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Girl with backbone tries to get it repaired

There’s going to be this girls basketball game tonight, Lincoln County vs. Agassi Prep, and I’m told by those who follow the smaller schools that it’s a pretty big one. Relatively speaking.

Agassi Prep will be without its junior point guard, No. 5, Jada Smith.

While her teammates are battling Lincoln County, the 4-foot-9, 85-pound sprite hopefully will be resting comfortably at Sunrise Children’s Hospital, if it’s possible to rest comfortably with a stainless steel rod running up your backbone that wasn’t there in the morning.        

This is the day that surgeons will try to rebuild 16-year-old Jada Smith’s crooked spine.

Being supine on an operating table while loved ones say prayers is nothing out of the ordinary for the bright young lady (3.56 GPA) with the twiglike arms and the baggy trunks that Agassi Prep coach Kevin Moran calls his team’s “heartbeat, spirit and soul.”

Jada Smith was born with clubfeet and underwent surgery for the first time when she was 5 weeks old.  Now she has severe scoliosis – curvature of the spine.  

There are seven ways to manage scoliosis: observation, physical therapy, occupational therapy, osteopathic therapy, casting, bracing and, in the worst cases, surgery.

In the worst cases, people with scoliosis develop problems than can affect basic physiological functions. Such as breathing. Vital organs can be pressed upon and compromised.  

So today, a team of surgeons will try to rebuild Jada Smith’s spine. They will use a stainless steel rod and steady hands. Because spinal fusion surgery is a delicate thing.

The procedure is expected to last five hours. Jada won’t go back to school until the middle of January, at the earliest. She will spend Christmas on her back, probably watching the Heat play the Thunder. Probably wearing her Air Jordans, her mom says. Size 2½.

There should be a rule that kids cannot get sick before Christmas. Or be operated on. Or, heaven forbid, shot at.

At least when impish Jada Smith does get back on her feet, she won’t be quite so impish. She probably won’t be 4-feet-9 anymore.

The doctors expect to her to be about an inch and a half taller when she stands up straight – er, straighter.

Patients with severe scoliosis – spinal curvatures of 45 to 50 degrees, which Jada has – usually cannot have their spines totally straightened. But in many cases, they notice marked improvement in posture after spinal fusion. They literally can breathe easier. That’s important to a point guard.

That’s the part about the surgery her mother prefers to talk about. She prefers not to talk about her daughter’s vital nerves being exposed for five hours.  

On Monday, I spent about an hour talking to Dorothy T. Smith at her and Jada’s home near Cashman Field. The place was spotless. The living room carpet had been recently vacuumed. It looked more manicured than the infield grass at Cashman on Opening Day. A white Christmas tree rose from near third base.

This was an older home, in an older neighborhood. It should have come with an afghan and a cup of cocoa, it seemed so warm and toasty inside.  

Dorothy T. Smith – her ex-husband’s second wife has the same name, so she uses her middle initial – took plaques off the wall, showed a visitor photo albums. “That’s Jada when she was in 10th grade. Here’s Jada when she was 5 or 6 …”

Her daughter, her baby, was named for the actress Jada Pinkett Smith. She was still at school. Her mom said Jada had three midterms Monday. To be followed by spinal surgery at 5 a.m. today.

Some kids have all the luck. Other kids don’t.

Her mom, a room service dispatcher at Caesars Palace, where she has worked for 28 years – the only place she has ever worked since moving to Southern Nevada from tiny Utica, Miss. – says Jada hasn’t talked much about the surgery.

“She told our pastor she was a little scared,” Dorothy Smith said. “The elders in church, everybody prayed for her. It was beautiful.

“I’ll feel a whole better after recovery, knowing she’s good, that they did a successful surgery.”

I briefly spoke to Dorothy T. Smith’s daughter Monday night, after she had received her pre-op instructions. Up to then, it had been a good day. She thought she had done well on her midterms in U.S. history, Spanish and American literature.

Now it’s out of her hands. Now it’s up to her doctors to ace their part of the equation.

I asked how she was feeling, whether she was nervous. Or was she mostly thinking: Let’s get this over with so I can go home, start therapy, watch LeBron dunk on Oklahoma City. And, eventually, start playing ball again.

“A little of both,” she said, chuckling ever so slightly.

Jada Smith played her last game of this season on Saturday. She scored 13 points, had a bunch of assists, made a couple of steals. The Stars of Agassi Prep defeated Laughlin, 59-31.

It was a typical game for her. But when Moran cleared the bench, observers might have noticed a palpable difference in the ovation for his point guard.

It seemed louder than usual. The hugs from her teammates seemed warmer. They lingered, like when you embrace a loved one at the security checkpoint before the airplane leaves.

After the game, everybody went to Applebee’s.

Nobody spoke very much about today. Nobody had to.

The other players knew that tonight, when they are battling Lincoln County, their heartbeat and spirit and soul wouldn’t be there.  

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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