Dekeriya Patterson’s palms had gotten so pale they were almost glowing, but she insisted on playing.
Her energy had deteriorated so much she sometimes couldn’t get across half court.
She was always cold, and in the car she would fall asleep right away. Her weight had dropped about 20 pounds, and at practice sometimes all she could do was lay on the court.
And still the Dunbar High star led the basketball powerhouse to another state Final Four last season.
As district tournament play begins this week in a sport in which Southwest Florida continues producing more and more elite college talent – Patterson included – the LSU-bound senior will be hard-pressed to do the same again for a Tigers squad depleted by injuries.
But at least her health – her life, even – will no longer be at risk.
“It could have been a tragedy,” Kenny Kallina, Patterson’s travel team coach, said of her struggle with anemia – low iron in the blood – for more than a year before being diagnosed in her junior season.
“I’m glad I’m back to who I used to be,” said the 5-7 guard, a pure shooter with quickness, length and athleticism. “It was something for me to be able to get my (iron) back up. My mom did it, and I’m back.
”Missing two or three starters much of this season because of injuries, Dunbar (15-5) dropped to the No. 3 seed in District 7A-11 thanks to losses to top-seed Fort Myers (16-4) and No. 2 Lehigh (20-4).
The Tigers, who have one state title and three title game showings amid five straight Final Four appearances, would have to avenge their loss to Lehigh in the district semifinals if they’re even to get back to the state playoffs and earn a likely meeting with surging rival Fort Myers in the district final.
But they’d have almost no shot if not for Patterson, who has finally regained the elite form she hasn’t shown since her freshman season. By that time she had already received a scholarship offer from top-10 power Louisville as the next in a growing list of D-I talents to come from Southwest Florida.
“The last five days in July she might have been the best player in the country,” Kallina, owner and coach of Florida Girls Basketball, said of Patterson’s recovery the past 12 months after her decline had scared off many top-tier colleges. “A lot of people dropped off on her, gave up on her.”
Patterson had started every game as a freshman on a Dunbar team that included eventual D-I signees Kiara Desamours of Lamar and Keri Jewett and Respect Leaphart of Southern Mississippi.
But she was relegated to the bench, opening about a quarter of the Tigers’ games as a sophomore. With her shooting among the few parts of her game to remain strong, the door was opened to questions about her desire.
“I had to go to confession,” Dunbar coach Dwayne Donnell said in November. “I had to pray because I didn’t realize when I was being so mean to her she was going through that. But look at her now.”
“Defense you use more running,” said Patterson’s mother, Daniele Johnson. “I was like, ‘Dee, you’ve been playing basketball since you were 4. If you’re tired just stop.’ She was like, ‘I don’t know what it is. I love basketball. I just don’t have the energy.’
“Then she started losing a lot of weight. And she’s already in a small uniform.”
Johnson, suspecting something blood related, tried iron pills for her daughter for more than a month, with no effect. Finally the answer came in a blood test, followed almost immediately by a hospital trip.
“They were going to give her a blood transfusion,” Johnson said. “They were like, ‘We don’t know how she’s been playing. She could have had a stroke or a heart attack or anything on the court.'”
Because a transfusion would have meant Patterson sitting out the remainder of her junior season, Johnson convinced doctors to give her a week to try to elevate her daughter’s hemoglobin.
Although Patterson still does resist to the solution – daily shakes her mother makes from fresh beets, spinach and a little pineapple juice “to cut the taste,” her mom said – it worked. Smashingly.
“It’s bad. It’s disgusting,” Patterson said. “(But) this year I’ve been playing the whole game. I haven’t been getting very winded. It’s great.”
“We saw improvement her first game back (last season),” said Johnson, noting Patterson’s healthy blood tests after only one week. “It works great for her.”
This summer, Patterson was the leading scorer and had the game-winning shot in an elite-level travel league all-star game in Charlotte featuring a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans, Kallina said.
That was the same night she rallied FGB from a six-point deficit of a quarterfinal game in the same league with two steals and two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
“Every player in that (all-star) game is a major player,” said Kallina, noting FGB “overachieving” to reach the league’s title game “in huge part” due to Patterson’s play. “That was a defining moment.”
Patterson and Johnson are still working to get the right amount of iron into her system – more on game days but not so much that she can’t get to bed at night.
This week may bring another showdown with Fort Myers and its D-I talent, including junior guard and Under-17 U.S. national team member Destanni Henderson, who recently committed to South Carolina.
But after watching Patterson score 40 points on senior night in a 63-49 defeat of Cape Coral last week, LSU assistant coach Tasha Butts agreed Patterson’s lost developmental time of more than a year may leave her only scratching the surface of her ability.
Patterson will arrive at LSU this summer in part to coordinate with team medical staff on her anemia.
“It’s kind of untapped potential,” said Butts, a former Tennessee star and WNBA player who coaches guards at LSU. “She has so much left in the tank.”
Finally back to her old self, it might even be enough to get Dunbar back to the state playoffs.
“That,” Patterson said, “is what we’re reaching for.”