Thursday October 15th, 2009

It was the shoes that stood out.

Last Friday, 18-year-old Tierra Rogers walked into a small, windowless room inside Haas Pavilion on the campus of Cal. She was there to make her first public comments since the terrifying events of the previous two weeks. Symbolically, the meeting with reporters was the first act in her new life, the one that must now continue without basketball. Yet there on her feet were the shiny, black team hightops, like some tether to the world she was leaving or perhaps a reminder of what she'd lost.

Maybe you are familiar with Tierra's story from early last year. A high school junior at San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral, she was one of the top players in the country, a rangy forward who could control a game on both ends of the court. On a cold night in January, her father, Terray, was shot and killed outside the Sacred Heart gym during halftime of a game. It was heartbreaking on so many levels. Not only had Terray been Tierra's biggest advocate and her best friend, but he had also turned his own life around, moving beyond a troubled youth to become an antiviolence activist.

At the time, while working on a story for SI, I remember driving down to San Jose on a wet Friday night to watch Tierra play in her first game since her father's death. Her friends were there, as was Cal coach Joanne Boyle, who had been following Tierra's progress since she was a sophomore. Tierra started the game but never looked comfortable. She headed to the bench early, then buried her head in her hands. When the second half began, she stayed in the locker room. Afterward, huddled outside in the parking lot amidst the storm's final gusts, she talked with Boyle, who remembers Tierra as seeming, "empty, with nothing left." The next morning, Tierra told her mother that basketball didn't seem like fun anymore. She wondered whether she wanted to continue playing.

With each game, however, she began to feel more normal -- the game felt more normal. By the end of the season, Tierra had led the Irish to a second consecutive undefeated campaign and third consecutive state championship, one she dedicated to her father. When she graduated this past spring, the Irish had lost just three games during her time at Sacred Heart. Of course, she never stopped missing her father -- she spoke to him often, wrote to him in her journal -- but she says she'd made peace with basketball. It had become a way to honor him, to fulfill his dreams too.

Two months ago, she arrived on campus in Berkeley, excited to begin her collegiate career. She had chosen Cal over a dozen others because she liked Boyle, the school's academic environment and the proximity to her old neighborhood, in Hunter's Point. Plus, the basketball program was on the rise: last year Cal advanced to the NCAA Regionals for the first time. With the help of her godfather, Guy Hudson -- who had overseen her training since she was young -- she moved in to a dorm this fall, rooming with a softball player (A hoops nut, Tierra was unfamiliar with the game; "What's a pinch-runner?" she asked Hudson at one point, "because that's what my roommate is.")

In informal workouts, Rogers was impressive. She covered the floor with long, loping strides and it was clear she'd make an impact defensively immediately (Tierra is the rare kid who's always preferred defense to offense). Then, three weeks ago, while running on the court, she felt her heart speed up, then careen out of control. She tried to sit down but sagged before she reached the bench.

It lasted only a few moments, so Tierra figured it was probably nothing. After all, she had suffered from asthma since she was 14 and took Advair to mitigate it. She'd had a couple of similar episodes before, and had once called home to complain to her mom that "my heart hurts." So this wasn't that out of the ordinary.

Then, 30 minutes later, outside the training room, it happened again. Only this time Rogers wobbled and keeled over, toppling into the arms of Cal women's basketball trainer Ann Caslin. "She wasn't breathing and she was unconscious," remembers Caslin. Fortunately, the episode didn't occur on a playground, and Caslin was able to grab an Automatic External Defibrillator from the gym hallway and use it on Tierra. An ambulance arrived within minutes and took Tierra to nearby Alta Bates hospital for observation. Boyle got the news by cell phone in L.A. -- she was on a recruiting trip -- and hurried back, catching a flight that evening.

Initially, Rogers' condition befuddled doctors; her tests came back normal, including her echocardiogram. Still, something seemed off, and she was held her for further testing. To her teammates, it felt like precautionary overkill. So they showed up on a Friday night, a gaggle of teenager girls intent on "busting her out," but weren't successful. "It's hard to hide [a] 6-foot-2 [girl] coming out of that hospital," says Caslin with a smile. "Plus they were 60 years younger than everyone else." Not long after, Hudson arrived at Tierra's bedside. "The only reason you're here getting your heart checked out is because you got a big heart, because you're a good person," he said, and they shared a laugh.

As it turned out, however, it wasn't that Tierra's heart was too big, it was too weak. After being transferred to UC San Francisco Medical Center, she was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, which can cause abnormal electrical rhythms in the heart and is one of the most common causes of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. It's a frightening condition and one doctors rarely see in a live patient; according to Caslin, 80 percent of the time it's discovered, the patient is already dead. Surgery was necessary for Rogers, and without delay. So on Oct. 1 doctors implanted a defibrillator in her chest. Eventually, she was told, she'd be able to engage in light weightlifting, maybe some jogging and moderate swimming, but never again basketball. There's too much speed, too much risk.

Try to imagine how that news felt. Twenty months after her father was taken away, now the thing she loved most -- that she and Terray had shared -- was also gone. At first she wrote "Why me?" in her journal. "After a year passed, why did I have to go through something else like this again?" she said last week, speaking quietly. "I thought I was going to be happy and pursue my dreams, and go on with my life and not have to go through any more tragic experiences." She says she felt as though she'd "let down" her father, even though she knew she was powerless in this matter. Still, those who know her say she never gave in to self-pity ("That's just how I was raised, to be strong," she says by way of explanation). Says Boyle, who teared up talking about it, "She's a lot stronger than I am."

As for what happens now, Rogers and Boyle have talked about maybe coaching, or speaking to other athletes -- about "redirecting" the competitive drive and passion, as Boyle puts it. Rogers keeps a journal and loves writing, so she's thinking about maybe one day writing a book. She certainly has the material. No matter what happens, though, Boyle says Rogers will remain on scholarship, either through medical hardship or on one of the team's athletic slots. In an era when we've come to question such loyalties, when big universities often seem to act more like profit-driven businesses, it is a comforting sentiment. Says Boyle: "I'll friggin' pay for it myself if I have to."

As for Tierra, on Monday she showed up at an informal Cal workout again, this time as an observer. Not feeling well enough to shag balls, she watched quietly from the team bench. It's where she'll be all season, where she'll probably be for the next three years. People are going to see her there, the tall, shy girl with the braids and the big almond eyes, and they're going to pity her. They're going to feel her sadness.

But should they? After all, what happened last month may have changed Tierra's life but it also may have saved it. Chances were, if her condition hadn't been diagnosed, she would have had another episode, with potentially fatal consequences. Just this past Sunday, a 15-year-old boy at nearby De LaSalle High died of a heart attack during a basketball game. For Hudson, the godfather, it was a chilling reminder. "My thought was, 'That could have been my goddaughter," he says. "If not now, then three, four years from now.'"

So sure, the timing of the news feels cruel, before Rogers played a single college game -- "I just wish she'd had at least one year to experience it," says Boyle -- and less than two years after her father's death. But what if this had happened a year and a half ago? She wouldn't have won the final state title, wouldn't have gotten that scholarship to Cal. As it is, she's guaranteed four years at one of the top schools in the country. It was something she reflected on after her surgery, marveling to Boyle that she could have been at any number of different schools, ones that might not prepare her for the future like Cal. "It's hard to think of it this way," says Boyle, "But maybe in that way she was fortunate."

Rogers also has an opportunity, as Boyle has emphasized to her. She can share her story, help others, maybe reach that young girl out there who thinks all she has is asthma, who wonders why her heart feels weird but doesn't question it. That's why Boyle asked Tierra to spend some time and think about what she'd say to the reporters last Friday, to consider what message she wanted to send. So when Rogers did talk, she was clear-eyed and thoughtful, devoid of self-pity, resisting the urge to blame others. Personally, I couldn't imagine a much better role model.

Not that there won't be a mourning period, for all involved. "When I heard she wasn't going to play basketball anymore I cried," says Hudson. "I loved watching Tierra Rogers play basketball."

Rogers says she hasn't quite processed it yet. After all, you can't give up something you love just like that and forget about it. Hence her presence at practices, and in those black hightops. Rather than run away from the game, she might well cling to it tighter for a while.

For now, it's her connection, though in time that could change. In time, the world could open up. "Remember, there are a lot of 18-year-olds out there across the country who don't have anything," says Hudson. "And look where she's at, the school she's at." Hudson pauses. "Here's a 18-year-old who has everything."

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