It was the morning of April 10, 2011 when DJ Khaled’s song “All I Do Is Win” blasted through the speakers. The crowd in Catholic Memorial School’s gymnasium went wild as Mike Slonina walked through the doors. He was about to begin the last session of his 24-hour basketball shootout.
Slonina shot free throws one after another, the music electrifying the crowd and keeping his energy up. Then, at 11:59 a.m., the music was ordered to be turned off. It was the moment Slonina had been waiting for, the last shot.
Less than a 30 seconds later, the basketball flew from Slonina’s hand and aching wrist and into the hoop. Swoosh. At that moment, the buzzer went off and the crowd went wild, giving Slonina a much deserved standing ovation. But the marathon wasn’t for him, it was for his mother.
The shot was good and so was the crowd, but this was never supposed to be him to begin with.
In June 2010, Slonina’s world came crashing down. His mom said the dreaded “we need to talk” line, and explained that doctors had found a tumor in her brain. They were unsure of how long she had to live.
“At that moment, I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the YMCA and started shooting hoops,” Slonina said. “I know this sounds cliché, but basketball has always been my shoulder to cry on.”
Slonina’s love for basketball started at a young age. However, his ability to pursue the game on a competitive level came to a halt due to an ankle injury in the seventh grade. By the time the problem was found, it was too late. Slonina would have to settle for being on the sidelines.
That didn’t stop him from being involved with the game he worshiped. As a high school freshman, he became the manager of Catholic Memorial’s varsity team in West Roxbury, Mass. After practice, he would drill free throws for hours on end, Slonina said.
After a week of attempting to digest the news about his mother, Slonina had an idea, an idea that would develop into “A Shot For Life.” He envisioned spending 24 hours shooting a basketball in order to raise money and awareness about brain cancer. He created a Facebook page to gain support, and though it hadn’t been done before, it didn’t mean it was impossible.
“Cancer is a 24-hour battle,” Slonina said. “You can’t decide to take a day off. That’s how I got the initial idea: do it as an ode to my Mom and all of the other patients out there.”
And so the training began. For nine months, Slonina dedicated his life to conditioning his body. That way, he could make the 24-hour shootout possible. Before school started, he was at the gym shooting free throws. During lunch, he was lifting weights. In his free periods and after he was finished managing the basketball team, he was shooting hoops. Slonina went all in, he said.
“I was so scared of losing that all I could do was work as hard as I possibly could,” Slonina said. “If I was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because I wasn’t prepared.”
In the midst of preparation, Slonina received relieving news. His mother’s tumor was not as cancerous as initially believed. Many might have quit after hearing this, but it only increased Slonina’s drive. He continued to train, pushing his body and mind to achieve his ultimate goal.
Slonina said some people doubted his ability to survive the 24 hours. People in school thought that since he wasn’t on the varsity squad, he didn’t have it in him. His close friends believed differently.
“I knew that there was no way Mike was going to not finish the event,” said Christian Mowles, Slonina’s close friend and a vice president for A Shot For Life. “This thing was his baby and literally nothing was going to be able to stop him.”
Mowles was right. In the second hour of the event, Slonina injured his wrist, forcing him to change the way he shot free throws for the remaining 22 hours. By hour 14, he was exhausted and his pace became slower. However, Slonina forgot about his injuries and focused on his mom. He was going to make it to noon no matter what.
At the sound of the final buzzer, those who’d been by Slonina’s side let out a sigh of relief. Slonina threw 8,101 shots and nailed 5,930 of them, for a cumulative shooting percentage greater than 72 percent. And for Slonina, the sound of the buzzer signified the moment everything made sense.
“A Shot For Life showed me why everything had happened in my life,” he said. “Had my mom not been diagnosed with the tumor, this event would have never been created. The final buzzer tied everything together for me.”
So far, A Shot For Life has raised $17,000, all of which was donated to the Curry Research Lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital Brain Tumor Center. The proceeds from the next event will be split between the Curry Research Lab and Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Slonina has high hopes for the future. Ultimately, he would like to make it a nationally-known, annual event and foundation that is dedicated to finding a cure for cancer. But for now, he’s focusing on creating an updated version of the inaugural event that will include three people shooting for eight hours each. It will potentially take place in five Massachusetts high schools scheduled for Spring 2013.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to help people now,” Slonina said. “It’s just in me. I don’t care if it takes the rest of my life to make A Shot For Life a well-known event. This is what I was called to do and no matter what, A Shot For Life is going to continue.”
Although Slonina is grateful to have his peers, friends’ and former basketball team’s support, he said he owes everything that A Shot For Life has become to his mom.
“My mom is literally the strongest women in the world,” Slonina said. “Without her support, I would not have made it to where I am. When I had to train at 6 a.m., she drove me, when I needed to go to the Emergency Room because of my ankle, she was there for me. I owe every ounce of success that I have ever had or will ever get to my mother.”
The event and foundation has made a clear impact so far. Even before the shootout began, Slonina received an email from a woman in Colorado saying how proud she was of him, as she recently lost her twin sister to brain cancer.
However, there’s a more recent story that Slonina cherishes the most.
“I was coaching basketball this summer at Catholic Memorial, when a kid pulled me over and started asking me questions about basketball,” Slonina said. “And then he asked me a very specific question about brain cancer. At that moment, I knew he had some involvement with it, and only seconds later he told me that he had two open brain surgeries and was told that he was going to die one night. Imagine being told that this is the end of the road for you? He then told me how much A Shot For Life meant to him and how much he looked up to me. That was literally the most ground shaking moment of my life.”