Benefield: Harlem Globetrotter's help gives 10-year-old double amputee a shot

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Lilly Biagini loves basketball, but doesn’t have the best jump shot. That’s because the 10-year-old can’t jump.

“It’s just because I have no knees,” she said. “When little kids jump, they have to use knees to jump.”

Biagini, born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita — a rare congenital condition that left her without leg joints and that made it impossible to walk — had both legs amputated below the hip four years ago. Losing her legs, and gaining a pair of prosthetics, gave her freedom, she said.

But it didn’t give her the ability to jump, so while she dribbles and passes the ball, shooting hoops was one of the few things that had eluded the fourth-grader who swims, snowboards and rides horses.

Until now.

Harlem Globetrotter Zeus McClurkin, who met Lilly a year ago just after the Tubbs fire destroyed Lilly’s Coffey Park home, reunited this month with the fourth-grader in Texas, where she is now living. Known for his dunking prowess, McClurkin is also known for something else — he owns the Guinness World Record for most bounced three-pointers in a minute.

Why not try that shot with Lilly?

“I had the ball in my hand, he said, ‘Bounce it as hard as I can.’ I actually made it in the hoop,” she said. “It was the first time ever. Oh my gosh, I was so proud of myself.”

Two points for Lilly.

That shot was a long time coming. It’s been a long year for Lilly Biagini and her mom, Jessica.

On the night of Oct. 8 and into the early morning hours of Oct. 9, when the Tubbs fire roared through Santa Rosa last year, Lilly and her mom lost more than the home they shared with Jessica’s parents.

Having raced to Jessica’s grandmother’s home to make sure she had gotten out, Jessica and Lilly were driving along Stony Point Road, trying to reconnect with Jessica’s parents.

“I was in my jammies, no socks, no shoes,” Jessica Biagini said. “I didn’t even have glasses on.”

It was terrifying and chaotic.

“Lilly is saying, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ and I said, ‘Stop, I need to concentrate,’” Biagini said. “She said, ‘You need to stop,’ she grabbed my face — while I’m driving — and said, ‘You forgot my legs.’”

Biagini, who still did not know where her parents were and was already in a state of panic, sank even lower.

“I had that ‘Oh my God, I’m a big, fat failure’” feeling, she said. “She is the one that turned to me and said, ‘It doesn’t matter, we have each other.’”

But truth be told, it did matter. A lot.

Lilly’s prosthetic legs were incredibly expensive. And more than that, they gave her freedom.

Before she had her legs removed when she was 6 years old, she got around on her hands and used a wheelchair. Then she saw, for the first time, a man walking with prosthetic legs.

“She said, ‘Mom, I want to walk,’” Biagini said. “I said, ‘This is the way God made you,’ and she said, ‘Well, God is wrong, so I’m going to show you.’”

Biagini clearly remembers the consultation that was held with multiple surgeons. One of them gently asked her daughter, “Lilly, how do you want to go forward?”

“She was like, ‘You can cut them off,’” Biagini said. “They were looking at me like I was crazy and I said, ‘You heard the lady, she’s been begging me for months.’”

Doctors performing the double amputation told Biagini that her daughter would likely be out of school for six weeks, post-surgery. She was back in class in two.

So a year ago, when she lost her legs for the second time in her life, the impact was immediate. The girl described by McClurkin as “funky” and, in her own words, “sassy,” became something else — dependent. She didn’t like it.

“It scared me. I’m very independent. I want to do everything by myself,” she said. “I had to rely on my mom.”

Word of the Biaginis’ situation spread and generosity followed. Austin, Texas-based Hangar, Inc. replaced Lilly’s legs for free. The pair appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where they were given a new car and birthday presents to celebrate Lilly’s 10th birthday on Nov. 2.

And then the Harlem Globetrotters came calling. Publicity director Eric Nemeth heard about Lilly’s story and thought a visit from a Globetrotter might be in order.

McClurkin visited St. John the Baptist School in Healdsburg. He and Lilly hit it off immediately. He invited her to a Globetrotters game that weekend in Oakland. Lilly got to take the court — she spun a ball on her finger and danced at center court.

She also charmed McClurkin, whom she now calls her “best friend.”

“I don’t what it was, man, we just kind of sparked when I first met her,” McClurkin said.

They’ve kept in touch via social media. Usually it’s Lilly telling McClurkin what she’s been up to.

“She can swim, she can go horseback riding, she is snowboarding,” he said.

When he asked her the hows and the whys, her answer was quick.

“‘Because I’m awesome,’” she said.

The Biaginis this summer relocated from Santa Rosa to Dallas after Lilly was accepted into a medical program there to deal with her ongoing health issues. So when McClurkin was in Texas shooting a trick-shot video earlier this month, he thought he’d reconnect with his buddy.

He surprised her at her new school, where they shot hoops and ate lunch with her friends. She’s set to again sit on the Globetrotters’ bench at a game, this time in Dallas over Thanksgiving weekend.

“It’s her attitude of she can do anything in life and ‘Let me show you what I can do,’” McClurkin said. “I think she’s different because she doesn’t think she has been dealt a bad hand at all. She is just so optimistic.”

McClurkin, whose job is to make people smile, said their friendship is almost selfish on his part.

“The more strong people I keep around myself, the stronger I’ll end up being,” he said. “You gotta keep people like that in your corner.

“It’s an honor to know her.”

Lilly doesn’t complain about the year she’s had or what she’s lost. I asked her if anything gets her down. It was the only time she was quiet during our conversation.

“I’m normally happy all the time,” she said. “I roll with anything. Whatever my mom says, I’ll roll with it.”

She’s been doing that since she was born. Lilly’s welcome into the world wasn’t easy.

Jessica Biagini, a severe asthmatic, had a near-fatal reaction to a drug given to her to speed up her delivery.

“I started to go downhill,” she said. “They knocked me out. When I woke up I had a priest handing me my glasses.”

Lilly was immediately transferred to UCSF as Jane Doe because Biagini was in a critical situation in Sonoma County, Biagini said. It was 10 days before she was cleared to drive south to see her newborn.

Originally, Lilly’s name was to have been Brooklyn. But when she was at UCSF, the nurses in ICU didn’t know that. They didn’t know her name at all. They drew a flower on her ID card.

“‘We didn’t know what to call her, so we have been calling her Lilly,’” Biagini remembered a nurse telling her. “She’s just like a lily — delicate, sweet and super strong.’”

And the nurse had spelled it in an untraditional way — with two Ls.

So grateful was Biagini to the nurse who cared for her daughter in her first days of life, she dropped the idea of Brooklyn and took Lilly. With two Ls.

“This nurse took her as her own and cared for her and protected her,” she said. “It was my way of saying, ‘Thank you.’ But it was also a way to say to Lilly, ‘You came into this world really fragile, but someone had faith in you.’”

Zeus wasn’t intended to be called Zeus either. He was born with the name Julian. But the Globetrotters, well, the Globetrotters rename everyone who suits up for them. Remember Curly Neal, the bald-headed ball handler?

Accordingly, super-svelte McClurkin is now “Zeus,” so named, he said, because of his “god-like physique.”

So when Biagini was made a ceremonial member of the team, she too, got a jersey. And, she too, got a nickname.

What do they call you, I asked?

“Legless wonder.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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