Specter of transplant hasn't slowed JMU's Evans

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There are times when high-scoring guard Dawn Evans needs more help than usual from her James Madison teammates.

Not because the senior is getting double teamed, but because of her failing kidney.

Take JMU's game against Northeastern on Dec. 18. As the women's basketball team prepared to take the floor, Evans gathered her squad.

''She said, 'Ladies, I need you guys to pull through because my energy level is a little low tonight,''' roommate and teammate Jalissa Taylor recalled, chuckling as she continued.

''I don't think we really were playing good as a team, but she really had to step up. I think that was the game where she had like 30 or 40 points and she played tremendous.''

Actually, it was 31 points, on 13 of 16 shooting, and the Dukes rolled, 84-61.

It has been more than a year since Evans learned she was living with a rare kidney disease that saps her energy and will eventually require a transplant. The disease, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, also afflicted Alonzo Mourning late in his NBA career.

''The kidney fails, or works, at its own rate,'' Evans said. Doctors ''say it's just a matter of time that things will happen, but with the medicines I've been taking, they say it could last me up to 8 years. It all depends on your body and how you take care of it.''

The disease hasn't slowed Evans too much. She ranks third in Division I scoring at 23.8 points per game. Evans also has James Madison (19-6, 12-1 CAA) atop the standings in the Colonial Athletic Association and riding a 10-game winning streak heading into Thursday's game at Towson.

Her kidneys are functioning at a level of efficiency just above the threshold that would call for a transplant, and have hovered there since she was diagnosed last season.

So while Kent Diduck, the team physician, monitors her blood pressure several times a week, checks her other levels and stays in close contact with Evans' doctors at the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt, she just keeps on playing. And scoring.

Evans seems to play her best when going against teams from major conferences - those playing at the level that pretty much ignored her as a 5-foot-6 guard from Clarksville, Tenn.

This season, she scored 32 points in a close loss to Iowa, 20 in a home loss to No. 5 Duke and a career-high 42 when the Dukes beat Virginia 82-80 at home.

''That was a great night,'' said Evans' father, Rodney, who travels from Clarksville to attend most of her games. ''It makes you realize that God has his hand in things.''

Last year, Evans had 38 in a victory at Virginia, and longtime Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan is more than happy that she'll never have to watch Evans light up her team again.

''I think she just has a great understanding of the game,'' Ryan said. ''Like when you give her the left, she finds a way to take the right, and when you give her the right, she finds a way to take the left anyway. She makes 70 percent of her shots going left, and you make her go right and she makes them anyway.''

In this year's game against UVA, Evans also had eight assists.

None of it is surprising to those who know Evans, or even just watch from afar.

''Being an athlete, you're always trying to find ways to overcome the opposition, and it's a mentality that develops just through your competitive nature,'' said Mourning, who has corresponded with Evans via e-mail. ''I don't see Dawn any differently than that.

''She's a competitor, and when she was confronted with this disease, either you succumb or you overcome. Being the competitor that she is, the actual proof speaks for itself.''

Evans this year also joined Mourning, former NFL star Herschel Walker, Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. and Ed Gerlach and NASCAR driver David Ragan as an ambassador for The NephCure Foundation, which raises money to support research into kidney diseases like FSGS.

In her travels to arenas around the league, Evans encounters families touched by the disease.

Her big night against Virginia came on NephCure Night at James Madison, and when the Dukes played at George Mason on Jan. 16, a group wearing T-shirts and holding signs to encourage Evans included Nikki Buermeyer, a JMU alum, and her daughter, Allie, who has FSGS.

Evans spent some time with the 8-year-old after scoring 24 points in a victory.

''It was very inspiring for her,'' Nikki Buermeyer said of her daughter, who was diagnosed at age 7 and in a wheelchair for much of the year before going into remission. ''She couldn't believe that Dawn was doing so well and could play basketball when she's not in remission.''

Teammates, though, say it's just part of what makes Evans different.

''When people look up to you and people admire you, you have to be able to step into those shoes, and I feel like she does that very well,'' teammate Lauren Whitehurst said. ''She's a very good role model for young children, and people looking for a little bit of hope.''

She's also a great teammate, coach Kenny Brooks said. He said Evans does whatever her team needs her to do. Even on nights when she doesn't look up to it.

Before the Northeastern game, Brooks said, his first reaction when he looked at her was to offer to hold her out, which he's done a few times in the past, including once this season

''She came over and I looked at her and her eyes were like glass, and I said, 'You're tired, aren't you?' And she said, 'Yeah, but let me give it a try,''' he recalled, laughing.

''Nothing against Northeastern, it was almost like she was playing with them. It was one of the most unbelievable performances I've seen her have because I know she felt terrible.''

Mourning, who returned to the NBA and played in parts of four seasons after a kidney transplant in 2003, said Evans has tackled the challenge the same way he tried to do it.

''When you think about athletes, you think about this - every athlete wants to win, and when they compete, they want to be a part of winning, and not too many of them are satisfied with the words 'you can't,' 'no,' 'you can't do it,' 'you're not going to do it,''' he said.

''They try to defy the odds by competing and working and putting in a little bit more time and working extra hard. Some have it more than others, obviously, and Dawn definitely has that in her.''

Evans' level of play, and energy, is so high that even her teammates have no idea how ill she sometimes is. Even her doctors can be left shaking their heads in amazement.

''She's the one in charge,'' Diduck said. ''She teaches all of us lessons.''

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