Phoenix's 11-year-old secret weapon

PHOENIX -- Mia McPoland finds it "really easy" to coach the Phoenix Mercury.

"I mean, Diana [Taurasi] hits half-court shots and Candice [Dupree] is awesome and Penny Taylor is amazing," Mia said. "They are just all so great."

Mia, an 11-year-old from Phoenix, is on a first-name basis with some of the WNBA's biggest stars these days. From her seat next to the Mercury bench as an honorary assistant coach, she holds up signs, greets fans and high-fives the players as they come off the floor. She even brought cupcakes to practice to celebrate DeWanna Bonner's birthday a couple of weeks ago.

"Red velvet, chocolate, everything you could want," Bonner said with a smile.

Three weeks ago, the Mercury "signed" Mia as an honorary assistant coach, and began making donations in an effort to help find a bone marrow match that could save her life.

The girl, who had never been to a Mercury game before their playoff opener against Los Angeles three weeks ago, has become a fixture. She signs autographs in the concourse, poses for photos, stands with the team during introductions and puts her head into the huddle. She is "Coach Mia."

"You think you would meet a kid and she would be shy and not going to talk," Taurasi said. "It's Game 1 of the Finals, we are in our last huddle right there and everyone looks at Mia and she goes, '1-2-3 Together.' She's owned the moment.

"When you see a kid go through so much and have that smile on her face, it tells you what kind of person she is."

"It's Game 1 of the Finals, we are in our last huddle right there and everyone looks at Mia and she goes, '1-2-3 Together.' She's owned the moment. When you see a kid go through so much and have that smile on her face, it tells you what kind of person she is." Diana Taurasi on Mia McPoland

Mia was just six weeks old at a routine doctor's appointment when the nurse noticed how pale she was. Mia was sent for immediate blood work.

"By the time I got home from the doctor," Mia's mom, Kristi McPoland, said, "I had five messages on my machine saying, 'Please take your baby to the emergency room, right away.'"

Mia was diagnosed with Diamond Blackfan Anemia, a rare chronic blood disorder in which the body does not produce red blood cells. Mia's father, Matt McPoland, described the early days after the diagnosis as a "roller coaster."

"We were young and we didn't know what to do," he said. "We were just scared."

The 11 years since -- during which they also discovered that Mia has a chromosomal disorder called Turner Syndrome -- have been a constant effort to keep Mia alive through blood transfusions. She just completed transfusion No. 114 last week.

"Her anemia is so rare, she lives off people donating blood to her," Kristi said. "They literally keep her alive."

Since her diagnosis, Mia had been having transfusions every four weeks, but now she's having them every three weeks to improve her quality of life. When she was younger, she used to recognize the billboards on the way to the hospital and cry because she knew it meant she would be getting "poked." But now it's just a part of her life.

"I'll have this until the day I die," Mia says. "Unless God puts me into remission."

While the transfusions keep Mia in a holding pattern, a bone marrow transplant could have a transformative impact. "She could be cured with a match," Kristi said.

The McPolands have four daughters. Mia is No. 3. When their youngest daughter was born, after Mia's diagnosis, doctors harvested umbilical cord blood in the hopes that it would be a match. It was not. It was a match for her oldest sister.

"Knowing we aren't in control, that's the hardest part," Matt said. "We can't make it better."

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello has two young children.

"It makes me emotional just thinking about that," Brondello said. "I'm sure it's very difficult, but they handle it so well. They are so positive about it."

Mia tried dance classes and soccer -- Matt really wanted to be her coach -- but sports are too demanding on her body.

"She gets really tired," Kristi said. "Red blood cells carry oxygen to your tissues. Physically, you just can't go on."

But Mia attends school, and the sixth grader has a large group of friends who are frequently worried about her, Mia says.

"My friends are my friends," she said. "They ask, 'Where were you yesterday? Are you OK? Is your blood OK?' They are always concerned and want to try to help and it's really sweet."

Mia's family has taken an active role in her treatment through the years, organizing blood drives to get their daughter -- and others -- the blood they need to survive.

"She literally wouldn't be here if people didn't donate their blood," Kristi said. "One time, when she was 2, we went in for a transfusion and they didn't have anything for her and we had to wait for five hours and it was so scary. I knew then we had to start the drives, because it's not OK for people not to have blood when they need it."

The Mercury found Mia through a non-profit called "Be The Match," which advocates for bone marrow drives and testing to match seriously ill patients with potentially life-saving treatments. Be The Match is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, which manages the largest bone marrow registry in the world.

There was also a personal connection. Aubrie York, who works in community engagement for Be The Match, knows the Mercury front-office staff well as her husband, Ben York, works for the team. Phoenix was looking for a charity to support during its playoff run and asked Aubrie if Be The Match would be interested. Ben York, who has been working with the McPolands since Mia's 100th transfusion, knew immediately that Mia would be a great fit. "I sent over some video and pictures and they fell in love with her," he said.

Kristi McPoland said that many people have complimented her on how poised her daughter is, how well she has been able to share her story. "She's not afraid to put herself out there," Kristi said.

"It's so sweet that they chose me. They could have chosen another kid. I am having so much fun." Mia McPoland

Mia challenged Penny Taylor to get her cheek swabbed and be added to the registry. Taylor in turn challenged teammates Taurasi, Bonner and Brondello. They will all take the challenge when they arrive in Chicago before Game 3.

"Hopefully we are raising awareness," Brondello said. "She's a great kid and her life hasn't been easy. Considering what she has to go through every month. ... What a brave little girl, and to be able to bring out that joy, it's just amazing. It's inspirational."

On the first night of the WNBA playoffs in Phoenix, Be The Match added 145 new people to its bone marrow registry, which requires only a cheek swab. And Be The Match will be on hand at Tuesday's Game 2 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) to do another registration drive.

In signing Mia as an honorary assistant coach, the Mercury are donating $1,000 for each round of the playoffs, a donation that will total $3,000. York said the organization has received about another $1,000 in donations on top of that.

"It's created a good awareness," York said. "And it's opened some eyes for people who were not really into the WNBA before. And they love it."

Matt McPoland loves it, too.

"He's had a permanent smile on his face," Kristi said. "At one game, he just turned to me and said, 'Mia just high-fived Diana Taurasi. Is this happening right now?' He already has four daughters, but I think he's going to adopt the 11 girls on the team as his other daughters."

Mia, who will turn 12 later this month, said she feels "blessed" by this experience.

"It's so sweet that they chose me," Mia said. "They could have chosen another kid. I am having so much fun."