Multiple sclerosis attacks ex-UAA star
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Sometimes Deanna Davis' hand shakes.
It won't obey her. A tremor, a minor earthquake, a low reading on the seismic scale. But what it means rattles her more than the fact of it. The tectonic plates are rubbing together inside her, and like all of us who live in earthquake country she fears the great-come-and-get-it-day.
Same as she feels when a dizzy spell strikes. Same as she feels when her depth perception fails her on the stairs.
They are all symptoms. They are all part of the multiple sclerosis attacking her central nervous system, slowly but corrosively weakening the once-strong athlete's body on several fronts.
The diagnosis is fresh - early December. It is a disease that has no known origin and no known cure, and she doesn't want to dwell on where it will lead because there are no comforting answers if you go down that path.
Davis doesn't sleep through the night right now. Instead, she worries.
"When you lay there, you think, and thinking's bad," she said recently.
She is only 35, and that is too young to hear such terrible news. It was only a little while ago that she was playing college basketball for the University of Alaska Anchorage. Only a little while ago that she was still playing high-level softball. And it was only a little while ago that she was coaching kids in both sports she'd always loved.
At the moment Davis runs the family-owned True Value Hardware Store here - she paid attention when dad Charles fixed things, and she knows her widgets as well as X's and O's. But for years she coached girls and taught them how to win and taught them never to settle for being second-class. And she coached boys who were too young to care that a woman was the boss. At UAA, Davis always offered sharp game analysis, and it's easy to imagine her passing on those insights to eager young minds.
Seeing Davis waiting on customers at her store (which does happen to sell basketballs), eating dinner at Buster's, a popular local establishment, she differs only slightly from her playing days. Her hair seems darker and straighter, and she is clearly less muscular. She looks well. But the sickness - the shakiness - is inside.
"I wouldn't trust me on a ladder," she said.
Athletes are always in the best shape. They are not stricken by illnesses like this. Knees blowing out? That you can understand. Ankles twisting. Sure. Happens all the time.
Multiple sclerosis? No one can explain it.
Davis' body was good enough to earn her a basketball scholarship to UAA. She was one of former coach Linda Bruns' first recruits, coming north from Fountain Valley in Orange County, Calif., in 1982. Davis was 6 feet tall and powerfully built, and if her own description of her speed was summed up in the phrase "I'm a slug," no matter. In order to play, she overcame asthma, an affliction that cut her no slack for the Seawolves' timed preseason 10-kilometer runs.
For three years, Davis was a useful backup, playing frequently but not for long stretches. Often, she battled for playing time against Keri DeBoer. DeBoer usually got the nod.
"You're teammates, but you're in competition," said DeBoer, now an Anchorage therapist. "She handled that graciously. She was bigger and solid and could hold her own. She had a good sense of humor about what she could do."
Assistant coach Milt Raugust sometimes chided Davis for being clumsy. Running downcourt she seemed to trip over an invisible line. Raugust tilted his head parallel to the floor and joked, Is the paint too high there?
And now the doctors tell her that maybe it was MS. The beginning.
Senior year, 1985-86, Davis started all 28 games. She averaged 11.3 points a game once the coaches realized she was not a back-to-the-basket pivot player. When the Seawolves played their first-ever NCAA playoff game, Davis was part of it. Playing against some of the nation's best women's teams in the Northern Lights Invitational was a treat.
Bruns, who is retired and lives right here in this mountain city of 7,000 feet and 46,000 people, said Davis is the kind of solid citizen a coach would always want on a team. But Bruns' favorite Davis story has little to do with hoops, except that she was a practice no-show. The problem? Cutting through the trees near the Sports Center Davis walked into a moose.
"He turned and chased me into the woods," Davis said. "I was lost for hours. It seemed like days. Stray cats, dogs, maybe a possum, was my animal background."
Now Davis collects moose memorabilia. Stuffed ones, bedding, even a moose light switch. She has forgiven the species.
In 1987, when she completed a degree in elementary education, Davis left Alaska for Arizona, where for a decade she taught and coached elementary and middle-school kids. Nights, she tutored juveniles in jail.
Davis was a pioneer of sorts in Prescott when she coached boys middle-school basketball. A proud moment came at a tournament when someone in the stands ridiculed her team because a woman was coaching it and a boy in the bleachers who previously played for her responded, "Just watch her, she's awesome."
In 1991, a local high school girl brought a Title IX lawsuit that resulted in the formation of a softball team. Davis was the start-from-scratch coach. The team swiftly became a state tournament regular and won conference championships.
But teaching didn't pay much, so she became "a hardware gal" and the female customers love it. And now it is a good thing because Davis can set her own hours if she doesn't feel well.
Over time multiple sclerosis destroys the myelin, the white matter of the brain and spinal cord, affecting sight, speech and muscle coordination. MS attacks and retreats, setting its own pace. When things started going awry, Davis attributed it to aging. She tired more easily. She forgot simple things. A few years ago she quit softball because she couldn't see the pitch as well anymore. In a 3-on-3 basketball tournament a guard zinged a pass and it hit her in the head.
Then, a few months ago Davis woke up and she couldn't see out of her right eye. In a finger snap, she went from didn't-even-need-glasses 20-15 to 20-100. That's when the tests started. And now she knows.
"That's horrible to hear," DeBoer said. "That's such a shame. One of the scary things about that is how it's going to progress."
Scared? Yes, Davis is scared. "Am I going to end up in a home?" she asked out loud. And she is sad. Not angry, though she's thought, "I'm a good person. I don't deserve this."
There's probably a battalion of kids in Arizona who would say that.
New drugs coming out may slow multiple sclerosis' spread and prolong
life, and Davis hopes she can get them and that they work for her. That
would give her the peace to sleep through the night.
* This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman.
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