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Basketball to help raise awareness about sickle-cell

Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr.

Sneakers squeaked, crowds cheered and coaches barked commands as ballplayers ran up and down the basketball court at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury last Saturday during the first annual basketball charity fundraiser to benefit the Greater Boston Sickle Cell Disease Association (GBSCDA).

“We are here to give a voice to those with the disease,” said the Rev. Ronald Stephenson, president and founder of the GBSCDA.

Conceived after last year’s Sickle Cell Walk for a Cure event, the charity basketball game was seen as another way to inform local residents about the disease, as well as a way to entertain those who supported the association.

“[GBSCDA] is always trying to find new ways to raise awareness,” said GBSCDA Executive Director Jacqueline Rodriguez-Louis, M.P.H., M.Ed. “We thought a basketball game would engage a different, younger crowd.”

In sickle-cell anemia, the body makes C-shaped red blood cells, as opposed to normal, disc-shaped red blood cells. The abnormally shaped cells can’t move easily through blood vessels — they tend to clump together, blocking blood flow and potentially causing pain, serious infections and organ damage, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Sickle-cell anemia is an inherited, lifelong disease that affects millions of people around the world, including about 70,000 people in the U.S. Here, it mostly impacts African Americans, occurring in about 1 out of every 500 African American births.

A far larger amount of African Americans have what’s known as “sickle-cell trait,” the result of one parent passing down a sickle-cell gene while the other does not. (People with sickle-cell trait don’t have the disease, but can transmit the gene to their own children.) Approximately 2 million Americans have sickle-cell trait, according to the NHLBI, including about 1 in 12 African Americans.

The stands were filled with families and young people showing support for their friends and family, some of whom were playing in the game, and many of whom had been touched by the disease.

Marcia Brathwaite, an event consultant with MEMB Associates, worked in conjunction with Simmons College assistant athletic director and head women’s basketball coach Tony Price to organize the event.

“It was my first basketball event and Tony made all the difference,” said Brathwaite.

Brathwaite explained how her chance encounter with Stephenson while shopping in Mattapan Square led to the GBSCDA partnering with MEMB Associates to put on the first Walk for a Cure last year, and the expansion to a basketball game this year.

“I feel like it’s a privilege, I feel like I’m making a difference,” said Brathwaite.

After Brathwaite approached him “about doing something to end the walk-a-thon, something entertaining,” Price dipped into his Rolodex and tapped contacts to help promote the event and find people to play. A majority of the game’s participants were originally from Boston and played at least Division I-level basketball. Some have played overseas and one player, Dana Barros, played in the NBA.

Robert “Bobby” Vines, a premium sales executive for the Boston Celtics and carrier of sickle-cell disease, coached the “Red” team last Saturday. Diagnosed at a young age with sickle-cell, Vines grew up taking advantage of groups like GBSCDA that offered programs for sickle-cell patients.

“I think [GBSCDA] is great. We’ve lost a lot of in-depth programs like it,” said Vines. “I’m happy to give back because my childhood would not have been as good without programs like this.”

Dima Hendricks, a member of the GBSCDA’s board and the 2006 winner of the Miss Black Massachusetts competition, suffers from sickle-cell. She said she is appreciative of the efforts of people like Vines.

“Sickle-cell is a silent disease — I want to thank everyone for coming out,” she said.

Some people not afflicted from the disease were willing to help out at the fundraiser. Former Celtics guard Dana Barros received a call from Vines about the charity game. Now a member of the player development arm of the Celtics’ front office, Barros said he recognized the need to be a part of the event.

“I’m from the Boston community … I try to help out whenever I can,” he said.

The game was played at a fast pace, showcasing the high quality of talent that Price brought together. Wearing red and white jerseys, a subtle nod to the cells in the body affected by the disease, the teams dazzled the crowd with flashy dunks and three-point shots. In the end, the Red team came back from a 10-point halftime deficit, led by Barros’ pinpoint three-point shooting.

Ultimately, however, the score of the game mattered less than the resources distributed and the more than $600 raised for patient services.

“It was very good for a first event,” said Rodriguez-Louis. “We’re hoping it will grow.”