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Former Hosei University guard Michael Malhotra aims to boost blood donations throughout Japan

by Ed Odeven

Modern life is bombarded by a 24/7 news cycle, an endless loop often filled with cynicism, scandals, and superficiality. So it’s refreshing to stumble upon an upbeat story that’s not any of those things.

Here’s one: Former Hosei University point guard Michael Malhotra, who battled leukemia and recovered from it, is now working to make the biggest assist of all — helping to saving lives.

How? Malhotra is genuinely committed to raising public awareness about the need for an increase in blood donations. What’s more, he is determined to be involved in this initiative for years to come. He aims to galvanize the basketball community, students and young adults to become active blood donors.

During a recent interview, Malhotra discussed his battle with leukemia as a young man, his basketball career, family, faith, future goals and positive outlook on life.

Malhotra exudes energy, and it’s easy to see why: He readily admits that he drew inspiration from Muhammad Ali during his battle with leukemia. While in the hospital, he studied Ali’s life and gained strength from the fighter’s character and memorable quotes about mental strength and courage.

Like countless others, the 22-year-old considers the late, legendary fighter a big hero and role model.

“Everyone thought of him when he did stuff and when he was fighting, and his thing was all about believing in himself,” Malhotra told Hoop Scoop. “. . . And when I was in the hospital I learned how important it is to believe in yourself.”

Malhotra was born in England. His father has Indian and Greek roots and his mother is Japanese. The family moved to Japan when he was 5, settling in Gifu Prefecture and then in Kanto. He started playing basketball when he was around 10. He competed for the Oba Junior High School basketball team in Kanagawa Prefecture for two years and served as team captain, then went to Shakujii Nishi Junior High School in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward for one year.

He studied and played hoops at Jissen Gakuen High School in Tokyo before enrolling at Hosei.

On Nov. 26, 2015, a day the then-19-year-old Malhotra said he’ll never forget, he was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. There were warning signs. As a Hosei freshman, the 177-cm floor leader recalled his lack of energy when he was at the gym and getting to and from the gym.

“I remember on the train, going to practice the day before, I was standing . . . and I couldn’t stand anymore I was so tired, so I sat down on floor,” he said before adding, “I had no stamina. I got so tired so quickly on the train. I had no strength at all.”

There were other signs, too. Malhotra discovered several red dots on his legs and he tasted blood in his mouth for a few days. He also spotted six or seven black dots on his tongue and mentioned “there was bleeding in my gums.”

He also cited a 20-minute running test that the Hosei players did in the gym as an example of his fatigue. “I remember I used to always take pride in being first or second,” he said. “I was good at that. But that day I remember that I was the last by far, and everyone was shocked. . .”

At first, he thought he was just getting “too stressed out” from academics, basketball and his first part-time job.

But on the day that changed his life, “it was so scary to wake up (with this), and I just didn’t really know what was going on.”

Malhotra and his mother visited a small, local hospital in Nishitokyo. He knew the doctor, who had taken care of his tonsils in the past. That doctor pointed Malhotra in the right direction, telling him “to go to this big hospital straight away,” Malhotra remembered hearing, “and he said, ‘don’t bang your head no matter what.’ ”

Malhotra had a blood test that day and quickly received a diagnosis, with the doctor saying, “ōkii byoki desu ne (this is a big disease),” he recalled. He was told he needed to stay at the hospital to begin treatment as soon as possible.

“I remember just crying and my mother crying and I was just so emotional and I just didn’t know what happened. I just couldn’t believe it. . . . I was just so worried and devastated,” he told Hoop Scoop.

Remembering the night he was diagnosed with leukemia, Malhotra described his emotions this way: “I was crying so much and I felt like I was at a point where I couldn’t cry anymore.”

It was after midnight, he recalled, his parents were asleep, and he looked up and told himself, “Wait a minute, I’m not going to die today.”

He went on: “And for some strange reason — no there is a reason — all of the worries that I had disappeared in a second, and I just suddenly knew I was not going to die and the reason was I said to myself I believe in two things, and one of them is God, and I know that God is not going to let me die now. The second thing was that since I was a little kid I always believed that I had a great future waiting, a very big future, and this is not a big future. . . . As soon as I believed those two things, all the worries about dying just went away.”

Malhotra endured leukemia treatments for seven months, with a month of treatment followed by two weeks off and a chance to return home (one of those visits included a memorable visit to a Porsche dealership with his father, Roger, who loves classic Porsches; that happy memory convinced Michael that he wants to buy a 1991 red 911 Porsche for his father one day).

He coped with nausea, stomach pain and high fevers. He received 15 blood transfusions during the critical first two months after the diagnosis. In short, his body was drained of the sickness-causing blood. Or as he put it: “They destroyed all my blood. . . . My bone marrow stopped producing blood for a while, so they put blood in me to keep me alive.” And he posted updates on Instagram and other social media sites throughout his battle with leukemia. (“I wanted to use this as a time for me to kind of inspire people because that’s what I love doing,” Malhotra told me.)

The third-year business and entrepreneurship major recounted his story and his goal of inspiring others to make blood donations during a lecture at Ryutsu Keizai University in Ibaraki Prefecture on June 28. Kiwamu Kotani, the RKU men’s basketball coach and a lecturer in the department of sport and communications, organized the event.

Malhotra spoke for an hour, giving a presentation in Japanese. He told the assembled audience of about 30, mostly students, “the unthinkable always happens” and “even to normal people, very unlucky things can happen.” Above all, though, he issued an urgent call for students to be aware of the need for blood donations.

Having previously volunteered for the Japanese Red Cross, Malhotra vows to establish events that can expand the supply of blood in Japan. He told Hoop Scoop he wants to visit schools throughout Japan and convince students to donate blood.

“And once they do that once,” he pointed out, “it’s easier to do it a second time.”

He believes Japanese society needs an influencer from the same age group to be a catalyst, someone to tell them “this is not right, we’ve got to change it and it has to start now.”

What is Malhotra’s underlying concern about Japan’s need for a greater supply of blood donations?

“I don’t know whose blood came into me,” he stated. “But the reason I need young people to blood donate is because when a certain generation stops blood donations that means there’s going to be a shortage in blood, especially because there’s going to be more old people that get it. We always have right now a good amount to support those who need it, but when there’s a major earthquake or suddenly tons of people need it, there’s a chance that we won’t have enough, and that amount of total blood donations keeps going down.”

He also envisions organizing an annual charity basketball game in the future that involves high school, college and pro players competing against one another. Malhotra wants the event to energize the public to donate blood.

“What makes this event so good is three things,” he underlined. “First is that the players are the influencers. The players are the ones that are going to tell everyone, ‘let’s go donate blood. I’ve never done it before, but now I want to go do it, so let’s do it together.’ After the game and before the game when you advertise the game, they get (the message) that let’s support cancer.”

He said the time period extending from a month before and a month after the event will become a time for thinking about blood donations.

“Second point . . . I want to tie up, well I am tying up with the Red Cross, so I want to (partner) with the Red Cross and all these NPOs and all these hospitals all around Japan and find all the kids that like basketball that have cancer right now,” he commented. “It’s not going to be that many, but there will be a few that are in the hospital with cancer but they love basketball. I want to find those kids and I want to get their names. That’s all and what they are diagnosed with.”

Acknowledging privacy issues, Malhotra said he thinks it’ll be possible to get the first names of the cancer patients and have them printed on the back of the pro players’ jerseys. “So that player’s playing for that kid,” he says. “And after the event, you give the jersey with the signatures on it to the kid.”

The second goal includes bringing the shirt to the hospital with the DVD of the game for each kid. “It’s like mental care for the kids. It’s a very happy thing you can do for a kid that has cancer,” he said.

The ambitious third goal is to eventually hold this annual event at Yoyogi National Stadium.

As a starting point, Malhotra is planning a similar event on a smaller scale for next year to be held at Nippon Sport Science University.

Back to the lecture, Malhotra expanded on his philosophy and outlook on life. He said, “The main goal for that presentation was to get people to want to do blood donations, and the way I did that was state that were basically five things I’ve learned about time when I was in the hospital. The first four are about yourself: time is limited; you have to believe in yourself; be thankful; and you have to act (on something) as soon as you think about it.”

He said No. 5 — “you have to be able to use your time for someone else” — is the most important one.

He continued: “I said it’s easy to invest in yourself. There are these people that say invest in yourself, that’s the No. 1 thing. But if you want to be rich, you’ve got invest in yourself, buy books and stuff. Investing in yourself is so easy to me. Everyone is capable of investing in yourself. That’s so easy, but can you invest time in someone else? Can you help other people, in this case help other people stay alive? That’s hard.”

With a smile, he looked back on his speech, which he prepared meticulously for with slides and visuals, during our conversation.

“I expected someone to fall asleep, or someone to be on their phone, but everyone was looking at me and they were really listening,” said Malhotra, who is set to graduate from Hosei University in March 2020. “That alone kind of (gave me) the sense that I was doing it right, and my teacher said that a lot of people were moved by it, by your speech, and they wanted to do blood donations.”

“I said the first thing you learn from leukemia is that time is your life. What is your life? It’s time that you have on earth. . . . When you are going to die, the first thing that comes to your head is you have no more time anymore, so that’s what you learn. So I keep saying, repeating, that life is time. It’s how you use your time that’s so important.

“But when you give blood donations, what are you giving? What is the primary thing that a blood donation gives? And the teacher said blood and everyone was thinking blood. . . But to me, it’s different: you’re not giving away your blood, you’re giving away your time. Forty minutes of your life. (Blood) is a part of it, but the main thing you take away from yourself is time. You gave away 40 minutes of your life to someone else. That’s incredible.”

Vital need for blood donations

Citing statistics from research he did while staying in the hospital, Malhotra pointed out that there’s an annual decline in blood donations for people in Japan between the ages of 10-30; on the other hand, he said for the rest of the population the participation percentage is staying the same.

He described blood donations as “the primary thing you can do for somebody.”

“When you do blood donations, you can’t see the person but you gave away 40 minutes of your life for that person, and I think that’s greatness,” he declared. “You can make a million dollars, a billion dollars, and if you can’t do this, I think you’re nothing because greatness is to use your time. Like Muhammad Ali said, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ ”

Malhotra finished leukemia treatments on July 1, 2016. Monthly checkups followed and he continued to take medication. His checkups are now once every three months.

His college basketball career, meanwhile, resumed in February 2017 after a seven-month hiatus. But fatigue was a problem and he had two surgeries on his tonsils. He stepped away again that May.

But two months later, he returned. He said he was “one of the worst players on the team, adding, “I was getting tired so quickly, I couldn’t move.”

In May 2018, Malhotra made the decision to retire as a player while Hosei competed in a college tournament. His final game, Hosei’s tourney opener, was memorable. Malhotra was called off the bench with about five minutes left in the game.

“I came out and had a chance to shoot a 3-pointer on the first play that I came on the floor,” he said. “Luckily, I hit the shot and that was one of the best memories of my life, playing in front of my family again and hitting a 3.”

On July 2, one day after the second anniversary of leaving the hospital, Malhotra established a company called CHOICES, Inc., registering the name at the Nerima Ward office. The company’s mission is to have job-hunting events for students from interdisciplinary studies departments (all-English education) at Waseda University, Hosei University and Sophia University. The company plans to hold events for international students and recruit them for big job fairs.

“I couldn’t establish the company on that day (July 1) because it was a Sunday,” he said, smiling. “But it’s still a good thing the next day.”

He added: “It was an incredible day for me, because it was two years since I left the hospital, which were the two years that I had the most chance of it coming back plus it was the day I started my new company.”

Feedback about speech

Malhotra’s speech at Ryutsu Keizai University touched the hearts of attendees, including RKU third-year student Rina Akita.

“In our lives, tomorrow doesn’t always come,” Akita said. “We may live until today. I was touched by his words, ‘Life is like an hourglass, we don’t know how many sands remain.’ I don’t think about tomorrow (that it) would not come, and I never know when I will die, so I should challenge something, and I want to do it soon.”

She added: “We are not medical specialists, but blood donations, which saves life, are very important. I recognize that donating time, only for 40 minutes, will save someone’s life, so I can do donations. I want to donate blood as soon as possible.”

Fellow student Yosuke Iwaida, a sophomore, also commented on what Malhotra’s words meant to him.

“After taking Michael’s lecture, it changed three things in my life,” Iwaida commented. “One is ‘how to consume time.’ Michael said that ‘there are no guarantees for time, time is limited. We don’t know when is the end.’ When I heard that, I noticed that I spent time wastefully. I spend time on my smartphone. He said that ‘life equals time.’ . . . It is difficult to recognize for us, healthy people, but I should spend time more effectively.”

Iwaida cited gratitude as the second thing the lecture taught him. Malhotra told the audience “he is happy to be here. Thousands of people are sick in bed (or) in the hospital,” Iwaida reported. “When I go back home, there’s my family. I can eat, I can go to school, I can play basketball. It is a normal, commonplace life, but I have to be thankful. I appreciate small things.”

Now, Iwaida said he’s committed to donating blood after hearing Malhotra’s message that “blood donations are meaningful.”

“I donated only once — my mother took me there — but I did not think about the meaning,” Iwaida admitted. “Michael said ‘donating blood is donating time. Time is life.’ I thought that blood donations will save many lives. Only 40 minutes will save life. Great. I decide that I will use my blood for someone’s life.”

Kotani believes the lecture was a success.

“Michael cannot donate blood because he got leukemia, but he does take time for others,” Kotani told Hoop Scoop. “After his lecture, RKU students got a chance to think about dedicating time for others.

“I knew what he would talk about, (but) it was beyond my imagination,” Kotani revealed. “I empathized with him. I have two daughters, so I imagined Michael’s parents’ minds were spent, from spending periods from his leukemia diagnosis to his recovery. Recovering from leukemia was not only for him, but also for his family.

“Overcoming leukemia is his family’s great win,” Kotani concluded. “I predict that the lecture will help someone who’s suffering from problems to overcome them.”