On a recent afternoon, Brea-Olinda High School sophomore Tammy Blackburn is practicing with the girls' varsity basketball team in a full-court drill. She slips past a defender, drives the lane and lays up a smooth little hook shot.
"All right, Tammy," Coach Mark Trakh yells from the sideline. "Nice move."
A coach's praise is never something to be taken lightly, especially for a sophomore starting on the varsity. But for Blackburn, these are words to be savored.
Eleven months ago, Blackburn not only couldn't make a nice move on a layup, she couldn't move at all. She lay strapped to a hospital bed after undergoing nine hours of surgery. Beneath an incision that ran from her neck to her tail bone lay two steel rods, inserted to straighten her twisted spine.
Three months later, Blackburn was operated on again, this time to repair her dislocated left shoulder.
On the list of amazing recoveries by athletes, next to Joe Montana's name, add Tammy Blackburn, 15. Blackburn has rebounded from both operations and today is a starting guard and a team captain on Brea-Olinda's undefeated team. She is averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds a game.
"There was a real good chance she wouldn't play basketball at all this year," said Andy Shore, an athletic trainer who has worked with Blackburn. "She is one of the most determined athletes I've ever worked with."
When Blackburn was in fifth grade, a routine school health screening determined that she had scoliosis--curvature of the spine. At that stage, X-rays showed that the curve was slight and not a cause for serious concern.
For the next two years, doctors continued to check Blackburn's spine, but the condition didn't worsen. At the same time, Blackburn was emerging as one of Orange County's top young basketball players, playing for a team sponsored by the Brea Police Department.
In the year before she started eighth grade, Blackburn grew four inches. Great for a basketball player, but there was a problem. During that spurt, her spine began curving dramatically sideways. A straight-on X-ray of her back, which should have showed roughly a straight line from her neck to tailbone, revealed an S-shaped spine.
"I couldn't believe it. I thought they got my X-rays screwed up with someone else's," Blackburn said.
Blackburn had trouble believing what was happening to her. After all, there was no pain, no discomfort, no change in the way she stood or played. Just a picture showing the radical twisting in her back.
Many doctors recommend surgery for cases as advanced as Blackburn's because of the problems that can result, particularly with the heart and lungs, said Dr. Antonio Realyvasquez, a San Dimas pediatric orthopedist.
"I just tried not to think about it," she said. "I said, 'No way, I can't have surgery. I have to play basketball.' "
That year, Blackburn did play basketball and was rated the top eighth-grader in the state by Len Locher, who runs the Western Girls' Athletic Organization scouting service. Her dream was to play on the Brea-Olinda varsity team for four years.
But at the time, Blackburn had another problem. Her left shoulder had been continually dislocating for a year and a half, and doctors told her it was because her tissue was so loose that her joints were literally floating in the sockets.
Though Blackburn tried rehabilitating the shoulder as an alternative to surgery, it was soon apparent that she wasn't going to be able to play basketball as a freshman. Since she was going to be sidelined anyway, she decided to go ahead with the back surgery.
"We had a lot of mixed emotions," said Toniette Blackburn, her mother. "But Tammy had a great attitude. She said, 'Well, if I have to do it I might as well do it now and get on with my life.' "
The decision was made just in time. Before the surgery, scheduled for mid-January, Blackburn's ribs began popping away from her backbone as a result of her twisting spine.
"It was very painful for her, and she had a lot of difficulty breathing," Toniette Blackburn said. "I thought the girl was falling apart."
On Jan. 15, the day before her back surgery, Blackburn went to Whittier Presbyterian Hospital. That night, her mother was having second thoughts about the operation but felt better the next morning when Blackburn, as she was being wheeled downstairs to surgery, looked up at her surgeon and said, "I'm ready. Let's go, dude."
"With an attitude like that, I figured we had nothing to worry about," Toniette Blackburn said.
During the nine-hour surgery performed by Dr. Gilbert Marrero, Blackburn's spine was chiseled to accommodate the 10-inch stainless steel rods. She also had bone marrow removed from her left hip to help fuse the bars to her spine.
Blackburn was 5-feet 6-inches tall when she began the surgery. She came out at 5-8 and began recuperating in a hurry.
After a few days in intensive care, Blackburn was moved to the pediatric ward. It was there that the hospital staff realized that Blackburn was no ordinary patient.