Diamond in the rough: DeShields turns setbacks into ESPYS nomination

Phoenix Mercury forward Diamond DeShields, an ESPYS finalist for Comeback Athlete of the Year, walks onto the court after the Mercury’s 80-75 win against the Washington Mystics on Thursday (Photo by Chris Nano/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Debilitating eyesight. A growing tumor. Countless seizures. Potential paralysis.

Diamond DeShields has gone through the gantlet since the Chicago Sky drafted her third overall in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

Watching her play on the court, however, fans wouldn’t notice that the former University of Tennessee product underwent two eye surgeries and a nine-hour surgery to remove a tumor within the past four years.

“Diamond’s determination, her work ethic, her just personal self-preservation and ability to push through these many obstacles … I mean, basketball is pretty hard,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “It’s a very challenging game, but Diamond has very challenging health issues and things to overcome, but a lot of people don’t, and so she’s fought those battles.”

Because of her remarkable recovery, DeShields is one of four ESPY nominees for Comeback Athlete of the Year. The other nominees include Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, and Baltimore Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini.

“I know that perseverance and that toughness carries into what she brings to our team, so she definitely should be in high contention, if not the winner of this [Best Comeback Athlete award] for the ESPYs,” Nygaard said. “It’s amazing that she’s on the court based on what we’ve seen, and hopefully she’ll get that recognition.”

Burrow came back from an ACL tear to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Thompson, after two years of rehabilitation from back-to-back Achilles and ACL tears, helped Golden State win the 2022 NBA championship. And Mancini recovered from stage three colon cancer in 2020 and played over 145 games in 2021 as the Orioles’ captain.

“Those guys have overcome so much adversity themselves,” DeShields said. “You can never gauge who has gone through more and struggled the most, right? It’s amazing. I’m a fan of all three of those other athletes, so to see them come back and to be performing at such a high level again is more than rewarding to me as a fan and a viewer of multiple sports.”

The early life of DeShields and her eye issues

DeShields has played basketball since she was in middle school and comes from a family of athletes. Her mother, Tisha DeShields, was an All-American heptathlete at the University of Tennessee. Her dad, Delino DeShields, was a second baseman and outfielder for five MLB teams in 13 seasons, and her older brother is currently a minor league player for the Atlanta Braves. Diamond has three other younger siblings, but only Denim DeShields has an athletic background as an incoming freshman for the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s women’s basketball program this fall.

DeShields had vision problems growing up, as she would constantly fall asleep in her middle school classes.

“I couldn’t see the board, and looking at it all blurry would make me sleepy,” she told People Magazine.

DeShields also could not focus on the court due to her weakening sight and she struggled to see play calls coming from her coaches and teammates, causing her to lose confidence.

She went to an ophthalmologist – a specialized eye doctor – who diagnosed her vision problems as an eye disease called keratoconus. The disease gets progressively worse, as there is a gradual thinning and bulging of the cornea like a cone that distorts the vision, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Normal glasses and standard contact lenses do not fix the issue in the short-term, and Diamond, as a middle school student, had to wear specially-designed contact lenses that are filled with a sterile saline solution that does not touch the cornea but sit around the sclera – the white portion beyond the cornea.

DeShields still wears those same contacts to this day – the pair cost $1,200 each and have to be replaced at least twice a year.

However, she no longer has keratoconus, as DeShields underwent two corneal cross-linking surgeries in 2020 and 2021 to repair the long-term disease. She still wears special anti-shatter Oakley eyewear during WNBA games to protect not only her eyes, but also the specially-designed contact lenses.

“Some people think my glasses are a fashion statement. Some people say I look like a superhero,” DeShields said in an interview with UChicago Medicine. “I’ve gotten feedback from a lot of young girls, young athletes, who say, ‘You make wearing glasses look cool.’”

The tumor, and Diamond’s road to recovery

Unfortunately for DeShields, her health turned for the worse when she played overseas for the
Turkish team, Çukurova, in 2019. In one game, she was bumped in the back by an opponent after stealing the ball. The immediate pain felt worse than usual, so she went to a chiropractor. After an MRI was taken, DeShields received information no person wants to hear: a grape-sized tumor was growing on her back.

“You never think something like this will happen to you,” DeShield told ESPN. “The game of basketball can be just taken away from you.”

Four days later, on Jan. 10, she underwent spinal tumor surgery to remove the benign tumor. The whole process took nine hours – six more hours than expected – since the tumor was intertwined with her nerves.

Due to the complication of those same nerve endings connecting to her feet, DeShields had immense pain and simply just could not stand up. According to an ESPN Outside the Lines report, “DeShields also experienced intense, burning pain in her feet. Even the light touch of a bedsheet was too much to take.”

At the same time, she also exhibited severe tremors throughout her body due to the nervous system issues. Not only could she not walk, but DeShields’s entire body was constantly shaking.

Ann Crosby, the Chicago Sky’s Strength and Conditioning coach, was by Diamond’s side throughout this whole process and vividly described her 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 told ESPN. “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.”

DeShields was able to gradually walk and actually play in full-speed games when the WNBA started their 2020 season in The Wubble in late July due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and played 14 minutes in the Sky’s first game of the season.

But behind the scenes, she was still having tremors although her trainers tried to conceal her condition. At the time, only members of the Sky organization, and her closest friends and family members knew what DeShields was going through.

DeShields took a knee to the back of her thigh in a mid-August game against the New York Liberty. She experienced the same tremors immediately afterwards across her body. Her season was cut short after only 13 games.

Over the next nine months, she spent that time resting and recovering. When the WNBA regular season returned outside of The Wubble on May 15, 2021, a more upbeat and healthy DeShields took to the court and played 28 minutes as the Sky’s starting forward. She scored 12 points on 3 of 9 shooting in the team’s 70-56 win, but her impact was felt across the board and away from the box score. DeShields was playing the sport she loved with uber-confidence – a complete 180 from when Diamond stepped onto the court in July 2020.

DeShields finished the 2021 season averaging 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.2 steals in 32 total games (22 games started). More importantly, she played a sixth-man role for the Sky’s Finals run, as the franchise won its first WNBA title.

New Moves in a new City

After four years with the Sky – one, cut short due to COVID and her leg injury – DeShields was on the market.

DeShields was a restricted free agent, meaning her previous team – the Sky – had rights to match any monetary offer thrown her way. She was in Istanbul with her overseas team Çukurova when she received Zoom meetings from other teams interested in her services in late January.

She did her own research, according to contributing author Lyndsey D’Arcangelo of Just Women’s Sports, and wanted “to go to a team where she could contribute right away, a team with a solid mix of veterans and young players, a team that could contend for a championship and an organization that treated its players well and offered top-notch facilities and amenities. Lastly, she wanted a fresh start, a situation where she didn’t have any history with her teammates and coaches.”

That left three teams – the upstart Dallas Wings, with 2022 All-Star starter Arike Ogunbowale; the Los Angeles Sparks, a slightly-older team with a bigger metropolitan attraction; and the Phoenix Mercury, with one of the WNBA legends in Diana Taurasi and who just battled with the Sky in the WNBA Finals a few months prior.

A three-team trade involving the Sky, the Indiana Fever and the Mercury was executed on Feb. 3. DeShields would head to Phoenix, the Sky received a first-round pick and role player Julie Allemand, and the Fever picked up several draft picks and former Mercury guard Bria Hartley.

Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman said in a press release that he loved the versatility DeShields would bring to this team – a Mercury team that was three games away from hoisting its fourth WNBA title.

“She was one of our top targets this offseason because of her ability to score and defend from the wing position and how dangerous she is in the open floor,” Pitman said. “We are thrilled to add Diamond to our All-Star core.”

Added DeShields: “Having a job in the WNBA is one thing. Keeping a job is something totally different. And you have to understand your value in the league and the way the rest of the league sees you, right? They might not see you the way that you see yourself. You just gotta keep a level head in the process. You can get emotional highs and lows. But the best thing for me, what I did, I just let my agent do his job.”

In this tumultuous season for the Mercury (10-15) that saw one of her new teammates, Brittney Griner, exiled in Russia; an unhappy veteran acquisition – Tina Charles – that was subsequently divorced from the team in June; to the mounting list of player injuries and absences under a first-year head coach, DeShields had to undergo another move.

Much like her last season with the Sky, DeShields was asked by Nygaard to come off the bench after being a starter for the team. This change followed the departure of Charles, and helped fortify the Mercury’s much-improved defense.

“I think that the biggest thing is seeing your role change,” DeShields said after the team’s 84-81 home win against the Liberty on July 7. “Adjusting and finding ways to still contribute to the team has been challenging, so I think I have experienced some mental fatigue for sure, but I don’t think that’s anything to complain about, given how high-paced this condensed WNBA season has been. I’m just trying to find my way and stay positive throughout the process. And, just find opportunities where I can make myself get used to the team.”

Sameer Malla sam-ear mall-uh (he/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sameer Malla expects to graduate in August 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism and also has a master’s in geographic information systems from University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Malla has written for the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Chris Nano Chris Nano
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Chris Nano expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.