Less than two years after Leukemia diagnosis, William Mullins continues to play and inspire

A year ago, William Mullins connection with Kearny High School sports was limited to watching live streams of basketball games as he lay in a bed at Hackensack University Medical Center, recovering from his latest treatment against Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

A little more than 16 months after receiving the diagnosis, Mullins is back on the court and inspiring many.

Granted a fifth year of eligibility by the NJSIAA, Mullins was able to enjoy the senior basketball season the disease deprived him of last year and is currently getting ready to compete on the volleyball court this spring.

For Mullins, one of the state’s premier volleyball players as a junior, it’s an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted after all he’s been through.

“This means so much to me and I’m very grateful to be back,” Mullins said. “I’m thankful to God and just everyone who’s been around and helped me – my family, the hospital, friends.Just being able to get back means so much. It is what I love to do.

“When I was in the hospital and not feeling well, one of the things that motivated me to get back and push through was that I wanted to get back to playing sports.”

Mullins admits that he still doesn’t feel 100-percent back to where he was before the diagnosis and the still on-going 30-month treatment and recovery program. He did continue to feel stronger as the season progressed and his conditioning continued to improve.

The most prominent example came on Senior Night when Mullins scored a season-high 16 points and younger brother Matheus had 13 with 12 rebounds as the Kardinals defeated McNair, 53-45, avenging a 36-point loss to the Cougars on opening day.

“That was a big moment,” said Mullins. “A special moment for me.”

Playing with Matheus and with his father Bill, as the head coach, William Mullins enjoyed several special moments on the basketball and volleyball courts his junior season. That spring of 2022, Mullins was an All-State, Third Team selection and the HCIAL Player of the Year by NJ.com as he helped lead Kearny to its first ever Hudson County championship.

As a two-sport star who also was among the top five in his class academically, Mullins seemingly had everything going into his senior year. But after joining cross country in the fall of 2022, he started struggling with fatigue.

According to Mullins, not only did he notice his times getting worse as the season progressed, but he also remembered getting winded going up and down stairs at Kearny High School.

After a series of tests, on Nov. 2, Mullins was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

“Instead of getting better, I was getting more tired, just getting out of breath a lot easier,” William Mullins recalled. “Then at school, I started to notice I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without huffing and puffing when I got to the top, which is not normal for me. I was just very sluggish and I could tell something was off.”

While Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is treatable, Mullins was going to have to receive a 30-month chemotherapy treatment cycle. The effects of the chemo on his body would prevent him from attending school in person, let alone play sports alongside Matheus.

William Mullins spent several nights in the hospital during the first 10 months of the treatment and was so weakened by the chemo, he often had trouble walking during those early stages.

During that same time, the Kearny community held several fundraisers in William’s honor and to support leukemia awareness, including a boys and girls basketball double-header that raised $3,000.

“It was very nice to know that everything that people were doing for me, how much they cared for me, how much they were thinking about me and all of the prayers and support,” Mullins said. I really appreciate that. And it helped me feel a lot better too, to know that other people were hearing and thinking about me. I’m very grateful for that.”

As William Mullins’ health started to improve, others, most notably Kearny athletic director Vincent Almeida and retired Kardinals freshman coach Bob Lucas started working on applying for a fifth-year waiver with the NJSIAA.

Mullins’ waiver was approved in August. It was then that Mullins and Lucas embarked on a plan to get William’s strength and conditioning to a level that would allow him to play when boys basketball practice began in late November.

William was able to play in Kearny’s opener on Dec. 14, scoring five points in a loss at McNair.

“Now I had a date to work towards and what Coach Lucas did was he basically set out a plan with me at the start of September,” said William Mullins. “It was an 85-day plan for the season where we had a planned outline, how we were going to work out, what days of the week and it was just a very big help.”

William Mullins’ return to the floor did come with some concessions. The steroid treatments used in Williams’ recovery, led to significant weight gain as the 6-foot-3 forward started the season at 220 pounds after playing at 185 two years earlier.

Playing alongside Matheus again and with Bill now in the role of father in the stands instead of head coach, William averaged 5.5 points per game this season. The initial weight gain had Williams playing more of an inside the paint role as his endurance continued to improve. Thanks to the training program he continued, he was down to 200 pounds by the end of the basketball season.

“I wanted to get back out there and play with (Matheus),” Mullins said. “My father would help me with working out and shooting because I had gotten so weak that I could only reach the basket two feet away. That’s how weak I was (last spring).

While a different player than he was before the illness, Mullins was able to play in all, but a handful of games this season for Kearny. The only time he missed was on days he had to undergo treatment as the roughly once a month sessions would leave him too weak to play that day.

“(Building up) my endurance was hard because I wasn’t running for as long as I was before. I couldn’t last as long as before on the court,” said Mullins. “I was also slower, so I did more playing inside in the post.

“I felt it’s a process, take it slow and I could get there. If you had told me a year ago at this time that I would have been able to play and compete on the basketball team and now looking forward to volleyball, I might not have believed you considering where I was at.”

Now the focus is on volleyball for Mullins with the goal to bring another county title back to Kearny. Without William, the Kardinals went 15-7 and lost in the Hudson County Tournament final to rival Harrison.

While Kearny should once again be a contender in the county and its state tournament section, what matters most is that William is back and healthy for the Kardinals. Just a year removed from barely being able to walk out of bed, it’s something Williams knows he can’t take for granted.

“I definitely learned to appreciate things more because you never know what you have and how easily it can be taken away,” said Mullins, who hopes to play sports in college. “It’s (about) just facing challenges, just putting your best foot forward, and knowing that whatever’s happening just keep fighting. Just keep trying to get through it.”

Learn more about the writer ...

Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)