Picture by Frederic Chambert / Panoramic

Kyle Kuric shares his story of how a brain tumour helped him become a better basketball player

It's not often you hear about a professional athlete surviving a brain tumour, return to the court five months after life-saving surgery, and become a better player. But Kyle Kuric isn't like other athletes.
By Will Imbo

In early November 2015, Kyle Kuric was going through warm-ups ahead of a basketball game in Spain’s top domestic league, just as he had done hundreds of times before. But on this occasion, something didn’t feel right.

“We started the warm-up for the game and I felt like I had a knot in my head, and when I started to back-pedal, I thought to myself: ‘I’m done. I can’t play.’”

Two days later, Kuric was admitted to the hospital in Barcelona after vomiting during his morning shower. He was given an MRI, before receiving a diagnosis that would change his approach to basketball, and life, forever: He was suffering from a brain tumour.

This is the story of how Kuric was able to beat a life-threatening disease and become one of the top players in European basketball.

From Louisville to Europe

Kyle Kuric grew up in the U.S. state of Indiana where, as he puts it, “everything is about basketball.” After leading his high school team to the school's first sectional championship in 12 years, he committed to play basketball at the University of Louisville in the neighbouring state of Kentucky.

Kuric spent four years at Louisville as the Cardinals reached the NCAA tournament in four consecutive seasons, making it all the way to the Final Four and winning the Big East tournament in 2012.

While at Louisville, Kuric also founded Kyle's Korner for Kids - a charity that assists children in the Kentuckian area.

After graduating college, Kuric moved to Spain to start his professional career, signing a contract with Liga ACB team Club Estudiantes, S.A.D.

“Moving to Europe was a big culture shock in a lot of different ways. The language barrier, culture - everything was completely different and it took a lot to get used to it,” Kuric told Olympics.com.

“As far as playing basketball itself, I feel as if the game is a lot more tactical here,” Kuric adds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said it’s a lot easier to score in the NBA than it is in Europe, which kind of says everything really. There is no one-on-one basketball, everything is team-oriented, both offensively and defensively.”

Find out more about Antetokounmpo's journey from living in poverty in Greece to the NBA.

Kuric admits that he quickly realized that to succeed in European basketball, he couldn’t simply play as a ‘specialist’.

“In college, I was a corner three-point shooter and a dunker. So when I came to Spain, I really started to work on my ball-handling and develop different aspects of my game. You have to be able to defend, you have to be able to play the pick and roll, you have to be able to shoot, you have to rebound - you have to be able to have the total package. And then, when you get to better and better teams, you can really start to showcase your own personal skill set.”

After spending two seasons with Estudiantes, Kuric joined fellow Liga ACB side Herbalife Gran Canaria in 2014. In his first season with his new team, the 1.93m (6’4) guard averaged 12.1 points per game on 45% shooting from the field as Gran Canaria snuck into the playoffs, where they would lose in the first round to eventual champions Real Madrid.

Still, the team had made it to the final of the EuroCup (EuroLeague Basketball's secondary level professional club basketball tournament), and despite losing to BC Khimki, all signs pointed towards Kuric and Gran Canaria having another positive season for the 2015-16 campaign.

That was until Kuric started to experience a severe headache in late November of 2015.

The fight of his life

On November 1, Kuric was preparing to join his teammates at the airport for a road game against Saski Baskonia.

“We had an early morning bus, but I woke up late and had a little bit of a headache, so I drove myself to the airport,” Kuric recalls.

“I didn’t think anything of it [the headache], and I slept the entire plane ride, but I kind of noticed that something didn’t feel right. I attributed it to waking up late, not eating, and the stress of making it to the airport.

“On the day of the game, we started going through warm-ups and I felt like I had a knot in the back of my head, and when I started to backpedal, I thought to myself: ‘I’m done. I can’t play.’”

Kuric didn’t play in that game, but even sitting on the bench he experienced dizziness and disorientation every time he would stand up. The following day, the team travelled to Bilbao, but Kuric didn’t practice and went to the hospital that evening to try and find out what was going on.

“I asked for the MRI, everything. They said, ‘No, you have some underlying thing: you’ll be fine.’”

After giving Kuric some oxygen, the doctors sent Kuric home. He travelled to Barcelona, but missed practice and once again went to another hospital.

“I requested an MRI again, but they said no. The next morning we were supposed to travel to Berlin for a EuroCup game, and my wife told me, ‘If they say it’s ok for you to travel, I want a letter from them that says it’s ok.”

But the doctors refused to write the letter, telling Kuric that they didn’t want to assume responsibility in case something did happen to him.

“I woke up the next morning, started to take a shower and just started vomiting. I went back to the hospital, and they finally agreed to do the MRI.”

The results of the MRI left no doubt. Kuric had a meningioma - a tumour that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull.

“I couldn’t comprehend what they were telling me. I called my dad, I called my wife, told them I had a meningioma, and that was it - I just didn’t have any understanding of what was really going on.

“In my mind, it was more straightforward. ‘Ok, I have this [the tumour], what do we do? We do surgery - fantastic. We do the surgery. I’m done and I can play.’ The surgery was on Thursday or Friday, and we had a game on Sunday. In my mind, I thought I could have the surgery, travel the next day, and play on Sunday. So that shows how out of it I was - I just didn’t comprehend the situation I was in.’”

Kuric underwent two operations to remove the tumour, the first of which left him in a coma, and the second to remove part of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain.

“That’s when I finally started to get better and that marked the beginning of my recovery. Sitting up was very difficult, I’d have someone help me to sit up. I’d have to have help standing up. I felt exhausted after taking one step. But every day I was able to walk a little bit further.”

Kuric had to have a third operation to insert a cranial implant, but was eventually allowed to leave the hospital and begin his rehabilitation.

“The doctor originally told me that it was going to be at least a year before I could play again. But I knew there was absolutely no way this [the recovery] was going to take me a year. My goal was to make it back before the playoffs, which were about six or seven months away. 

“It was never a question of ‘if’ I’m going to play again, it was 'when and how quickly?'”

The road to recovery and the EuroLeague

Incredibly, after only five months of rehabilitation and recovery, Kuric returned to professional basketball with a newfound appreciation for the game - and life itself.

“When I was doing all the recovery and I realized just how much my body needed to recover, I really had an appreciation for not only basketball, but life as well. So it really changed my perspective, my mentality on everything.

"Without question, it made me better mentally and physically. I always had these plans of playing for a team like Barcelona and playing in the highest level in Europe, and it was kind of always like, yeah, I'll get there one day, maybe not this year, but the next year I'll get there. I just had to keep doing what I was doing.

"But after that experience, I changed. I attacked my workouts more aggressively, I tried to expand my ball handling, tried to expand my game. And it really put me on the path to have a great year coming back after my surgeries, which I did."

It’s a testament to Kuric’s fortitude, passion for basketball and mentality that since his life-saving operation, his career has gone from strength to strength.

In 2016, Gran Canaria won the Spanish Supercup, with Kuric being named MVP of the tournament. The following year, he would join Zenit Saint Petersburg, spending one season with the Russian giants before returning to Spain in 2018 to join his current team, FC Barcelona Lassa of Liga ACB - where he has since won two Spanish Cups and reached the final of the 2020-21 EuroLeague, where Barcelona narrowly lost to Turkish side Anadolu Efes.

Not bad for someone playing a contact sport with an implant on part of his skull - which, incidentally, broke in 2020 after a nasty collision during a practise scrimmage, forcing Kuric to go undergo yet another surgery to fix the plate.

But for Kuric, who never doubted himself for an instant, it was just another temporary setback in an incredible journey of struggle, perseverance, and ultimately, success.