Down by 14 points with time running out, there was nothing that Joita Diecidue could do to win the game for the Lincoln School when a teammate passed her the basketball at midcourt.
She dribbled the ball forward anyway, driving into the paint and taking a shot that bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded on a 36-22 loss to cross-town rival Lawrence School.
But for that brief moment, as the ball was leaving her hand, Diecidue didn’t have to think about her cerebral palsy, needing crutches to walk to school, or undergoing multiple surgeries.
The Brookline eighth-grader was just playing a game with her teammates, and that, she said, is what she enjoys the most.
“They don’t see me as a girl with cerebral palsy,” said Diecidue. “They just see me as a girl on the basketball court, which is a nice feeling because it’s really the only time I have that.”
For the past two seasons, Diecidue, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy around the age of 2, has been playing basketball for her school’s seventh- and eighth-grade team.
It is no small accomplishment for Diecidue, who at 14 years old has already undergone multiple surgeries, including having doctors break and reset her legs to prevent further health complications later in life. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination; it makes balancing difficult for Diecidue, particularly when she’s standing still.
But Hali Diecidue, one of the girl’s adoptive mothers, said that even when the disorder was making it difficult for Joita to learn to walk, she was already practicing dribbling a basketball while on her knees.
Marjorie Siegel, her other adoptive mom, said older sister Kavita Howe started teaching Joita about basketball early, and her interest grew as she got older. Soon she would practice in the backyard, by herself if no one else was around to play with her.
Then, despite her difficulty walking without crutches, Diecidue announced two years ago that she wanted to try out for the school basketball team.
“I said: ‘Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you aren’t going to make the team,’” Hali Diecidue said. “She said: ‘I know that, I just want to try.’ ”
Joita’s effort was rewarded when only nine girls tried out for basketball, and she made the team, her mother said.
Lincoln physical education teacher Chris Roche, who coaches the basketball team, said he didn’t know what to expect from Diecidue at first, and he said some of her falls on the court had him worried.
“She goes down hard, and the first few times I thought she was really hurt,” Roche said. “But she pops right up every time with a smile on her face.”
Hali said Diecidue finds it easier to balance when she keeps moving. Diecidue said it is also easier for her to move on offense because she knows where she needs to go, as opposed to defense, when she has to react to what the players on the other team are doing.
Roche said Diecidue has proved herself on the court by doing all of the team’s drills during practice, and has made significant progress in her shooting game. She does need a few more breaks from the action than most players, and when the team calls a timeout or huddles up before the game, Diecidue may brace herself by holding onto her coach’s arm or leaning against a teammate.
Before the season started, Roche said, he met with other coaches in the Brookline school league to give them a heads up that Diecidue would be playing and what to expect.
He said the other teams have been great about not playing her too aggressively, but also not giving her a free pass to the basket.
Her teammates have been even more supportive, Roche said. When Diecidue falls down they help her up without a fuss, and at a recent away game where the court didn’t have a bench, they tracked down a chair for her, he said.
“They just accept her,” Roche said. “We are just a team, you know.”
Orla Schwarz, a 12-year-old
seventh-grader on the Lincoln School’s team this year, said she enjoys playing with Diecidue because she stays positive and always brings energy to the team.
“You can tell that she’s really into it,” Schwarz said. “She’s always happy.”
The Lincoln School team has also been rewarded by sticking with Diecidue for a second season. When she was in the seventh grade, she didn’t score a basket in any games.
That changed quickly this season, when Diecidue scored against Brookline’s Baker School in an early game. Diecidue said making that first basket was a powerful moment for her.
“I was kind of shocked that it went in,” she said, smiling at the memory.
Roche said he was overjoyed when Diecidue scored, as were her teammates, who high-fived her as she grinned from ear to ear.
“It was a pretty awesome moment,” he said.
Hali Diecidue said even the coach on the other team gave out a hoot when her daughter scored. She said it seems like the entire town has been exceptionally supportive and encouraging, and it’s been a huge boost for Joita to be part of a team after so many years of having more doctor visits than play dates.
“It’s probably been the most amazing thing in her life,” Hali said.
Since that first basket, Diecidue has scored several times. She said she’s sad that she will be leaving the Lincoln School and her team and heading off to ninth grade. She said she knows competition will make it tougher to make the basketball team at Brookline High School.
But that is not going to stop her from trying out.