- Diamond DeShields was a budding star in the WNBA before doctors discovered a tumor in her spine.
- After undergoing surgery, the guard had to re-learn to walk — as she recounted to ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
- Now a WNBA champion, DeShields is “looking forward” and enjoying a fresh start with the Phoenix Mercury.
Diamond DeShields made her first WNBA All-Star game in just her second season in the league.
Six months later, she found herself on an operating room table. And the day after that, the ridiculously athletic wing with seemingly unlimited upside was faced with the monumental task of learning how to walk again.
No one outside of her circle knew what had happened. The public believed she had suffered a routine knee injury. But ahead of the 2022 WNBA season — her first with the Phoenix Mercury — DeShields shared her story with the world in an exclusive report by ESPN’s Holly Rowe for “Outside the Lines.”
“[I’ve been] living for the past two years, knowing that I was struggling with so much and trying to go out and play and perform as if there was nothing going on,” DeShields said during a Mercury press conference after the segment aired. “Now that it’s something that’s being talked about and out, I can put it behind me.”
While playing overseas in Italy following that 2019 All-Star season with the Chicago Sky, DeShields took a run-of-the-mill bump from an opposing player and immediately felt pain in her back. An MRI revealed something far worse than anything she ever thought to fear: a tumor in her spinal cord.
Her season ended there. If she didn’t have the mass removed, she could suffer serious complications, including paralysis. But there were risks of paralysis in removing the tumor, too. Regardless, she had to address the issue.
After a nine-hour surgery, doctors at the University of Chicago successfully removed the growth. But the procedure left damage to some of DeShield’s nerves — particularly the ones leading to her feet.
At first, even the sensation of a bedsheet or socks on her feet was too painful to bear. She also suffered full-body spasms and tremors that left her without control of her limbs.
But after non-stop intense rehab, DeShields worked her way back onto her feet. And just a month after DeShields had her surgery, WNBA legend Sue Bird recalled seeing her at the NBA All-Star game in Chicago for a WNBA photo shoot and being able to “sense she was walking a little bit slower.”
“At that point, nobody knew that she was just starting to walk,” Bird told Insider during a recent Seattle Storm media availability. “She told us the whole story, showed us all the videos of her in her hospital bed unable to control her muscles, telling us how exhausting that was, videos of her starting to walk and what that looked like….
“It was absolutely shocking to see someone who is an elite athlete now unable to walk and unable to control her muscles in her body and having these uncontrollable twitches,” she continued. “All of us were just in shock, honestly, but so impressed.”
After putting months of tough work into physical therapy, reestablishing connections with her body, and questioning whether a comeback to professional basketball was even possible, DeShields made her way back to the court for the WNBA’s 2020 bubble season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. But, as Bird notes, “she just wasn’t herself” when she first returned to gameplay.
It showed in her stats. A year removed from an All-Star campaign in which she started all 34 games and stuffed the box score each time, DeShields came in off the bench and averaged just 6.8 points in 17 minutes per contest in her abbreviated return. And without the context of her debilitating injury, fans and media alike were critical of her play.
“It was actually, for me personally, kind of sad to see how people responded to her, especially in the bubble, because she just wasn’t herself,” Bird said. “It just goes to show you, whether it’s media [or] fans, I could only imagine what people have been saying about her and her play, and you literally just never know.”
DeShields left the bubble after suffering a thigh injury in August. But with extra work during the off-season, she was able to make further strides with her body and contribute double-digit scoring throughout the Sky’s 2021 championship season.
Now, the ridiculously athletic wing with seemingly unlimited upside is enjoying a fresh start with the Phoenix Mercury, who traded for her in February. And while she’s comfortable with people discussing her injury and subsequent journey back to the hardwood, DeShields says she’s personally more interested in “looking forward.”
In her first game with her new team, the young star recorded 12 points and four assists in 25 minutes on the floor — helping the Mercury to a big win over Bird’s Storm.
“Diamond is a special, special talent,” Bird said. “Her first couple of years in the league showed that. I mean, she was an All-Star by year two, and she was on the path. I think a lot of people would’ve penciled her in for the national team and the Olympic team. And would’ve penciled her in to be an All-Star for years to come only to have, you know, this scenario kind of derail all that….
“So to have her back on the court, I think just as a human being, you’re just happy to see somebody back to being themselves and being healthy after going through something like that,” she continued. “Her showing us those videos, I mean, it shook me. It was very difficult to watch and to see her in those videos….
“It’s amazing to see her tell her story to share it — she’s going to help other people by sharing it,” Bird added. “And it’s also great to see her just back in a happy place and feeling healthy.”