Rayna's second season

Once, basketball was her passion. Then fate robbed her of her game, but not of her will to win.

May 30, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Sun Staff

First of two parts

Long before Rayna DuBose became a basketball star - and half a lifetime before the day she got sick, went to the hospital and almost never came home - she was a dancer. Ballet, to be specific. The soft, poetic music and her long arms and legs formed a natural partnership. Dance was her first love, and as is often the case with first loves, she never forgot what it felt like, to twirl and spin and smirk at the limitations of gravity.

The DuBose family was not rich, but there was money for tutus and ballet slippers, even if Rayna would outgrow them in mere months. At recitals, she towered above the other giggling 9-year-olds, like a redwood in a forest of firs. When it was her turn to whirl across the stage, her 1,000-watt smile lit up the auditorium.

My God, her father thought, my little girl is fearless.

You've got to get a basketball in that girl's hands, Rayna's pediatrician kept telling her parents.

I don't want to play! she would protest.

Rayna, they don't give out many scholarships to girls wearing tutus.

No! I don't want to play basketball. I want to dance! Her parents just shook their heads and laughed.

Even then, long before she would trade her toe shoes for high-tops, long before her spinning and soaring would thrill crowds in a gym in Oakland Mills - and even longer before an illness would steal away the game she loved - Rayna DuBose had an unbending will and a bullheaded determination. She was, from the beginning, a force to behold.

They were the worst months of her life, and yet she has almost no memory of those 97 days and nights that began in April 2002 and stretched into July. They run together, overlapping and blurring until they're impossible to retrieve. But maybe the details aren't important. Maybe if you can see her here, sitting on the stairs in her parents' house in Columbia on the day she's finally going back to college, maybe that's enough - a picture that hints at her journey through all that darkness.

It's May 17, 2003, and as her parents load the SUV with boxes, Rayna sits in the foyer, talking quietly on her cell phone. A stuffed blue monkey rests in her lap, and in the monkey's arms is a tiny orange basketball.

When it's time to go, Rayna pulls herself up and steadies herself on legs made of plastic, silicone, titanium, aluminum and stainless steel. She walks down the driveway and folds her 6-foot-3 frame into the SUV. Clothes, lamps and light bulbs, CDs, sweat shirts and food fill the back - and enough pairs of basketball shoes to outfit three teams. She puts her stuffed monkey in there, too, next to her extra set of arms. -Those awful months, those weeks when doctors weren't sure she'd ever open her eyes again, are a memory now for her parents. Some details are gone; some, they will never forget. What's important now is this moment, their 19-year-old daughter on her way back to Virginia Tech, to college life, to independence.

Her coach has walked this road with them, and grown to love Rayna like a daughter. Where Rayna's memory is blank, where her parents' is blurred, the coach's is painfully clear. Piece their memories together, and they not only tell a story but they also raise a question: How much courage does a single step require? If you're inching along a ledge on an icy mountain peak, or walking a tight rope suspended high above the ground, the answer seems easy. Each step puts your life at risk, so it requires all the courage you can muster in order to stay alive.

But what if you're not risking your life? What if you're trying to get it back?

* * *

I think I can play in the boys' league, she said one day.

I think they'll hurt you, her father said with a grin.

I ain't worried about getting hurt.

At the first game, the tallest player was the one with a pony tail. She stuck out, and yet she was invisible. None of the boys would pass her the ball. Rayna went home so mad, she burst into tears.

She'd given up ballet for this, stood on the court hour after hour, practicing bank shots. How could all that work pay off if they wouldn't even give her the ball? She knew exactly what she wanted: to be a star like her brother Quinton. Sixteen years older than Rayna, he had gone off to college on a basketball scholarship. To hear their father tell it, it was watching Quinton play at Providence College - and seeing the crowd erupt in rapture - that lit the fire for Rayna. After all, says Willie DuBose, "There ain't a whole lot of hollering and screaming in ballet." Night after night, he would come home from work dog-tired, barely able to keep his eyelids upright - and there was Rayna, tugging at his sleeve.

C'mon Dad, let's go practice.

The next game was more of the same: The boys didn't want to pass to a girl. But a loose ball rolled her way, and with a flick of her wrist, she had her first basket. Minutes later, she had her second. Her last was the game-winner. From then on, the boys were feeding her the ball.

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