CHICAGO — Shane Green is casually chatting about college basketball with his brother, Shawn, at lunch. If it weren’t already evident they’re identical twins, on this chilly fall day they wore matching outfits — the same winter vests — which they swear was unplanned.
As Shane catalogs some of their favorite teams, one being Wichita State, his brother perks up to offer his take. Shawn cannot speak, but through his body language, Shane picks up what he’s thinking and translates.
“We love their toughness,” Shane deadpans, as Shawn gestures behind him with a grin and a head nod.
Toughness is a theme the 41-year old Greens, die-hard fans and former college basketball players, have worn like armor over the past year as Shawn has been battling stage 4 cancer. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009 and had a successful surgery to remove it.
But the tumor resurfaced, more aggressively, in October of 2015, and it’s since taken away much of his ability to talk. He also walks with a cane now or uses a wheelchair to get around, with most of the right side of his body paralyzed.
But much like when they were young kids growing up, the twins have been there through thick and thin to pick each other up — physically and psychologically.
“His pain is my pain,” Shane says emotionally, while lifting the recliner of a chair at Northwestern Memorial Hospital as chemo shoots through an IV into Shawn’s veins. “People think I’m helping him. He’s the one who is fighting so damn hard. He’s helping me.”
Shane has a tattoo on his right side with two letter “S's” mirroring each other in the center of a shield. “It’s me protecting him,” Shane says. And the two both have “every day is a good day” tattooed on their torsos.
One of those good days included Shane pushing Shawn — in an adult-sized stroller, no less — at the Chicago Half Marathon in what could be their last race together in September. The pair had run the race for the last five years and were determined not to break tradition because of cancer. With the stroller crossing the finish line first, Shawn once again beat his slower brother.
“It was an amazing moment to see them cross that finish line,” says Shawn’s wife, Erin, who asserts that the twins have always been inseparable.
“They’d be married to each other if that were an option,” she quips. Erin dated Shawn since she was 14 in the twins’ hometown of Bernie, Mo. They live in Chicago with their 3-year-old daughter, Avery.
“Shane and Shawn are always together because their love is unconditional. ...And they literally share everything, outside of social security. Their bond is something special.”
Love and basketball
That unbreakable bond has always been synchronous with basketball. The duo, both around 6-foot and self-acknowledged as “un-athletic,” starred together at St. Francis (Ill.) from 1995 to ‘97 and left an imprint on the NAIA program for their tenacious style and unique synergy.
“They were the dynamic duo, on and off the court,” says former longtime St. Francis coach Pat Sullivan, who has remained close with the twins over the years. “Shane wasn’t just a good shooter. He was a great shooter. Then Shawn could shoot and had the skill set of a real point guard. They played in grammar school, high school and junior college together, and I got them at their best — when they knew exactly what the other was thinking. That same bond they have in their lives carried over on the court.”
In their junior year, the Greens piloted the Fighting Saints to a 19-10 record when they reached the NAIA Division I national tournament and won the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, and then to a 16-11 record as seniors. And Shane holds the program's single-season free-throw percentage record at 90%. But Sullivan says it was the twins’ heart — not the scoreboard or record books — that made them a prominent part of the school’s history and beloved by the community. That love was felt in January when St. Francis dedicated a game to Shawn, and the school has since helped raise more than $50,000 on a GoFundMe page.
“They were the smartest and toughest kids you were ever gonna coach,” says Sullivan, who retired in 2009 after 44 years of coaching in high school and college. “They weren’t super athletic, but they’d outsmart everyone. And if there was a loose ball, no one was beating them to it. When I recruited them, I knew they were gonna be good, but they were so much better. I honestly can’t remember them ever coming into practice and not giving everything they had.
“That grit and tenacity they showed as players, you see it even more now with how Shawn fights cancer and how Shane wrestles with the idea of losing his best friend. You hope if you ever faced something like Shawn faced, you’d have half the courage he’s had. He’s awe-inspiring. And Shane has been with him every second. They’re extraordinary men.”
One of those inspired by the Greens just so happens to be the twins’ favorite player, Duke legend Bobby Hurley. Fittingly, they idolized the scrappy point guard for his aggressive style and competitiveness. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Hurley — now the head coach at Arizona State — heard of Shawn’s condition on Twitter and immediately set up a FaceTime call with the twins.
Shane told Shawn someone wanted to surprise him over FaceTime and, lo and behold, it was Hurley.
"He might've been surprised, but I was humbled to speak to him," says Hurley, who spent a good 15 minutes talking hoops and fighting adversity with the Greens. "It was honestly the best thing I've done in a long, long time. Those two are very inspiring and it was so moving to be able to speak to them because of how close I am with my brother (Danny). You can see and feel how deep of a relationship it is with them. It was very powerful for me because I threw myself in the moment and thought, 'what would I do if my brother was going through this?' And I thought about how important sports are — for them and for me. I told Shawn to keep fighting, and that he inspires me coaching and in life."
Shane adds of the exchange: "Shawn doesn't smile much these days, but man he couldn't stop smiling afterwards. I can't put into words what that meant to Shawn and my family."
Best friends, fierce rivals
Before St. Francis, the tandem spent two years at Shawnee Community College, a Division II junior college in Ullin, Ill. Wichita State athletics director Darron Boatright was teammates with the twins at Shawnee, and chuckles remembering their competitive dynamic in practices and games.
“They were best friends, and fierce rivals on the court,” Boatright recalls. “I wasn’t a very good player, so I had a front-row seat to watch them bicker and go at each other for a sparring match. It was must-see humor in practice. Then in games they played so damn hard and were in sync most of the time so they didn’t need to talk. Unless one of them would mess up, then the other would go ballistic or just stare each other down. And let me tell you, if looks could kill, they’d both be dead already.”
Boatright has kept in touch with Shane and Shawn over the years, and the twins have brought their fandom to Wichita for a few games. He says he often hears from both of them about programs that could poach the school’s coveted basketball coach, Gregg Marshall, with Boatright tabbing the twins his Inside Sources.
“For as long as I’ve known them, they weren’t Shane and Shawn. They were the twins, and I didn’t know them apart,” Boatright says. “When I heard about what Shawn was facing, to be honest I was just as worried about his brother (Shane). They both lean on each other for everything. They need that now more than ever.”
Back in Bernie, Mo., Shane and Shawn Green are “legendary” as former basketball stars, high school coach Paul Hale says. During a fundraiser for Shawn back home, the town of about 1,800 people raised around $25,000 to help fund Shawn’s medical bills.
“Everyone knows who they are. They’re like celebrities,” says Hale, who considers the twins his second family. “What’s happening to them, it’s killing me. If Shawn were to pass, the whole community would feel it."
Their senior year at Bernie High School, they only lost two games — both to eventual state champion Portageville, finishing 27-2. As juniors, they went 25-5.
“They were short kids but unbelievable players, a joy to watch,” adds Hale, one of the most successful high school coaches in the state of Missouri. “When other teams were guarding them, no one knew them apart. They were like the same player. One of them made all-state, but I’m not sure the best one did.
“They played so damn hard and were the biggest gym rats. They had to fight to get where they got.”
Fast forward to present day, and the twins are still fighting, and this time the stakes are higher than wins and losses. Some doctors are optimistic, some more straightforward. Now that the tumor has spread, every treatment plan is centered on slowing that acceleration down to give Shawn more time.
The cold, harsh reality is that Shawn likely has months, if not days, to live. Between radiation and chemotherapy, Shawn has had more than 20 treatments to date, including four infusions since September. But the most powerful propellant for the twins — through a year-long emotional roller-coaster — has been the power of hope. Because every day is another day with their best friend. The twins often wear shirts that say "beat yesterday" as a rallying cry.
After a particularly grueling week — one that saw Shawn battle a bout with pneumonia — Shane confronted the inevitable reality of a world without his twin brother.
“There’d be a hole in my heart that could never be filled,” Shane says, pausing. “You can’t prepare for that void. When you’re fighting, you don’t think about the end of that fight I guess. He continues to fight and I wonder where he gets that desire. When they were scanning him for a test recently, he just looked at me shaking his head. I mean, he's lived longer than anyone thought he would.
“I told him, 'when you’re tired of fighting, just tell me you’re done.' I don’t want him to suffer. The tumor is only going to make it worse, where he could lose vision and the ability to swallow. It’s not a peaceful death.”
Shane says Shawn’s always been the fighter, dating back to their playing days.
“He was always more aggressive,” he says, acknowledging Shawn could dunk and he couldn't. “In college he was the point guard who would drive to the hole more while I’d stick more around the three-point line. I did the shooting while he did the dirty work.”
Sullivan, St. Francis’ coach, believes whole-heartedly the twins are fighting cancer together, for each other.
“This cancer is killing Shawn physically, and it’s killing Shane emotionally,” Sullivan says. “Life without Shawn would be like living without half a heart.”
Sullivan whimpers: “I hate this because they’re such good people. Those two together, they’ve always had this energy that just gravitates people towards them. And they treated everyone the same, from the janitor on up. Everyone loves them. I have twin daughters of my own and I’ve never seen anything as strong as Shane and Shawn’s bond.
“They’ll always be inseparable the way I see it, even in death. Nothing can break that bond. Nothing.”