns the best record in Hillsborough County at 22-2 and is the highest-ranked team in the Bay area. The Yellow Jackets were ranked No. 9 overall in the state in the most recent Orlando Sentinel/Florida Association of Basketball Coaches Top 25 poll.
Davis tried to keep his condition a secret from his players because he didn't want it to be a distraction. But as his absence from team functions increased, along with his hair loss, word eventually got out.
Although Davis projected his team was capable of competing for a state championship before the season, the team adopted a new goal: Keep winning for Coach Davis.
Davis' grandnephew, Charles Smith, has been his assistant coach at Blake the past three years. With his great uncle unable to handle daily practices because of his treatment schedule, Smith, along with first-year assistant coach Marlin Steward, had to take over. Because the success of the team meant so much to them, Charles and Steward have put their full-time jobs on the backburner until the end of the season.
"It's been a challenge," Smith said. "It's been a matter of keeping (the players) focused and motivated in his absence. We've used that as a fuel for the team.
Smith's younger brother, Andre Smith, has been Blake's top player the past two seasons. In November, the senior point guard signed with Division I Winthrop University and this season he leads the Yellow Jackets with 19.0 points per game. Since his freshman year, his coach and great uncle has been his toughest teacher. Although Davis is still able to sit on the bench and coach his team during games, not seeing him at practice has been an adjustment for Andre and his teammates.
"He brings a lot of energy to practice and its missing when he's not there," Andre said. "He gets on you. We miss the energy he brings."
Davis has only missed two games this season. In December, the team traveled to Tallahassee for a holiday tournament that conflicted with Davis' radiation treatment. He insisted he would attend, up until the final week, but couldn't.
"What keeps me going is my basketball players," Davis said. "Being with the players has helped me. It's like therapy."
On Thursday, Davis will end his radiation treatment and will be able to attend practice regularly again, as long as the team keeps winning. After more than three decades as a basketball coach in the county, Davis recorded his first playoff victory last season when the Yellow Jackets defeated Palmetto in the Class 4A region quarterfinals.
But wins aren't what matter most. All Davis wants is to see them graduate and attend college.
"That's my reward," Davis said.
Blake's goal is still to make it to Lakeland, the site of the state basketball tournament. The players want to do it for their veteran coach.
"We're all doing it for Coach Davis," Andre said. "If we do it, we can say we did it for him."