Saturday, March 3, 2012

NBA Cares' Dribble, Dish & Swish National Finals inspires effervescent, young baller to pay it forward

By Adam Maher

ORLANDO -- Unofficially hosted by The League’s hottest commodity, Dwight Howard, the traveling Mecca of basketball that is NBA All-Star Weekend hit its annual crescendo last Sunday, February 26, this year in Orlando, Fla., as the Amway Center packed itself to the brim with NBA & WNBA Legends, celebrities, corporate leaders, families, friends, and fans to watch Kevin Durant lead the West to victory over LeBron James and the East.

Providing a magnificent platform for prop-driven, supernatural glow-in-the-dark dunks, lovely three-point shootouts, performances by platinum and gold record-selling artists, and plenty of celebrity parties, the NBA once again took full advantage of their mid-season chance to really let loose with the creativity.

Coinciding with the weekend’s main attractions were several NBA Cares initiatives. The NBA Cares Caravan, the NBA/WNBA FIT Youth Celebration, and the NBA/WNBA Dribble Dish & Swish National Competition, this year brought to light in The City Beautiful several behind-the-scenes, feel-good stories from around the country that only the NBA could inspire. One story in particular is that of Dionna Lenardo, an 11-year-old student-athlete from Bayonne, New Jersey (pictured above with D-Wade).

Along with 11 other boys and girls ages 7-12, Dionna dribbled, dished & swished her way to All-Star Weekend to compete in the national finals on Saturday, February 25 at the Jam Sessions’ Center Court, which was held at the Orange County Convention Center right after the NBA’s Development League All-Star Game. Going one step further, on top of competing, based on letters of recommendation and the kids' individual stories, the NBA chose one of the 12 finalists to represent the Dribble, Dish & Swish FIT team as a ball kid at Sunday night's All-Star Game - a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet and sit with NBA heroes. The winner would be announced after the competition. But little did Dionna know, she'd already been chosen.

An effervescent kid with a passion for two things in life - basketball and contributing to the greater good – when Dionna isn’t in school, playing sports, or with her friends, she spends her time raising funds for Breast Cancer Research with her family in Hudson County.

It’s no surprise that Dionna’s story starts very young. When she was just eight months old, her mother, Danielle, was diagnosed with breast cancer. So Dionna spent her first few years of life with a mother in chemotherapy. Eight years later, Mrs. Lenardo’s cancer remained in a state of remission, but then the worst news of all came through, when in June 2009 Bayonne doctors detected a lump in Dionna’s chest.

The local doc told the Lenardo family, “The youngest girl in the US to have been diagnosed with breast cancer was nine years old, which would make Dionna the second youngest in US history.”

So, Dionna and her father, Anthony, drove through the Holland Tunnel with plans to keep a 2 o’clock appointment at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on East 68th Street in Manhattan, where Danielle had undergone two separate mastectomies in 2005. Wanting to make the city trip a full day for his daughter, Anthony decided they’d go in a bit early to check out the American Girl Store on 5th Ave and 49th Street - to relax a bit before the most pivotal doctor’s appointment of his 8-year-old baby girl’s life.

Once checked in at Sloan-Kettering, Dionna, sitting with her new doll, noticed a miniature basketball hoop across the waiting room.

“She practiced shooting for the entire hour and a half wait,” Anthony said.

While practicing, Dionna noticed other children who were waiting to be seen - children that looked a lot sicker than she felt. There was a quick glance at the basketball in her hand, then to her new doll, and finally, her dad. And that's when Dionna made a decision most 9-year-old kids would never have to make.

“I want to give my dolls to them, they need it more than I do,” she said to her father.

A huge relief, the lump in Dionna's 8-year-old chest ended up being just a scare. A “fatty cyst, common in growing girls,” her father recalled the doctor saying.

But while young Dionna developed a second nature for humanitarianism mixed with a passion for balling, the episodes of seeing her mother go through chemotherapy and having a scare herself at such a young age became a burden, as she began to suffer from panic attacks on a regular basis.

“Dionna’s biggest childhood fear was, well, the thought of losing her mother,” Anthony Lenardo said during dinner at Tutto Italia in downtown Disney World, the night before his daughter would compete on the same court that LeBron James and Jeremy Lin had media just hours earlier. “Dionna learned at a young age to not take life for granted. She learned at the same time as me and I’m 50, ya know?”

It wasn’t until a year later, on a bright spring day in Bayonne, that Dionna began to overcome her anxiety problems. Like many of her NBA heroes, she used youth sports as a mechanism.

The 9-year-old's boys baseball team Dionna batted lead-off for was in the town championship game for the second year in a row. But after having a good season (she had been the only girl that year to start in the town’s All-Star game), Dionna refused to get out of her mother’s car and head to the field. Anthony, who had gotten out of the car and was at the field waiting, began to hear concerns from the other parents. “Where’s Dionna? We need her!” they proclaimed. But her anxiety had kicked in full swing.

A personal letter signed by Dionna’s little league coach, Joseph McNamara, described the day's events:

“Dionna said she felt sick and her mom had to take her home. While at home, she asked her mom continuously to call the field so that she could be updated on the game. It was truly killing her that she wasn’t with the team. When her dad called to check on her, the game was tied, and we really needed her. Anthony tried to convince his daughter to come to the game but she said she couldn’t. Five minutes after they hung up, Dionna told her mom the team needed her, and we need to hurry and get to the game! Dionna arrived in the 5th inning of the game. She got up to bat, made a key hit, and made a great defensive play at second base. Our team went on to win the championship but, for Dionna, the real win was conquering her anxiety by coming through for her teammates.”

Dionna carried her new-found courage from the diamond with her wherever she went, whenever she played. On top of switching from baseball to softball the next spring (going her entire first softball season without striking out) she continued to volunteer after school to raise cancer research awareness.

She also began to take basketball more seriously, as she now excels for three teams year-round.

Her 6th grade travel team Bayonne Breakers coach, Dan Curtis, has been coaching the young studette for three years.

“Lenardo is not just a great basketball player, but a fine all-around athlete,” Curtis wrote in his letter of recommendation addressed to the NBA. “But her finest quality may be her concern to help others.”

The NBA FIT program’s Dribble, Dish & Swish competition sees about 50,000 boys and girls each year take a lay-up, dribble up-court through four cones, make and receive a pass from their coach, make a jump shot from the top of the key, dribble back toward the basket through four more cones, and make another lay-up with the clock running. After sectionals, those with the top times are then invited based on geography to nine regional qualifiers around the U.S, hosted at various NBA training camps. Dionna, for instance, travelled to the Knicks' facility in Greensburg, NY.

At regionals, the participants get two runs to try and pin themselves in the top two of their age group and gender. Those with the top times got flown out to the All-Star Game, put up in the finest local hotel, enjoyed a banquet in their honor with their families, and competed at the NBA Jam Session Center Court for the national championship.

At this year's family banquet, which was held Friday, February 24 at 6 p.m. in the Lark Room at the Swan Resort, the kids and their families enjoyed a buffet of fine meats and vegetables. It was the first time the 12 finalists Allison Lindsay, Zaria Sims, John Peter Egan, Grant Ott-Large, Kaelynn Satterfield, Monique Carrasco, Aidyn Albright, Carlington Cambell, Dionna, Justene Charlesworth, Kendric Davis, River Yan and their families would meet. Once dinner was over, the group’s overseer, Scott Jones, of LEJ Sports (an agency the NBA regularly employs to accommodate various Jam Session-related events) said they had a special guest speaker: Dominique Wilkins.

“Congratulations on making it this far, we’re thrilled to be a part of this competition, but the most important thing for you guys is to go out and have fun!” The Human Highlight Film told the kids. He stayed afterwards for 20 minutes signing autographs. There too was Katie Smith, a WNBA great who also spoke.

The next morning the kids and their families enjoyed a full day of NBA Jam Session activities at the Convention Center before they all met at 4 p.m. at the NBA FIT practice court. From there the kids were chauffeured to Center Court to compete for the national title - the same court where the NBA All-Stars had practiced that morning.

Halfway through the competition Dywane Wade showed up to help the kids run through the course and present the winners their trophies. Allison, Grant, Kaelynn (pictured above with Dionna, Dominique and Katie), Aidyn, Justene, and Kendric ended up beating out their competitors, but no doubt the day was a win-win for all the kids, their families and the NBA.

“Remember to eat well. I used to eat anything I wanted, but now I realize my body is the most important thing to my success. I’m pro FIT!” Wade told the kids during the awards ceremony. Up until this point, it was a mystery who would be chosen as the NBA FIT All-Star Game ball kid, and then the best news of all came through - Dionna’s name was announced!

Dionna stands in between Katie Smith and Dywane Wade as she receives her All-Star Game ball kid award. To the right of them are two Pepperidge Farms executives, who sponsored this year's NBA FIT Dribble, Dish & Swish competition.

The entire group then boarded a bus together and headed over to the Amway Center to watch the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.

The next day would be one of many memories for Dionna. Never in her wildest dreams would she be sitting on the bench with Dirk Nowitzki in the second quarter of the NBA All-Star Game, talking about how to become a better free-throw shooter.

“It’s all in the wrist,” the future Hall of Famer told her.

The All-Star Game went its way. LeBron took over late in the 4th quarter in miraculous fashion (as always) to pull the East back to within striking distance, but in the end, failed to surmount a comeback as the West won 152-149.

As Dionna watched her heroes compete, she was once again reminded of her trip to Sloan-Kettering two and a half years ago.

“Why do I get to meet the stars?” Dionna thought to herself.

In a thank-you letter to the NBA, Dionna recalled her experience as the ball kid in the 2012 NBA All-Star Game.

I was very excited when I was chosen to be the ball kid at the All-Star Game. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me that I will remember for the rest of my life. I can’t decide what the best part of the night was because there was so many great things I got to do. But I guess I would have to say that one of the highlights that sticks out in my mind was sitting on the bench with Dirk Nowitzki and having him talk to me about how to improve my foul shooting. I just kept thinking to myself, ‘No one is going to believe this!’ But lucky for me my friends saw me on TV.

Another great moment was being so close at halftime to the stage and seeing all the great performers that I never imagined I would get to see in concert, it was so exciting! Getting all the players’ autographs after the game and taking a picture with both All-Star teams was something I never could imagine when my Dad entered me in this competition.

Realizing how lucky I was to experience this made me think about the millions of kids in the world that will never have this opportunity and I couldn’t help but think, ‘How did this happen for me?’ I spoke with my mom and dad, and this year me and my brother Anthony want to raise money to send a kid from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to the 2013 All-Star Weekend and maybe the kid we send can be the ball kid, and for four days the kid can forget about being sick.

Thank you all, especially Scott, Cara, and Jay, for making this possible,

Dionna Lenardo.

It’s the many stories like Dionna’s that every year reminds us all of the fantastic community service the NBA does for our youth and society as a whole. Dionna earned her trip to NBA All-Star Weekend because she is a hard-working, devoted basketball player who everyday dreams of playing in the WNBA. Her humanitarian instincts were enhanced by the incredible weekend the NBA provided her at Orlando 2012, and, hopefully, the Lenardo’s new dream of starting a foundation to help bring kids like the ones Dionna saw at the hospital to All-Star Games will one day come to fruition.

“I love being a part of Dribble, Dish and Swish,” 12-year WNBA veteran Katie Smith said Saturday evening as the Dribble, Dish & Swish finalists were introduced by NBA MC Ro Parish at Center Court. “All the kids that are in these games get great exposure, it will be fun one day for them to tell their stories. The NBA does a lot of things, and yes, there’s always the business side to it, but they (the NBA) give back and they really try to do their part by giving to the community that supports us (the players) so well.”

Perhaps 10 years from now we’ll hear similar words from WNBA All-Star starting PG Dionna Lenardo about the various NBA FIT programs, as she continues to spread the greater good.

All photos taken by Adam and Dionna's father, Anthony Lenardo.

Special thanks to Anthony for giving his blessing to Adam to write this story. And to the Parsons family for letting Adam stay in their condo to write this piece.


  1. Wonderful uplifting story!!

  2. What a beautiful heart warming story. Your writing is also beautiful. Congratulations on becoming a professional writer!

  3. Go Dionna!!!!!!! You have made your parents very proud! Keep up the good work, your a little miracle!

  4. That was a beautiful story written beautifuly about a beautiful little girl inside and out! God Bless you Dionna I know Mommy and Daddy are proud of you...

  5. Great story...that's a wonderful little girl that many kids and adults can learn a lesson from these days. :)

  6. This is a great story and more people like this young girl Dionna, should have a strong heart and will to help kids like this going through very though times. If we only had adults like Dionna helping others the world would be a better place. I work for Azad Watches, Inc. in NYC and I know its to late, but if there is anyway we can help Dionna and the NBA reach other kids going through these struggles please let us know. We would love to be one of Dionna sponsors going forward to help kids around the world.
    Cedric King

  7. What an uplifting story from a very courageous young lady!!!!! She's truly an inspiration Tony. I pray all adults and children will have a heart of gold just like Dionna!! Unfortunately, my mother lost her courageous battle against cancer 3yrs ago so this story really hits home for me....

  8. A very inspirational story about Dionna, an amazing young woman who has accomplished much in her short life. Your writing was so connected with the story making it obvious that a lot of time & effort was put into it. A very professional job, congratulations & I hope many more to come.

  9. Dionna is the definition of amazing! She has a wonderful family that supports her in anything and everything. Dionna is destine for great things; this is just the beginning. Great Job D!