In The News

Girl sheds wheelchair to take a shot

Sunday, April 2, 2007

By Joe Morgan

I love basketball.

Especially this basketball season, which had harrowing heights and abysmal lows. The boys of Illinois Valley Central and Richwoods neared the pinnacle of high school success, only to fall ever-so short in the final seconds. The Fightin' Illini, with beloved seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine, were stunned in the second round by the aggressive Washington Huskies and questionable foul-calling. Bradley's newly appreciated Hilltoppers survived to dance for two weekends.
Yet none of this drama is why I love basketball this day.

I am the father of a 7-year-old little girl who was born with fibrous dysplasia. This debilitating disease causes the inner bone to expand and create pressure on the cortex, leading to pain and bone breaks. Because of her condition, she has endured many breaks and has spent much of the last year in a wheelchair.

Victoria has always wanted to play basketball, but her mother and I feared that this would be a bittersweet dream, never fulfilled. However, through the help of countless prayers, her orthopedic surgeon and the wonderful staff at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, she has begun to rehabilitate. In the late fall, after having a sliding titanium plate implanted in her left femur and her final cast removed, Victoria played basketball.

It was just in the driveway with her brother, sister and a few close friends, but my little girl was dribbling and shooting. My wife and I watched from the dining room window, both of us quietly crying with love, sorrow and happiness. Victoria's strength progressed, and soon she could run again, though with a hop-along gait.

Her doctor granted permission for her to join a first- and second-grade church basketball team, as the injury risk was thought to be low. At practice, she was always the slowest player. Long after her teammates finished running, she would struggle in, limping to complete her laps. But she always finished them.

The will of this 7-year-old - unlike her leg - was unbreakable. She would beg to shoot baskets long after being called in for dinner and would come to practice an hour early just to work on her shot. She went to the gym before her siblings' practice to play me one-on-one.

"Daddy, I know that I won't get to play very much longer, so I want to be my best now," Victoria told me. Her insight is correct. Her doctor has said that as she gets older, and the girls become larger and more aggressive, that the risk of injury will become too great for her to continue playing. This somber recognition of her medical condition cuts to my heart. Yet, at the same time, I am even prouder of her and her indomitable spirit.

On a cold Saturday morning in March, Victoria made me fall in love with basketball all over again.
Late in the first half, against a stifling defense, Victoria received the ball. She was trapped in the high post without an outlet. I yelled for her to pass the ball, but the passing lane wasn't open. She looked to me, unsure what to do.
Someone in the crowd yelled, "Shoot it!" and again she glanced in my direction. I echoed the command. Victoria calmly dribbled two steps backward to free up space from her defender. With a hand in her face from 17 feet - yes, 17 feet - she shot. After the eternity that can only be felt by a nervous parent, the rock neared its destination.
Nothin' but net!

Fans from both teams erupted, as this amiable, hobbling little girl looked toward me for the approval she knew would be there. In one of the sweetest acts of sportsmanship I have witnessed, her 7-year-old defender gave her a hug and a smile. "Great shot, Victoria." The look of pride and accomplishment on her face, over one basket, made me love basketball.
Thank you, Dr. James Naismith, for the joy you still bring more than 100 years after inventing the game. Thank you for March Madness and March Gladness. More importantly, thank you, God, for my little girl.
Joe Morgan, an engineer at Mitsubishi Motors in Normal, has coached his children's basketball teams for four years. The Morton father, 38, still plays games with his kids on the driveway.