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Originally published Monday, January 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

UW's Erickson making a new game plan: this time, for life

In Melissa Erickson's last season of professional basketball in Portugal, her body began sending her subtle distress signals. She lost the spring...

Seattle Times staff columnist

In Melissa Erickson's last season of professional basketball in Portugal, her body began sending her subtle distress signals. She lost the spring in her legs and the energy in her game. After practices, her muscles began twitching involuntarily.

She wasn't particularly worried. She figured it was just something in a finely tuned athlete's body that needed tweaking, the kind of glitches only a very self-aware player even would notice about herself.

It was 2004 and the former University of Washington center was living large. Playing basketball in Europe. Surrounded by great friends. Enjoying all of the spoils the game had showered on her.

"I don't think I could sum up what basketball has done for me," Erickson said, sitting in a coffee shop on a recent, rare sunny afternoon. "Basketball has given me structure in my life. It has allowed me to set goals and achieve them, which has given me a lot of self-pride. It's meant the world."

Last August, after she had difficulty lifting weights, after noticing the symptoms she first realized in Portugal still persisted, Erickson visited a series of doctors and underwent a battery of tests before a neurologist finally concluded she had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"There was definitely a sadness period, that depression period, which is only natural," she said. "Sometimes I have those bad days, but that's what my friends are for and they bring me out of it. I get angry because I can't play basketball and that's been my drug of choice for so long. But I look at fighting this disease as having a goal that I want to achieve, just like with basketball."

She isn't in denial -- not at all. But she isn't surrendering. She is both elaborately placid and intensely prepared. Erickson is treating the disease the way an athlete would treat a top-ranked opponent.

She is developing a game plan. Studying medical reports the way she once studied scouting reports. Talking with doctors as if they were a new set of coaches. Working out hard. Pushing through her fatigue.

"I'm applying everything I learned in my career," said Erickson, 28.

She has gotten a game plan from her neurologist. A game plan from her naturopathic doctor. Her former UW teammate Carli Halpenny, who, for her doctorate, is investigating ways to eliminate parasites in third-world countries, is doing research for Erickson.

Even her friend and former Sonics assistant Tom Newell has given Erickson a game plan, and she is integrating all of these plans into a grand plan to slow, or even stop, her progressive muscular atrophy.

"My naturopath believes there's a parasite inside of me and I believe wholeheartedly that that's what is causing my problem," Erickson said. "And we're going to attack it. And the first step, which I'm doing right now, is working to make my body stronger."

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Erickson is remarkable. There is a light in her eyes that dances when she tells stories about her days at Washington, or when she talks about the daily barrage of e-mails and voice mails she gets from former teammates around the world.

Her voice is strong and laughter comes easily. She is living with her disease, not dying from it, and it is inspiring being around her.

"My doctor's not about putting a name on this disease and I think that's great," Erickson said.

One day in her doctor's office she was asked, "What if this is Lou Gehrig's disease? How would you change your life?"

She said she would work to make her body stronger.

"But how differently would you live your life?" her doctor asked.

"I'm not going to change my life," she said.

That was the answer the doctor was seeking.

"I don't want you to start making quick decisions because you feel like you might not have enough time," Erickson was told. "Just live life to the fullest, in the most healthy way possible."

The diagnosis still is new to Erickson, but she is developing ideas about how to live, and they sound a lot like the philosophies all of us should have.

"I think it's important to surround yourself with people who will promote happiness and health," she said. "And it's important to find the positive within the whole negative disease that I've been given. It's still new to me, but I think it's important to not let it slow you down."

Erickson said that events and problems that used to consume her no longer bother her. Worries she once had are gone. She isn't concerned about how other people think she should live her life.

"Having this has made me value things in a whole other way," she said. "Sunsets are a whole lot more beautiful, I can tell you that. People are a whole lot more important to me now than they were before this. I know I've been faced with the reality that I might not make it until I'm 80. I'm not as invincible as I thought I was. But so many things are a lot more important in my life now.

"It sucks that it's taken something this tragic for me to realize all of that. I wish that everybody could kind of find that little kernel of truth, or that wisdom."

Her former UW teammates Jill Pimley and Sarah Duncan are working to create a foundation for ill and injured Huskies athletes, past and present. Erickson admits their help, and that of so many people in her basketball community, sometimes overwhelms her.

"My friends lighten the load in every way possible," she said. "They bring so much laughter to my life. I live on laughing and love and they contribute to that in every way. I draw my strength from that.

"You know, they're all basketball players and I think athletes have a way of understanding and knowing, when adversity strikes, how to handle it. It's not all concentrated on the bad. It's finding the good in everything."

It's creating another game plan, a new way to live. Then executing the plan. It's taking all the lessons she has learned from basketball and applying them to her diagnosis.

As she likes to say, it's just about laughing and loving. And it's about living without the worry of dying.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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