Cheesman Finds Life Hard Without Hoops

Brigham Young University sophomore forward Heather Cheesman was forced out of her sport after suffering a spinal-cord injury in practice.
(Tribune file photo)
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNECheesman Finds Life Hard Without Hoops

テつ*テつ*テつ* The mornings are the hardest time for Heather Cheesman. Those split seconds right after her eyes open, but before her consciousness catches up with her reality.

テつ*テつ*テつ* It has been that way for the past five months, ever since she got popped in the head by a teammate's elbow during basketball practice at Brigham Young, a shot that knocked her cold for a few minutes, her body crumpling at the foot of the basket, and darkened her life.

テつ*テつ*テつ* For the better part of a decade, that life had been defined by hoop.
テつ*テつ*テつ* Playing it, practicing it, breathing it, living for it.
テつ*テつ*テつ* In a shadowy, haunting way, it still is.
テつ*テつ*テつ* But Cheesman will never play basketball again.

テつ*テつ*テつ* And that painful piece of information, dropped on her recently by a string of doctors, hammered her worse than the original injury. It scared her and drove her lower than being strapped to a spine board and hauled off to a hospital, unable to move her arms and legs, unable to feel the extremities of her body, unable to know what her fate might be.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Tests found that Cheesman had suffered a spinal cord contusion, the effect and result of which would be determined in the weeks of rehab ahead.

テつ*テつ*テつ* In the early going, the 21-year-old sophomore forward from Orem found herself helpless. She couldn't walk. She couldn't dress herself. She couldn't lift her arms. She lay in her hospital bed, hooked up to machinery, enduring what seemed like a bad dream.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "It was weird," Cheesman says. "One minute, I'm fighting for a ball in practice, the next, I couldn't even feed myself. Any time I tried to move my arms, they would begin to shake. I would get a spoon of applesauce halfway from the plate to my mouth and it would stop. There I was, telling my arm to keep moving, and it just wouldn't do it."

テつ*テつ*テつ* In the weeks after the mishap, Cheesman remembers watching her teammates play and thinking, "Could I really ever do what they're doing out there?" How fast that reality had been transformed from strength and athleticism to weakness and infirmity.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "As an athlete, you're used to having your body do whatever you want it to," she says. "It's humbling to have to have your mother shower you or pull down your pants in the bathroom. Or to have your sister have to come in and brush your teeth for you. I couldn't do any of that myself."

テつ*テつ*テつ* But she could hope.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Doctors were optimistic that Cheesman would make a full recovery. Her bruised spine was expected to heal over a six-month period. And that gave her the emotional lift she needed to plow through the tedium of relearning basic motor skills.

テつ*テつ*テつ* After spending 13 days in the hospital, Cheesman returned to her family's home in Orem where she continued her slow, methodical rehabilitation, aided by family members. She walked 100 yards one day, then 200 the next, then 400.

テつ*テつ*テつ* It was a far cry from the exercises of her youth, when she spent up to four hours a day on the court, popping 500 shots, working her low-post moves, finding her groove, massaging a game that she hoped would blossom into a chance to play college basketball with her younger sister, Danielle.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Cheesman grew up all about ball. She sprouted to nearly 6 feet before the ninth grade and already had started lifting weights every morning with her father, Jay, a former BYU player. She contributed significantly to the success of her state champion Mountain View High School teams during her junior and senior years, earning all-state honors, before signing with BYU.

テつ*テつ*テつ* She redshirted her first year, in 1999-2000, figuring it would give her three seasons to compete alongside Danielle -- who is two years younger -- for the Cougars. Each Cheesman was 6-1 and ticketed to play a leading role under coach Jeff Judkins in the coming seasons. Heather was switched to the small forward position by Judkins before this past season, a move that initially set her back but, ultimately, allowed her to develop her offensive skills.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Big Game: In January, against Air Force, just four days before the injury occurred, Cheesman made six of six three-pointers, completing an 8-for-8 shooting performance that left her nothing but bright-eyed about what would come next.

テつ*テつ*テつ* The following three days of practice, as she puts it, were "awesome."

テつ*テつ*テつ* "No matter how far away from the basket I shot, it looked as though I was just 4 feet away," she says. "I was feeling good and loving it."

テつ*テつ*テつ* The next practice was her last.

テつ*テつ*テつ* During a scrimmage in the final 15 minutes of that session, on an inbounds play in which Cheesman was playing defense, she positioned herself under the basket to stop a lob to teammate Chanell Rose. Rose's elbow connected with Cheesman's forehead, knocking it backward in a kind of whiplash way.

テつ*テつ*テつ* The lights went dark as she slumped downward, banging her head again at the base of the basket. Next thing Cheesman remembers is a trainer waving her hand in front of her, asking if she was OK.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Confused, Cheesman gave the wrong answer. She said she was fine.
テつ*テつ*テつ* But her body was limp, her muscles non-reactive, her head clouded.
テつ*テつ*テつ* Her basketball over.

テつ*テつ*テつ* That last part didn't dawn on her -- it was an unexpected amendment to the words "full recovery" -- until the doctors' shocking revelation a few weeks ago. She knew her season was done almost immediately, but the major focus of her entire life, gone for good? Gone with one misplaced elbow? All through her rehabilitation, the one thing that drove Cheesman was her desire to get back on the court.

テつ*テつ*テつ* Now, the spine specialists say that one more unfortunate hit in that neck, in the general area already predisposed for injury, and it could paralyze her permanently.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "The doctor asked me, 'Do you want to risk living your life like you were right after the injury?' " she says. "The answer, of course, is no."

テつ*テつ*テつ* The implications of the answer are more complicated.

テつ*テつ*テつ* 'Different Stages': Cheesman's mother, Kathy, says the devastation is in the details.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "It's been a challenge for Heather to lose basketball," she says. "It's been her life. Everything she's worked so hard for has been ripped away. It's gone.

But it will get harder before it gets easier. When fall comes and the team starts going through its ritual of training, she won't be doing that. She'll go through different stages of adjustment. And it will come in waves."

テつ*テつ*テつ* Cheesman knows there are others worse off than she is and that she should be grateful for her recovery. She has fought the battle of putting all her energies into lifting a potato chip to her mouth without assistance. She's back to circuit training and conditioning her body. But, damn, it hurts not being able to play the game she has played and prepared herself to play since she was 12. Especially when her body tells her she's healthy.

テつ*テつ*テつ* There's only a hint of self-pity packaged with that blessing/curse.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "It's tough," she says. "When they first told me I couldn't play, that the risk was too great, it was difficult. I'm still trying to accept it. I think about playing basketball every day. Sometimes, I forget about not being able to play. I think I can."

テつ*テつ*テつ* Like in those painful, burning moments of re-entry in the morning, lost between what should be and what is.

テつ*テつ*テつ* But life goes on. Cheesman will continue with her education at BYU and bus tables at the Chinese restaurant where she works. She hopes to find place and purpose for so much enthusiasm formerly aimed and fired solely at the game she still loves.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "I know basketball's not everything," Cheesman says. "But, now, it's like I don't know what to do. I think about that a lot. It hits me over and over: 'You're not playing, you're done.' It's a daily battle. I'm doing pretty good . . . well, I'm doing OK. I just have to learn to deal with it . . ."

テつ*テつ*テつ* She pauses to gather herself, as the tide rises in her eyes.

テつ*テつ*テつ* "It's really, really hard."