Illness stole Berlina Smith’s little girl away six years ago, but the loss couldn’t rob her of the love she still has for her daughter. Now she deals it out on the basketball court, mentoring teenage girls as a tribute.
There were complications from the moment the lifelong Alexandrian gave birth to Da’monique. Suffering from a low blood count and struggling to breathe, Da’monique was soon diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia, a degenerative disease robbing its victims of their muscle control and, eventually, their lives.
A year after doctors put a name to Da’monique’s condition, cancer struck. Their treatment sent her into remission but damaged her lungs. During a biopsy, Da’monique’s conditioned worsened dramatically. After a brief stint on life support, she died.
She was 6 years old.
“I’d sit there [in the hospital] and see her with tubes all over her body,” Smith said. “There was nothing you could do, but something on the inside kept asking, ‘Why her? Why not me?’”
Smith doesn’t hesitate to talk about Da’monique, but she can’t stop the tears from welling up as she recalls her death sitting beneath the framed mold of her daughter’s hand. She shunted any thought of therapy or counseling and forced herself back into normalcy. With two other children to raise, giving up wasn’t an option.
Today, she regrets not seeking help, but coaching city recreation department girls basketball teams these past three years has comforted her. A still-mourning Smith accepted her mother’s invitation to check out the program and volunteered to coach not long after.
In retrospect, Smith believes her mother — a department employee — knew exactly what she was doing. The former T.C. Williams basketball player first took on a team of 13- and 14-year-olds before expanding to a second squad of 11- and 12-year-olds — the age her daughter would be this year.
“I still find myself grieving, but my interaction with the girls — it’s helping me,” Smith said. “It’s like a therapy session. I wonder if [Da’monique] would act the way they act. I always think about that.”
Smith gives up several nights a week for practice and games. Her devotion to the girls has endeared her to their parents. Mark McCaslin has seen his daughter Lane, not the most avid sports fan, become enamored with basketball. He credits Smith’s enthusiasm.
“We noticed how impassioned she was; she’s very spiritual and very caring with the children and takes possession of your child,” McCaslin said. “[They] went from eight or nine girls that really didn’t know each other at all, and then after the first couple of practices, this was a team and we’ve got this larger-than-life coach here who is just extraordinary in all aspects.”
Smith didn’t wait long to tell them about Da’monique. It’s something she does with every new crop of parents and athletes, wanting them to know where she’s coming from.
“I need their trust … to be their coach,” Smith said. “I give them my story… I just want to share my love.”
Her connection with the players hasn’t been lost on Mike Hazzard, father of twin girls on the team. The girls share their affection for their coach, he said.
“The kids love her,” he said. “They want to succeed for her, but they’re also pretty grounded. I think she encourages them to want to win and be competitive and to not lose sight of having fun and being respectful of their teammates and the other team.”
Despite already committing her limited free time to coaching the two squads and mentoring her players, Smith also harbors a dream of founding a group dedicated to supporting children recovering from cancer. Giving them something Da’monique never enjoyed is what her daughter would have wanted, she said.
“Now that I’m coaching 12-year-olds, I can just see her at this age, probably playing basketball. I get teary-eyed, thinking that could have been my daughter,” Smith said. “My daughter didn’t get a chance to really be a kid. I got her the bicycle and the little cars, but she was mostly in the hospital.”