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Diamond DeShields ‘grateful’ for a new chapter with the Chicago Sky after years of injuries and setbacks

CHICAGO — At some point, the pain became routine for Chicago Sky wing Diamond DeShields.

She didn’t have any other choice. For more than four years, the pain was simply a constant. First from a grape-sized spinal tumor discovered in 2019. Then from the nerve damage that followed its removal in 2020.

There were the months relearning how to walk. The years finding the confidence to play again. The betrayal of a knee injury that sidelined DeShields for the entire 2023 WNBA season, just as she was starting to find her way back. The frustration of yet another nagging injury — her foot this time — hampering her first games back in a Sky jersey this season.

Even when she was trying to find joy on the court, the pain crept back in, persistent and monotonous. And then Saturday came.

For 16 minutes, 53 seconds in the Sky’s home opener against the Connecticut Sun, DeShields waited for her body to protest, for the first twinge of pain. It never came. She wasn’t timid — diving on the hardwood, scrambling for loose balls, absorbing crunching fouls under the rim. Still, there was nothing.

The true victory came at home, long after the adrenaline had worn off. DeShields took off her shoes. Nothing. She began her typical bedtime recovery routine. Nothing. And when she woke the next morning, she was greeted with the best feeling she could imagine.

Nothing.

“I didn’t realize it, but when you wake up every day and you go to bed every day and something hurts — it’s debilitating,” DeShields told the Chicago Tribune. “It was one of those small wins for me to have had all my hard work materialize in that moment. I just had a ton of gratitude in that moment. Now I have an opportunity to finally ascend past just being healthy.”

Since 2019, DeShields has been working toward a comfortable version of her body. Now she’s living in the next version. And the difference was noticeable, even on day one.

Although this is coach Teresa Weatherspoon’s first season working hands on with DeShields, she followed her story and career closely over the years. When DeShields returned to the court for the home opener after sitting out a May 23 game in New York, Weatherspoon saw the version of DeShields she hopes to cultivate: buoyant and energetic on defense, creative on offense, fearless on both ends of the court.

“That’s the most important thing for her — to feel pain-free, to go and play and be free,” Weatherspoon said. “It’s freedom to play, a free mind to play. When you get those kinds of athletes, you’re going to get something pretty tough.”

The home opener was a milestone for DeShields. But she also wanted to be clear: It was far from perfect.

“I couldn’t have played any worse,” she said of her three-point performance on 1-of-6 shooting. “I’m second-guessing every shot I take, seeing gaps and not attacking them. But it’s just the fact that I was out there. The timing and the rhythm of what you need to perform at a high level, that will come with repetition.”

Still, there have been flashes of the Diamond who won over Chicago when the Sky drafted her in 2018. She tallied a pair of steals against the Sun and two more Tuesday night against the Seattle Storm, giving her nine in four games. Her defensive presence creates clear discomfort for opposing guards, who struggle to bypass her unique combination of length and speed.

The strongest area for DeShields in the last two games was her facilitation, showcased by five assists in the home opener.

“I’ve played with some really unselfish teammates and that’s something that I always appreciated,” said DeShields, who is averaging 9.8 points and 2.8 assists and led the team in scoring with 16 points in a May 18 victory in Dallas. “It’s just being a willing passer, sacrificing your shot for a teammate, and that’s something that I want to be a part of the DNA of the team.”

While DeShields returned from the spinal surgery to play a full season for the Sky in 2021 — coming off the bench during their championship run — and for the Phoenix Mercury in 2022, she was forced to slow down while she recovered.

But in the process, the game slowed down for her as well. She describes herself as more cerebral than the last time she played in Chicago, less reliant on her athleticism, more thoughtful in her execution.

This adjustment was partially informed by losing faith in her body’s abilities during those years encumbered by injury. But Weatherspoon also sees this as a necessary maturation for any player.

“When you grow in the game, that’s how you see the game,” Weatherspoon said. “You feel more cerebral with the game. You understand plays, you understand actions, you understand movement. You see things happen before it happens. That’s just growth.”

Working under Weatherspoon has been a key for DeShields in building a vision of who she hopes to be on the court. Weatherspoon tries to eliminate second-guessing. When DeShields makes a mistake, her coach is already a step or two out of her box on the sideline, shouting encouragement to get DeShields right back into the game.

And Weatherspoon encourages DeShields to embrace the difficulty of her story, to share her experience with her younger teammates and provide a guidepost for the entire roster.

“I give her the voice,” Weatherspoon said. “I give her the voice on the floor and I give her the voice to be able to talk, and she’s sharing all that experience. And that’s just her growth. That has nothing to do with me. But what I do is allow it to be a part of the team.”

That doesn’t mean DeShields can’t take the heat. She knows there’s plenty to improve if she hopes to be a consistent contributor in the Sky’s starting lineup.

But criticism isn’t debilitating for DeShields anymore. She won’t let herself obsess over mistakes or be hard on herself after a bad game.

“Honestly, why should I be?” she said with a laugh.

And that shift in perspective is the greatest gift of this season for DeShields. Without pain, the rest is under her control. Every mistake can be fixed. Every game plan can be adjusted. Every loss can inform the next win.

“The next opportunity comes very quickly in basketball,” DeShields said. “You can dwell on it and then be unprepared for the next game. Or you can let it go, learn from it and get ready for tomorrow.

“We’re not going to be perfect basketball players. We’re just not. But the way my life has played out, I’m just grateful for every opportunity to be out here.”

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