Nichelle Crawford (left) gives her daughter, Kia Crawford, injections to help her multiple sclerosis symptoms at their home in Lynnwood on May 9, 2018. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Nichelle Crawford (left) gives her daughter, Kia Crawford, injections to help her multiple sclerosis symptoms at their home in Lynnwood on May 9, 2018. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lynnwood basketball player perseveres despite MS diagnosis

MS, a torn ACL and a broken wrist couldn’t keep Kia Crawford from her goal of playing in college.

Kia Crawford returned home in May of 2017 from a run-of-the-mill practice with her Seattle Future AAU basketball team. Her arm fell asleep that evening. She didn’t think much of it, even after the unsettling, tingling feeling remained a day later. Then Kia noticed her leg dragging as she walked. She struggled gripping objects. Periodically her hands shook uncontrollably.

Kia’s mom, Nichelle Crawford — a committed partner throughout Kia’s basketball career — couldn’t fathom her daughter’s concerns. She considered them fiction, or at the very least a dramatized issue that soon would disappear.

“My hands would shake, and it was really scary,” Kia recalled. “I went to my mom about it and tried to show her, and she was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, stop playing.’”

Days later it happened.

Kia knew something was wrong from the beginning. She was warming up for Seattle Future before a game at an Auburn-area gym and her shots were consistently off — multiple feet off. But Kia remained silent. She refused to jeopardize a single chance to improve for a senior season at Lynnwood High School she’d been waiting on for what felt like a lifetime.

“Coach puts me in the game,” Kia recounted. “I run out there, and I know something is wrong. I notice my leg bouncing, like, it’s not a regular run. I got the ball stolen and tried to go down the court, and my leg was dragging. I tried really hard to keep it together, but mentally I was petrified.”

Sitting in the stands, Nichelle noticed something wasn’t right.

“When she tried to chase after the ball, you could just see her really trying, and she looked confused,” Nichelle said. “I was like, ‘Stop the game. Call a timeout, something. Get my kid off the floor.’”

“One side of my body was, ‘Go, go, go, go,’” Kia said. “The other side of my body was like, ‘What?’”

The odd episode left Kia and Nichelle searching for answers. Kia’s primary doctor recommended visiting a neurologist.

“We looked at each other,” Kia remembered, “and said, ‘Neurologist? Why would we go to a neurologist?’”

An MRI answered that question.

“They said, ‘Well, we see some spots of inflammation, which is a sign of MS.’ I had never heard of MS before,” Kia said. “At the time I didn’t know if I understood how big of a deal it was. I was scared, but at the same time I thought it was probably nothing. The more I read, I found out it’s rare, that less than 200,000 people get it in the U.S. a year.”

Taking her daughter to a neurologist was frightening enough, but to hear a multiple sclerosis diagnosis horrified Nichelle.

“Immediately, I thought handicapped,” Nichelle said. “I know more now, but I didn’t know the severity. The only comforting thing we got out of that is the doctor said she could have what they call ‘clinical isolated syndrome,’ which basically means this could happen one time and never again.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which one’s immune system eats away at protective nerve coverings. The resulting nerve damage disrupts communication between the brain and body.

The diagnosis delivered a major health scare and a crushing blow to Kia’s hopes of a senior basketball season she was counting on to catch the attention of college recruiters. And it was just the beginning of a year of adversity that would test her will to persevere, stay positive and continue to pursue her college basketball dream.

Lynnwood’s Kia Crawford (left) looks to pass against Shorecrest during a game on January 25, 2017, in Shoreline. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lynnwood’s Kia Crawford (left) looks to pass against Shorecrest during a game on January 25, 2017, in Shoreline. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Patiently waiting her turn

Growing up in Plano, Texas, some of Kia’s first basketball memories were as a middle-schooler practicing with and getting tips from her mom, who played college basketball.

Kia tried softball and soccer, but basketball stuck. The game was a natural fit for a natural athlete who eventually sprouted to 6-foot-1.

“My mom really pushed me to start getting into the sport,” Kia said, “and the more I started playing, the better I got and the more I liked it. I wanted to be good at it, and I wanted to work hard. Basketball is kind of the one thing that I have that is mine that I can craft into my own, be good at and possibly go to college for.”

Kia’s family moved to Lynnwood after her freshman year of high school in Texas. She wasn’t sure what to expect coming to a new team her sophomore year at Lynnwood.

What she found was a Royals squad brimming with talent fresh off winning a Class 3A state championship. Kia recorded limited varsity minutes her sophomore and junior years, playing on teams with standouts Mikayla Pivec, Jordyn Edwards and Kelsey Rogers.

“When I got there I realized, ‘OK, I got to step up,” Kia said. “I had a pretty good experience playing behind the players I played behind. Practicing with them every day, seeing their mentality and how they looked at basketball, it made me want to be a better player.”

Lynnwood placed third at the state tournament Kia’s sophomore year in 2016 and placed sixth a year later. Her senior season was supposed to be an opportunity for Kia to showcase what had been log-jammed behind Lynnwood’s talented starting five.

Following her junior year, Kia was selected to play for Seattle Future — an AAU team comprised of the area’s top talent.

“Oh, for sure,” said Seattle Future and Everett High School girls basketball coach Luther Weathersby when asked if Kia would have been one of the league’s top post players this past season. “Snohomish had a really good post, and other than that, there was no real dominant posts. I think Kia would have been that kid.”

Said Kia; “Everyone thought I was going to dominate my position. Everyone thought, ‘OK, she is 15 points a night, 6-10 rebounds.’”

But those numbers never materialized. There would be no dominant performances, no postgame conversations with recruiters, no Kia-led playoff wins or headline-grabbing stat lines.

“We had it all planned out on how this was going to go,” Nichelle said. “You think, ‘Here comes senior year. It’s Kia’s turn.’”

Kia Crawford (left) works through physical therapy under the watchful eye of Jared Appleby on May 9, 2018, at Experience Momentum in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kia Crawford (left) works through physical therapy under the watchful eye of Jared Appleby on May 9, 2018, at Experience Momentum in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘Nowhere to go after this’

Kia has seven different injection spots on her body. Every other day, she rotates the location her shot is administered. She moves from both arms, to both thighs, to both hips before arriving at a spot on her stomach. Nichelle explained this is to prevent permanent skin impressions or a concave appearance at the injection site.

Kia first used a machine to administer her shots. Then she enlisted her mom. Now, knowing it’s reality of the rest of her life, Kia gives herself the shots.

“I don’t like needles,” she admitted. “We researched and tried to see what types of medicine there was, but every other medication had severe side effects.”

Since beginning the injections, Kia’s MS symptoms have dissipated. She receives an MRI every six months to track inflammation in her brain. The hope is that as long as she’s receiving shots, the episodes won’t return.

“They want to see if she has more activity, and there hasn’t been, so we still cross our fingers and hope it was an isolated incident,” Nichelle said.

While Kia dealt with a life-altering diagnosis, her focus remained steadfast on basketball.

Immediately after Kia’s episode during that May 2017 game with Seattle Future, she spent three days at the doctor’s office getting steroid IV infusions. She began feeling better, and as time passed, was allowed to return to the court.

But more adversity struck.

A month after receiving her MS diagnosis, an awkward fall further jeopardized Kia’s senior year.

“I was getting back into the groove of things, and I just remember one practice I was feeling a little lazy and went up for a rebound,” Kia said. “I landed on my ankle wrong. My knee went the opposite direction, and I came down in excruciating pain. Then I landed on my hand to break my fall, and I heard a pop.”

Kia, who takes advance sports medicine classes and plans to become a physician, feared the worst. Days later her nightmare was confirmed — she had torn her ACL. She also broke the scaphoid bone in her right wrist, trying to brace her fall.

“It was one after another,” Kia said. “First it was MS, then it’s my ACL. Then we went back to the doctor, and they said, ‘Your wrist is broken.’ It was like, ‘I can’t win. Why is this happening to me?’”

Still, Kia persisted. She was determined to not let injuries derail a final chance to play and possibly garner the attention of recruiters.

That precipitated a decision to push through a damaged knee and wrist.

“The way the doctor explained it originally was when you tear your ACL, you have two options,” Kia explained. “You can have surgery, and that’s what most people do. Or, you can try to rehab your knee. The ACL keeps stability in your knee, so if you get your calf muscles and hamstring muscles strong enough, you might be able to play without it.”

So Kia trained and trained. She did everything she could during the summer of 2017 to build her ACL’s supporting muscles. 

The months passed, fall came and Kia was back practicing with the Royals, though she had to alter her game. She favored her healthy leg and adjusted her shot to compensate for her ailing wrist. Still, Kia was on the court seven months removed from her MS diagnosis and six months removed from a torn ACL and broken wrist.

Kia, who estimated she was playing at 60-70 percent, struggled her first game, needing to get her legs back in game shape. Her second game, a Dec. 5 home matchup with Mountlake Terrace, offered the Royals a glimpse of her potential.

Kia had 14 points and pulled down a number of rebounds as Lynnwood led big late in the fourth quarter.

“Two minutes left, someone had passed me the ball, and I was stepping to make a layup on the left side when I landed wrong,” Kia said. “My footing was fine. But the ACL gives you the stability, and there was nothing there. I came down, and it was the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my entire life. It was worse than when I tore my ACL.”

The gym fell silent as Kia screamed, writhing in pain on the Lynnwood High School gym floor.

“I thought, ‘Oh, man, there is nowhere to go after this,’” Kia said.

She watched the game’s final few minutes from the team’s bench. No one spoke during the ride back to Kia’s home. A sickening silence permeated throughout a typically warm Crawford household that evening.

“Everyone knew we were in a bad place,” Nichelle said.

Kia had finally met a barrier she couldn’t conquer. Her right ACL was re-injured and her meniscus was partially torn.

Kia’s high school career was over.

Kia Crawford (right) gets physical therapy instruction for Jared Appleby on May 9, 2018, at Experience Momentum in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kia Crawford (right) gets physical therapy instruction for Jared Appleby on May 9, 2018, at Experience Momentum in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Despair turns to perseverance

The realization that she would not play basketball her senior year left Kia despondent. She can’t identify a specific moment she emerged from her funk, but her attitude certainly improved when Nichelle brought home a golden retriever puppy Kia named Dallas.

“How could I not get her a dog after all of this?” Nichelle asked. “Dallas came, licked her face, and the smile came back.”

So did Kia’s hopes of playing college basketball.

One day in January 2018, Nichelle began sifting through a digital catalog of old video clips she had taken on her phone — ones she saved in order to help Kia analyze her performances. Nichelle thought maybe she had enough footage to package into a highlight reel and send to college coaches.

“It wasn’t professional or nothing,” Nichelle said. “As we started skimming through, we were like, ‘We can use this, we can use that.’”

Kia questioned the number of responses she would get, but she and Nichelle began sending out the clips compiled from Kia’s junior year. Nichelle estimated they contacted 100 colleges.

“When I first started getting emails back,” Kia said, “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is not this year’s film. This is last year’s film,’ but they were still replying saying, ‘You look like a really good player. You look like someone we could work with.’ Once I saw that, a light bulb went off that I can still do this.”

Slowly, Kia’s hopes of playing college basketball evolved from non-existent to possible and suddenly she had options from which to choose.

Many colleges wanted to see current film, some wanted to know her senior-year stats but others simply bought into Kia’s potential.

“She’s an athlete,” Nichelle said. “If you are a good coach, you can develop someone. No, we are not going D-1, no way. But we were OK with that. A scholarship is a scholarship. I don’t care if it’s NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA, D-1, D-2.”

Kia narrowed her choices to three schools: Missouri Western, St. Andrews University in North Carolina, and Pacific Union in Napa Valley, California.

After plenty of discussion and a visit to Pacific Union, an NAIA school, Kia solidified her decision.

“(The coach) asked me, ‘Would you like to play for our team?” Kia recounted. “I was kind of shell-shocked. I was like, ‘Whoa, he’s offering me a scholarship.’ I said, ‘Yes, I would love to play for your school.’ I was reflecting back on everything and thought some people play all four years (of high school) and don’t get a scholarship at all, so the fact I didn’t play my senior year, got MS, tore my ACL and broke my wrist, that is really something.”

“I was very proud, and I was at the point where I felt like she needed a win,” Nichelle said. “Too many Ls in the wrong column. She really is a sweet kid, and it’s hard watching your child go through anything, let alone a chronic illness. You never know what life has ahead of you, so I want her to enjoy all these moments.”

Despite ending her season after three games, Kia attended every Lynnwood game to support her teammates. The Royals played Everett in the second-to-last game of the regular season, and Kia reunited with Weathersby, her AAU coach.

Kia and Nichelle confided in Weathersby, whose daughter, Allie Weathersby, played at Glacier Peak and also has MS. Allie’s diagnosis came during college and ultimately ended her basketball career.

“As a coach, I was a little frustrated, because I didn’t know what was going on,” Luther said of the time he coached Kia. “She was just lethargic. Not knowing it could have been an MS episode, I thought, ‘What is going on with her? This girl is better than this.’ And when I heard she got MS, oh my goodness, it really hit home.”

Weathersby was thrilled to learn Kia earned a scholarship.

“We played them on Senior Night,” Weathersby said. “It was great to hear she was going to play somewhere. That kind of made my night. Another thing with that kid is she is really bright. She’s a 4.0 student, really bright kid, and I’m sure that helped her.”

Today the only visible remnant of Kia’s year-long gauntlet through adversity is a cast fixed to her right wrist extending halfway down her arm. She underwent ACL surgery in February before a second surgery to repair her wrist. Kia’s working out, making lifestyle changes to counteract MS and is ready to start college this fall in Napa Valley. She’s expecting to be 100 percent healthy by the time basketball starts.

“I think I view the world a lot different, and view people’s struggles a lot different knowing everyone faces something,” said Kia, reflecting on her senior year of growth. “Someone could be facing something that is much worse than what I am dealing with, so I think that my outlook on life and empathy toward others has really grown.”

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