Diamond DeShields and the WNBA comeback no one knew about

Diamond DeShields' incredible journey to return to the basketball court (6:40)

Discover how Diamond DeShields went from the hospital bed to the basketball court in less than two years. (6:40)

On Jan. 17, 2020, just weeks after an MRI revealed she had a grape-sized tumor in her spinal cord, Diamond DeShields underwent surgery at the University of Chicago. What was expected to be a three-hour surgery to remove the lumbar spinal schwannoma evolved into a nine-hour procedure.

Heading into the surgery, DeShields knew there were risks.

"One of the possible complications is paralysis, because we are operating around the nerves inside the spine," said Dr. Edwin Ramos, the neurologist who performed DeShields' surgery.

But if the tumor was not removed, it also could cause paralysis due to pressure on the spinal cord.

Dr. Ramos was able to remove the schwannoma, but the nerves were severely impacted, leaving DeShields with tremors and involuntary spasms throughout her body. And when the 6-foot-1 WNBA guard -- who was traded to the Phoenix Mercury in February after four seasons with the Chicago Sky -- awoke after the surgery, it wasn't clear whether she would regain full feeling or control of her body.

Throughout months of grueling rehabilitation, at one point even considering retirement, DeShields -- a former WNBA All-Star and Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year -- learned to walk and run again, slowly returning to the world-class athlete she had been. All out of the public eye.

And on Oct. 17, 2021 -- 21 months after her back surgery -- DeShields helped lead Chicago to the WNBA title.

As the Sky celebrated, as DeShields raised the championship trophy, she thought about everything that she had overcome, about the comeback no one knew about.

"It was really all I was thinking about," DeShields, 27, said.

Here are four more things we learned during our reporting for Outside the Lines' segment on DeShields, which debuted May 7.

A rare medical condition

Ramos said spinal tumors aren't very common, and in fact, schwannomas account for "about 5% of the tumors we see in the spine." Ramos said DeShields will have annual MRIs to make sure the tumor doesn't recur.

DeShields' benign tumor, which Ramos said was 2-2½ centimeters in diameter, was compressing her spinal cord.

"Think of it like a grape pushing on this nerve," he said. "We have to peel that grape-sized mass from that nerve, from that spinal cord and from the surrounding nerve roots, the nerve branches, without causing damage or too much irritation to them."

During the surgery, Ramos identified that some of the nerves intertwined with the tumor were the nerves going to DeShields' feet. So the medical staff knew she would have hypersensitivity and pain in her feet.

But not long after waking up from the surgery, DeShields' finger involuntarily started tapping on her thigh.

A long, slow rehabilitation

Ann Crosby, the Chicago Sky's director of basketball operations and the head strength and conditioning coach, and Meghan Lockerby, the Sky's head athletic trainer from 2019 to 2020, helped care for DeShields after her surgery, spending hours by her side in the hospital and later at the rehab facility. They were there when the spasms started.

"Diamond would get tremors. It would get so bad where her whole body was seizing, to the point where she's got tears rolling down her eyes, but she can't speak," Crosby said. "And she's clawing at her face because she can't control her hands. We're just trying to make sure she doesn't hurt herself.

"And we couldn't predict when they were coming. You can't see it. All of a sudden it was just there."

Said DeShields: "I remember being in so much pain. My whole body went into contraction. I had no control over my arms."

DeShields also experienced intense, burning pain in her feet. Even the light touch of a bedsheet was too much to take.

Crosby knew how important it was to reassure DeShields that she was making progress and help keep her spirits up.

"The minute you walk in the room, [you try to have a] smile on your face," Crosby said. "I would be super strong in front of her, but I'd get in the car and almost vomit, just knowing how much pain she was in."

Amidst the pain and tremors, DeShields' therapy began. Early on, it involved learning to get her toe to lift off the ground, or lifting her foot to take a step.

"It literally was learning how to walk again, learning how to balance again, learning how to do things that you take for granted every single day," Crosby said.

After six days in the hospital, DeShields was moved to an inpatient rehab facility -- and she kept pushing the envelope, wanting to do additional exercises in between sessions of physical therapy. DeShields was getting out of bed unsupervised so often that the medical staff put an alarm on her bed to prevent her from sneaking out of bed to exercise.

"I'm not trying to learn how to walk," said DeShields, who spent another nine days in the rehab facility. "I'm trying to learn how to run and jump and defend and do all the things that, you know, a basketball player is supposed to do."

And that's what concerned Crosby.

"I knew she'd walk," Crosby said. "I had full trust that she would get that motor development back, but to be explosive, to be the Diamond DeShields that she was, I didn't know. It was a gamble."

A decision to join the WNBA bubble -- even as the tremors continued

DeShields' rehab continued with Lockerby and Crosby. But the process was severely limited during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they could no longer meet in person. Determined, DeShields worked out and trained outdoors in parks near her home, collaborating through video with her trainers.

By April 2020, however, DeShields said she still couldn't run in a straight line or jump. Her mobility and endurance were slow to return, and as soon as her muscles fatigued, the tremors would start again.

But DeShields remained adamant about working out every day, and over time, her physical abilities improved. So much so that when it became clear the WNBA would play the 2020 season in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida, DeShields felt the pull of being back on the court and reunited with her teammates. She wasn't sure her body was ready. And she wasn't sure she was ready to share everything she'd been through with the rest of the coaches and players in the bubble.

DeShields said she had three telephone conversations with Chicago coach James Wade, initially telling him she wasn't coming. But the more she talked about it, the more she knew she needed to be there.

"I need my teammates more than they probably need me right now," DeShields decided.

"Not only was I dealing with what I was dealing with physically," she said, "there was the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID pandemic, all this loneliness, this isolation. And I just needed to be around them. I needed the support and the comradery."

Once inside the bubble, Lockerby and Crosby helped come up with contingency plans, because DeShields was still having tremors and trying to conceal her condition, especially as games were televised. At this point, she said her right foot also remained numb, and wearing sneakers was still uncomfortable -- it's why she was seen on the sideline at times in her socks. And the tremors could come at any time.

"I always had to check my emotions," DeShields said. "'Cause whenever I got emotional, I would start to have tremors. And these were good emotions or bad emotions, if I was happy or if I was crying. So I was always just trying to be even-keel, especially when I was around people."

DeShields and Crosby would meet at 5:30 a.m. to squeeze in additional workouts, primarily focusing on helping DeShields get her explosiveness back. And at night, they'd meet again for soft tissue work and stretching.

Due to heightened COVID-19 protocols, players were not allowed to leave the court area and return to a game. So the Sky's trainers set up a table nearby, just off the court and behind a curtain, where DeShields could retreat for some privacy. If she felt a tremor coming on while she was on the court, Diamond would give Crosby a signal.

"She'd give me the little, you know, deer in the headlights [look]," Crosby said. "I had to help her off [the court] twice, where I met her at half court, pretending to take her glasses and wipe them or whatever, but it was more to calm her down a little bit."

DeShields played 15 minutes in Chicago's season-opening victory on July 26, 2020. Though she was far below 100 percent, DeShields stuck it out, appearing in 13 games before leaving the bubble in late August after taking a knee to the thigh during a game.

DeShields' role in Chicago's championship run

DeShields averaged 5.5 points and 15.7 minutes per game over 10 playoff games last season as Chicago won its first WNBA title.

Veteran Sky guard Allie Quigley insists Chicago wouldn't have won the 2021 championship without DeShields, who averaged 11.3 PPG and 26.9 MPG and started 22 of 32 games.

After the decisive Game 4, a 80-74 victory in Chicago, as the Sky celebrated on court, Quigley and DeShields embraced.

"I told her, 'This [winning a WNBA title] started with you three or four years ago.' She changed the culture. She changed our team athletically," Quigley said. "I think the piece of the championship that Diamond brought was just overcoming adversity."

DeShields was the No. 3 pick in the 2018 WNBA draft after she elected not to use her final season of NCAA eligibility. That season, she started 33 of the Sky's 34 games, averaging 14.4 PPG and 4.9 RPG, and was named to the WNBA All-Rookie team. She made an immediate impact on the Sky.

"When you saw what she could do on the basketball court, it was just unbelievable, the way she could go 94 feet and just how fast she was," Quigley said. "It was crazy. You could throw [the ball] probably 20 feet ahead of her and just somehow, she would get it. It was just such a luxury to have around the team."

In 2019, DeShields was voted an All-Star for the first time, winning the WNBA All-Star Skills Challenge. "I truly believe I was the most athletic player in the world," DeShields said recently, looking back at the 2019 season. "Definitely a top-five player in the league. ... I don't think there was really nobody touching me at my position that year."

The 2022 WNBA season opened Friday, and Phoenix fell 106-88 at home. DeShields, who was traveling back to the United States from playing overseas, missed the game but is expected to play Wednesday at Seattle.

When the Mercury first reached out in the offseason, they were unaware of the tumor, the recovery, everything DeShields had been through. DeShields said she and her agent shared it all. Phoenix still wanted her.

"I have a lot of expectations moving forward and kind of getting this off me now," DeShields said. "I've been sitting with this for a long time, you know? And it's time that I put it behind me. I'm healthy now. And I expect a lot."