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Chico State women’s basketball star plays through spina bifida

Chico State coach Brian Fogel (left) says Branham has refused to be treated any differently than her teammates despite her condition. Jason Halley / California State University, Chico

From the stands, an untrained eye won’t pick up on the subtle deficiencies in Whitney Branham’s game.

It’s difficult to notice that the Chico State guard strains when she pushes off her left foot — completely numb and encased in a size 8½ shoe — while she moves effortlessly when lunging from her right, its nerves functioning, size 10. Nor is it easy to discern the atypical ways she contorts her body when dribbling up court or finishing at the rim to account for spina bifida and the trio of surgeries it necessitated. More noticeable are her team-leading 14.5 points and 1.3 steals per game, which hide her irregular gait.

“Watching her, you never would have guessed,” Chico State coach Brian Fogel says of first seeing Branham play. “She never allowed it to hinder her. I knew right then and there that this kid was going to be really tough.”

Branham first faced surgery at age 1. The procedure untethered her spinal cord from an obstruction, ensuring it could move and develop freely. Surgeons, though, nicked a nerve, which robbed her of feeling in her left foot. At 6, she faced another procedure to safeguard her spine. Unlike the first, a few scenes from that ordeal have stuck in her memory: being moved, belly down, onto a bed in the intensive care unit; frantic nurses hovering nearby; worried parents being kept away. “It was dark,” she says, “and I was by myself.”

In fifth grade, surgeons shaved a bone in her left foot and inserted a pin in her big toe to ensure it would grow straight. It freed her to play sports, but the numb appendage led to a broken big toe three times. She even played through an entire basketball tournament with a break, which she didn’t feel until the fracture began to creep toward her ankle.

Doctors who treated the injuries suggested she give up sports altogether. “Don’t listen to them,” Branham’s mother told her. “We’re going to do this.”

She learned how to compensate for her lack of flexibility and her faulty foot by diving for loose balls and transforming into a defensive terror. Fogel crossed paths with her father, Richard, at a high school tournament: Chico State’s coach was an assistant at California when Richard played there, so Fogel agreed to watch his daughter play. Branham’s tenacity earned her an invite to campus, then one to join the team.

Fogel insists only a few accommodations have been necessary. Branham struggles and stumbles though some agility drills on the court, but never asks out. Back squats and cleans in the weight room are replaced with body-weight exercises.

Though she wanted no shortcuts, the early weeks of her freshman season sapped her confidence. Fogel called her into his office and told her she wasn’t the player he had recruited. “Where’s that aggression?” he asked. “Where’s all that heart I saw when you were playing in high school?”

She scored 18 points in the next game and 18 again in the next. She subsequently was named conference freshman of the year. Last season, as a junior, she made first-team all-conference and the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District Team. Branham entered her senior year only 39 points shy of 1,000 for her career.

The biology major plans to attend medical school after she graduates from Chico State this spring, hoping to join the profession she admires most. She yearns to pay back the myriad doctors, nurses and surgeons who enabled her to have a chance to achieve more than seemed possible when she was lying on her stomach in the ICU, alone in the dark.

 

“I’m grateful,” she says. “I’m able to step on the court and do the things that so many people wish they could.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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