PROVO — The one thing Alexis Kaufusi held onto for strength and hope while she battled cancer slipped through her fingers Thursday afternoon.
The 22-year-old Timpview High graduate was cut from the BYU women's basketball team seven weeks before what would have been her senior year.
"I was completely blindsided," said Kaufusi, who was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on Feb. 3, 2011. "I didn't see it coming. (Head coach Jeff Judkins) just kept saying that he thinks this is what's best for the team right now."
Contacted Friday morning, Judkins was involved in recruiting meetings and said in an email that he "had nothing to say" about the decision.
John Scott, a former college coach and CEO of Athletic Quest, said what happened with Kaufusi is uncommon, especially in basketball.
"It does not happen very often," he said. "Maybe 10 percent of the time … In basketball, schools only get 15 full-rides. It's all or nothing, so when they make a commitment, they're pretty sure who they're signing."
Scott said that regardless of the specific reasons, this kind of scenario is difficult for all involved.
"It's never an easy thing for a college coach or program to do," he said. "Once in a while, it's just something that has to happen."
He said football is most often the sport where athletes don't get their scholarships renewed.
"You could have five kids in a year that might not get their scholarships renewed," he said. "You have to perform, or you're out of the dorm. That's the rule; they're not going to publicize it, but you have to perform in the classroom, the community and on the court or field. They've got to coach; they've got to keep their jobs."
Kaufusi, who averaged 1.3 points and 1.1 rebounds as a junior, acknowledges Judkins had concerns at the end of the season, but felt she'd addressed everything they'd discussed.
"I am confused," Kaufusi said. "We had a meeting after the season where he said a lot of things needed to change in order for me to play."
She said he mentioned conditioning, which she struggled with in the months after her chemotherapy ended. Her lack of stamina meant little if any playing time, she said.
She said Judkins also mentioned academics, but she is in good standing with the university.
"He kept saying, 'Well, you're not the greatest student', but BYU wasn't kicking me out for academics," she said. "He just kept saying this is what's best for the team."
She said an assistant coach told her the decision had been made and nothing she said could change their minds.
"Really, I felt like I was in a bad dream," she said.
While coming back from the chemotherapy took longer than she thought, she said Judkins and her teammates were supportive of her efforts to get back to the game.
"They were all great, very supportive," she said. "They weren't sure what to expect, but neither was I. We just kind of learned together as the season went on."
Despite doctors' warnings about pushing too hard, too early, Kaufusi said she did push too hard at times and paid for it with illness and more severe fatigue.
"It was very frustrating because mentally I felt like I was better," she said. "There were just things I wasn't able to do. It took a lot longer than I thought it would."
Still, she felt like she turned a corner at the end of the school year and she'd been working hard.
"I finally feel like I'm healthy," she said. "I put in a lot of work. I've been going to workouts everyday, and I was playing better than I'd ever played."
The timing of the decision was the most confusing aspect of the experience, she said.
"I don't know if he's been thinking about this for a while or not, but I wish he'd done it sooner so I could have found another place to play," said Kaufusi. "I have seven weeks until school starts."43 comments on this story
Kaufusi has already been granted a release, and is now faced with deciding whether to just earn her degree from BYU or find a spot on a college roster. She said her health concerns will keep her in Utah, no matter what.
"I am not sure what I'm going to do now," said Kaufusi, who is technically still on scholarship at BYU, as she signed paperwork with Judkins and the school at the end of basketball season. "I want to play more than anything in the world. I feel like I'm finally healthy. I feel like I owe myself a solid year of basketball, and I am finally healthy enough to compete."
Kaufusi used her redshirt as a freshman because she was recovering from a knee injury. She said she applied for a medical redshirt, but was turned down by the NCAA because she played too much the 2010-2011 season.