The Beauty of Dawn

This is a long profile of a former women’s college basketball star, who played with a life-threatening kidney disease. It ran on April 11, 2011.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Talk to Dawn Evans long enough and you start to think you have a crush.

The James Madison University women’s basketball star point guard and a likely pick in today’s WNBA draft arrived for lunch at McAlister’s last week dressed down. Ready for a southwestern turkey sandwich with a diet soda and extra pickles, she wore a purple JMU shirt, figure-hugging jeans, and no makeup, her hair un-coiffed and curly.

First, she told the only joke she knows (the punch-line is, “And the Asian guy yells, ‘Supplies!'”), then she talked about how her guitar-playing is progressing (she said the UPS guy who delivered her acoustic Epiphone offered to give her lessons) and how much she loves Luther Vandross.

She briefly touched on her kidney disease — she was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis in December 2009 — something that’s been well-documented nationwide, in part because Evans led Division I in scoring on and off for the last three seasons. Her kidneys function at just 15 to 25 percent. Anything lower and she’ll need a transplant to survive.

“I’ve come to terms with that,” said Evans, who averaged 23.1 points per game this season en route to becoming the Colonial Athletic Association’s career scoring leader with 2,667 points. “I’ll be extremely shocked if I don’t have a transplant.”

That isn’t expected to deter teams in today’s WNBA draft, where Evans is projected as a first- or second-round pick. Wherever she ends up, Evans is positioned to develop a quick following. Just search her name on Twitter.

NikeNation95: I love looking at Dawn Evans as my background

ThisGuy_Teague: Who ever Dawn Evans is, she is sexy as hell

Nelly305: “Thought i just saw an Angel when I looked at Dawn Evans profile dam girl”

For about four months last year, Evans — a former child star — said, she dated a fashion executive who saw her play against Temple in the 2010 NCAA tournament. He contacted her via Facebook, Evans said, and she eventually attended NBA star Carmelo Anthony’s wedding as his date. She declined to identify the executive.

“People send me a lot of kind messages, and I’ll cordially say ‘Thank you’ or whatever,” Evans said. “And sometimes, some people interest me.”

Her current boyfriend — Josh Parker, a junior combo guard at the University of Dayton — saw her at a basketball tournament in Cancun her sophomore year (both schools were playing in tourneys at the Mexican resort city) and, like the anonymous fashion exec, apparently fell smitten. They’ve been a couple for seven months, undeterred by the distance between Ohio and Virginia.

“He was just really, really cute to me,” Evans said.

But there’s more to Evans than the basketball, the looks — enhanced by pre-game makeup because she sees no reason you can’t be pretty and drop 42 points on Virginia, as she did in a victory last December — and the incurable kidney disease that has helped make her JMU’s most nationally celebrated athlete, ever.

It’s also how she gives of herself. Just ask Jake Rosario.

***

On Feb. 27, Jake — who turned 10 on Friday — met Evans after JMU played Hofstra in Hempstead, N.Y., about 15 minutes from his Long Island home.

At age 3, he was diagnosed with Nephrotic syndrome, which can progress to FSGS. Before Feb. 27, it was a part of his life he kept secret. Then he met Evans, who, since being diagnosed, has become an ambassador for the NephCure foundation, an organization dedicated to kidney disease research and fundraising.

After most games this season, Evans would spend about 20 minutes talking to small children whose kidney function puts them a handful of percentage points away from having their lives reduced to death-or-transplant.

Pockets of NephCure kids would show up at most JMU road games. After Jake watched Evans play — she scored 17 points and had five assists in the 75-73 loss, a hiccup on the way to the Dukes’ second straight NCAA tournament appearance — he decided to be like Dawn .

“She inspired me to do big things and to not just be alone,” said Jake, talking on speaker phone last week, with his mother, Paula, next to him. “Like go out and do what you want and try.”

Paula Rosario, a 52-year-old marketing executive, said Evans did more in 20 minutes than anyone had done in seven years to change Jake’s life.

“She took everything I wanted to tell my son — like staying strong, and he can do whatever he wants — it took that one moment and that one experience for all that advice and for all that support to actually, finally make sense,” Rosario said. “It’s like she was the catalyst. … The word gratitude seems too small to describe it.”

Jake is remarkable in his own right, well-rounded and well-spoken. He is artistic (he draws cartoons and animals), plays punk-style drums (his favorite band is Green Day) and plays third base and pitches. When he grows up, he wants to continue doing all three. And he believes he can because of Evans.

After meeting her, Jake decided to tell his class about Nephrotic syndrome, what it is, and how he saw a girl he described as a “fast-runner,” who has a similar problem as him, but is one of the best basketball players he’s ever seen.

It was tough — “I cried,” Jake said — but it was important to Jake, who now wears his neon orange “Team Dawn ” T-shirt, part of a NephCure fundraising initiative in Evans’ name, as often as possible so “people can see” and “they can give donations.”

“She really, really helped me,” said Jake, who still watches the tape of the Hofstra game on occasion. “And she made me think that if she can do it, I can do it — anyone can do it.”

Now, Evans will try to do something else.

***

Evans, a lithesome 5-foot-7 21-year-old who was born in Germany to a military family but grew up in Clarksville, Tenn., isn’t a WNBA lock.

Draft experts have characterized her as undersized, and ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck and Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve slotted her as a second-round pick, possibly a late first-rounder, depending on how the point guard-heavy draft goes.

The WNBA draft — the first round will be broadcast today on ESPN at 3 p.m., with the remaining rounds moving to ESPNU later today —  has three rounds. Twelve teams pick for 11 roster spots, and without a lot of roster turnover, it is not uncommon for first-round picks to get cut. That’s put Evans on tenterhooks.

“I’m one of those players where it’s not an automatic thing,” said Evans, who struggled in the Dukes’ two NCAA tournament games.

Still, ESPN ranked her as the No. 10 prospect in the draft, and experts said Evans’ success might depend on which team selects her.

“Dawn Evans is a player who’s shown a great ability to score the basketball,” Reeve said. “She’s certainly a high-volume shooter, and that’s kind of what was asked of her for her team. She takes on that role well. I think, as you look around and you kind of weigh the pros and cons, I think with Evans, from the size standpoint, there’s probably some concern there, but I think she’s very talented and will definitely get drafted.”

Then there’s the kidney disorder, which, so far, has remained stable thanks to medication and major diet reconstruction that eliminated red meat, sodium, potassium, and other things that force the kidneys to work harder.

Peck and Reeve said health problems won’t scare teams away, partly because Evans has proven herself.

It looks like she will get a chance to keep playing basketball and keep influencing people like Jake Rosario. And throughout her basketball career — which started at about age 12 when she quit acting to focus on hoops — that is all she’s needed.

“She was always a kid that people say she’s good — but,” said Evans’ father, Rodney, by phone from Clarksville. “Then, when she ends up going where she’s going, she ends up being one of the best — if not the best. And so I do think that, if Dawn’s fortunate and blessed and healthy enough to play in the WNBA, I think she’s gonna be pretty good. She always has.”

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