'A walking miracle': How Baylor's DiDi Richards returned from injury that left her temporarily paralyzed

Baylor's DiDi Richards returns 38 days after paralysis (1:00)

Temporarily paralyzed from the waist down after an Oct. 24 collision in practice, senior guard DiDi Richards had to learn how to walk again. (1:00)

DiDi Richards could see that her mother was crying. Ungeanetta Richards was nearly a thousand miles away, but FaceTime couldn't hide her fears.

Everything is fine, DiDi insisted, trying to stop the tears. I'll be out of the hospital in no time.

But her mom choked back a sob. "That's not what it sounds like," Ungeanetta mustered.

That was Oct. 24, a few hours after Richards, a senior guard for the No. 4 Baylor women's basketball team, had been temporarily paralyzed in a freakish on-court collision with teammate Moon Ursin in practice. Richards, the national defensive player of the year last season for the Big 12 champion Lady Bears, went airborne to intercept a pass, and Ursin inadvertently slammed into her hip, then both hit the floor.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey didn't see it happen -- she was writing on her clipboard -- but said it sounded "like a football collision without the pads."

Richards briefly passed out, then came to, with longtime Baylor athletic trainer Alex Olson at her side. Richards had suffered a spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality, which causes temporary impairment. It was a non-structural injury, but Richards initially dealt with paralysis from the hips down. Essentially, it was a spinal shock; initially one doctor wasn't sure she'd be able to play again.

"They said that I kept saying, 'I can't feel my legs; I can't feel from my hips down,'" Richards said. "I'm the type that whenever I fall, I want to get back up quickly. Alex said, 'Move your legs,' and that's when I realized that I couldn't."

Yet 38 days later, Richards was on the court for Baylor, totaling four points, seven assists and two steals in Tuesday's 67-62 victory at South Florida. The always energetic and feisty Richards even picked up a technical in her season debut. She smiled later and admitted she felt a little tired and winded, but otherwise fine.

Ungeanetta was in tears again, though, along with DiDi's father, Damian Richards Sr., as they watched the Baylor game on their phones while attending son Damian Jr.'s high school basketball game in Houston.

"That's her will. She's mentally tough," Ungeanetta said of DiDi's speedy comeback. "No one expected her to recover so quickly. She's just so determined. She's like a walking miracle."

DiDi Richards' return from spinal cord injury is the best thing SVP saw today

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Even after medical professionals assured Mulkey that Richards would be able to come back -- although they weren't sure when -- Mulkey had her doubts. She kept those to herself, knowing how determined Richards was. But she had seen the video of DiDi struggling initially to walk across her hospital room with a walker. Then Mulkey saw her doing rehab during Baylor's practices, eventually shedding the walker but still needing to will herself to every step.

"The mother instinct comes out in you," Mulkey said. "And it's like, 'To heck with basketball, let's just get her back to normal DiDi, being able to walk and dance around and be happy.'"

Richards, her mother says, always has been an upbeat kid. Someone who gets out of bed in a good mood, bright and early, giggling and turning up her favorite music loud to start the day.

"If you're not a morning person," Ungeanetta said laughing, "you probably don't want to wake up around DiDi."

Mother and daughter had talked via FaceTime early that Saturday morning on Oct. 24 before Baylor's practice. Ungeanetta was in Atlanta to provide support for a friend who had a family member going through a health crisis. Later, she got the call that DiDi had been hurt. Ungeanetta flew back to Texas early Sunday morning.

"I was just praying, praying, praying that my baby was going to be OK," she said. "Right when I landed and turned my phone off airplane mode, I got the text from her saying she could wiggle her toes. As soon as I got to the hospital, she wanted to stand and try to walk."

Flanked by nurses on either side, and a walker in front of her, Richards did walk, haltingly, and her determination kept pushing her. She wanted to be released from the hospital by Monday to join her team.

"My main thing was making it to our COVID test at 12:15 Monday like normal," Richards said. "I just kept telling the doctors and the physical therapist, 'I can do it!' I just wanted to be back around familiar faces, something that made me happy, which is my team and my coaches."

Mulkey tried to prep her team, instructing her players to hide their shock at seeing Richards using a walker. Richards said she kept telling everyone not to worry, even though inside she felt scared. The first neurologist she went to see told her there was a possibility that she wouldn't be able to play basketball again. That briefly made her consider redshirting.

"I kept a poker face, for sure," Richards said. "There were definitely times where I would be kind of discouraged, so I'd just go in my room and lay there watching TV, or sometimes even cry. I definitely had some hard times throughout this process."

A second opinion with a different neurologist who had treated other athletes with similar injuries was far more optimistic.

"The second doctor was like, 'Go, go, go, go, go!' until your brain tells you to stop," Richards said. "And I was like, 'OK, yeah, I can do that.'"

Part of the rehab was with an anti-gravity treadmill, which uses a pressurized air chamber to reduce the gravitational load. It allowed Richards to walk without putting full weight on her legs. Then around Nov. 5, she was able to get up from a chair and walk by herself without support from the walker or anything else. On Nov. 18, Baylor tweeted video of Richards shooting jump shots.

"It was just so dramatic, how her legs woke up," Mulkey said. "At first, it was just seeing her stand up and walk without the walker. Then she kept getting better. One day, she snuck into a defensive drill from the sideline, and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' And I thought, 'She really is coming back.'"

Shortly after the injury, Richards said her legs went from feeling numb to feeling as if a limb had fallen asleep and is waking up.

"It started turning into a tingling sense, like the pins and needles," she said. "That was still frustrating, because I was trying to get my legs to move, but it felt kind of like they were dead weight.

"My legs felt stuck, or they would hesitate, or jump a bit. That's when I learned to celebrate each little thing, every different thing that was something I wasn't able to do the day before. I became more positive with the little victories."

Ungeanetta and Damian Sr. traded off time in Waco staying with DiDi over the next few weeks.

"She was determined to try to do everything herself; she didn't want to rely on anyone," Ungeanetta said. "Then they cleared her to drive. And then she was determined she was going to play again."

On Monday, doctors cleared Richards to play. On Tuesday, she came off the bench and brought the same experience and energy to Baylor as she has the past three years. Mulkey said the other thing she loves about Richards is the humor she adds to the team.

"I'll be giving a good motivational talk. I'm intense, I'm getting after it," Mulkey said. "And then you'll hear DiDi go, 'You tell 'em, Mulkey!' Most players would be scared to death to say that, but the kids got the message, and then we need to laugh. That's just DiDi."

Richards said she has thought a lot the past five weeks about what she can learn from the injury. She feels it has brought her closer to basketball.

"It was my senior year, I was ready to get out of school, and I wanted to try something new, because I want to model, for sure," Richards said. "But I think this injury was almost like a wake-up call in a way. And it's really drawn me more to the game."

Richards also promised herself to follow through on something she has always wanted to do.

"When we were sitting in the hospital, she said, 'Mom, after I overcome this injury, I'm signing up for a tap-dance class," Ungeanetta said. "I was like, 'OK, I will be there at your recitals.'"