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Diamond DeShields has the best comeback story no one knew about — until now.
When DeShields won the WNBA title with the Chicago Sky in Oct 2021, no one outside her immediate circle knew that just 21 months earlier, she'd undergone a nine-hour surgery to remove a rare benign tumor that was compressing her spine. No one knew that she'd considered retirement while trying to recover, dealing with tremors she couldn't control.
In an interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe, the 27-year-old DeShields, who is now with the Phoenix Mercury, talked about her struggle for the first time, revealing her diagnosis, the grueling recovery process and the championship triumph she achieved after overcoming such enormous obstacles.
Rare tumor and risky surgery
At the start of 2020, DeShields had an MRI. Doctors found a grape-sized tumor on her spinal cord called a lumbar spinal schwannoma. It's rare, accounting for just 5% of all spinal tumors, per ESPN.
It was benign, but DeShields had to have it removed. If it grew, it could compress her spinal cord even more, which could cause pain and paralysis. But having it removed could also cause paralysis; not only were the doctors operating in an area with many delicate nerves, the tumor itself could be intertwined with the nerves.
DeShields knew the risks going into the mid-January surgery, but she didn't expect the three-hour procedure to turn into nine hours. Dr. Edwin Ramos, who performed the surgery, told ESPN that the tumor was intertwined with some of the nerves, including the ones that led to her feet. But her feet were far from the only problem.
Tremors and painful rehab
DeShields began experiencing tremors not long after she woke up from the anesthesia. Ann Crosby, director of basketball operations and the head strength and conditioning coach for the Sky, was by her side at the hospital and saw them first hand.
"Diamond would get tremors. It would get so bad where her whole body was seizing, to the point where she's got tears rolling down her eyes, but she can't speak," Crosby told ESPN. "And she's clawing at her face because she can't control her hands. We're just trying to make sure she doesn't hurt herself.
"And we couldn't predict when they were coming. You can't see it. All of a sudden it was just there."
— Outside The Lines (@OTLonESPN) May 6, 2022
DeShields said the tremors were incredibly painful, and she was also experiencing intense pain in her feet. Six days after the surgery she began rehab at an inpatient facility, where she started by learning to walk again. But to DeShields, learning to walk wasn't even the point. The goal was to learn how to be herself on the basketball court.
"I'm not trying to learn how to walk," she said. "I'm trying to learn how to run and jump and defend and do all the things that, you know, a basketball player is supposed to do."
The pain didn't matter. DeShields was laser focused on her goal — to the point that nurses at the facility put an alarm on her bed to stop her from constantly getting up to do extra exercises.
Joining the WNBA bubble
DeShields continued her rehab, but everything changed in March when the COVID-19 lockdown began. She could no longer work with the Sky's trainers in person. Rehab continued by video, but by late spring DeShields had to decide if she'd go to the WNBA bubble.
DeShields admitted to ESPN that she was far from ready to play — she couldn't run in a straight line and one of her feet was numb — and she didn't know if she wanted to tell her teammates what she'd been going through. Despite that, she felt she had to be there.
"I need my teammates more than they probably need me right now," DeShields decided.
"Not only was I dealing with what I was dealing with physically," she said, "there was the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID pandemic, all this loneliness, this isolation. And I just needed to be around them. I needed the support and the camaraderie."
Once she got there, she got up early for extra practice. Crosby set up a curtained area near the sideline in case DeShields had tremors during a game. She had to work hard to stay balanced and even-keeled, because she would have tremors if she got emotional.
But she played. She played in the Sky's opening game, despite being far from fully healed. She would have stayed longer if she hadn't taken a knee to her thigh, limiting her to just 13 games before leaving the bubble for treatment.
For DeShields, 2021 was different. She appeared in all 32 regular season games, starting 22 and averaging 11.3 points and 26.9 minutes per game. Her averages for the playoffs were lower (5.5 points and 15.7 minutes), but she was a vital tool off the bench for the Sky.
And when she raised the trophy above her head, the tumor, the surgery and the painful rehab "was really all I was thinking about," she told ESPN.
DeShields was traded to the Mercury in the offseason, and they had no idea about the tumor, the surgery and her painful recovery. The Mercury still wanted her on their team, even after DeShields and her agent told them everything. Now, after sharing her story, she's ready to claim her future.
"I have a lot of expectations moving forward and kind of getting this off me now," DeShields said. "I've been sitting with this for a long time, you know? And it's time that I put it behind me. I'm healthy now. And I expect a lot."
My only hope with sharing my story (well…this part) is to inspire anyone who feels that life has dealt them a hand they see no way out of. You will get through it…whatever it is. Lean on those you love. Never lose faith in God.
— Diamond DeShields (@diamonddoesit1) May 6, 2022