Backbone of the Wildcats

Backbone of the Wildcats

Spina bifida no barrier for star player

Anything is possible if you put the time into it, you believe yourself, and you have the support system.

Watching Whitney Branham, it’s clear she belongs on the basketball court. The junior shooting guard’s form is near perfect, she instinctively sprints to her spots, and she attacks the basket with reckless (and often joyful) abandon.

The sharp-shooting Branham helped buoy the Wildcats through a critical midseason stretch this year when injuries reduced the team to just eight players for the season’s second half. The hard work paid off, as Branham—who has started all but one of her 79 games in a Chico State uniform—reached her first collegiate postseason.

Branham finished the 2016–17 season as the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s (CCAA) fourth-leading scorer (14.5 points per game), tied for third in 3-pointers made per game (2.3), and led the conference in free throw percentage (89.4 percent). When women’s basketball head coach Brian Fogel describes the Wildcats’ leader, he uses words like “tenacity,” “work ethic,” and “fighter.” And it’s hard to disagree. Sure, the season’s increased minutes, depleted roster, and roller coaster second half produced tense moments for Branham, but that’s part of playing college basketball.

They also pale in comparison to what she’s battled in the past. Branham was born with a mild case of spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spinal column fails to properly form to protect the spinal cord. Today, as she dives for loose balls or tumbles beneath the basket from being fouled after a driving layup, there’s no evidence of what Branham has fought through. However, she lacks the flexibility most of her teammates enjoy, and her back gets fatigued and sore from certain drills and strengthening exercises, like squats.

But Branham doesn’t just sit those out.

“Instead, we just make the adjustment and adapt to what she can do,” said Fogel. “She handles it really, really well. It’s not like, ‘I can’t do it, so I give up.’ It’s more like, ‘What can I do in place of this to get the same result?’”

Photo of Whitney Branham

Junior Whitney Branham led the Wildcats in scoring in 2016–17 and was one of the conference's biggest scoring threats.

When sophomore forward Sammy DeHart sees Branham at the gym 45 minutes before practice shooting and getting in the extra work, she can’t help but be inspired.

“Just knowing how many troubles she’s had in her life, knowing she’s pushing through that and is still working just as hard as everyone else, it’s something that I look up to,” DeHart said.

Branham was born prematurely and endured multiple surgeries throughout her childhood. The first surgery, performed days after she was born, was meant to repair her exposed and twisted spinal cord. At age six, her spinal cord became attached to the spinal column again, prompting another surgery.

Branham grew up playing sports in Stevenson Ranch, 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. She started with soccer, which would ordinarily be an ideal outlet for someone so athletically inclined. But doctors nicked a nerve during Branham’s first surgery, leaving much of her left foot without feeling.

“[Soccer] was a challenge, because you had to dribble with your left foot,” Branham said. “I stuck with it though. It was my favorite sport at the time.”

She eventually started playing basketball, but the numbness in her left foot finally caught up with her—she broke her left foot three times. It was back to surgery for Branham, as a metal rod was placed through her big toe to straighten it out and surgeons also shaved some of the bone. Today, Branham wears orthotics and hasn’t broken her foot again. She also wears different-sized shoes: her right foot is a 10, and her left is an 8 1/2.

Branham eventually traded soccer for basketball for good, a wise decision in more ways than one.

“I was always naturally better at basketball, so when I made the switch, it was the right choice,” she said.

Heading into high school, Branham displayed the talent to play basketball at a high level. She joined West Coast Premier, a travel basketball team, and showcased her skills at tournaments that attracted college coaches like Fogel. Branham’s father, Richard, played collegiately at University of California, Berkeley, where Fogel was an assistant coach at the time. Fogel bumped into Richard at some of Whitney’s tournaments and noted how she was progressing as a player.

“At that time I didn’t know she had spina bifida,” Fogel said. “I reached out, talked with the family, and they came up for a visit.”

The trip, needless to say, went well.

“After I [visited Chico] and saw what the team was like, the atmosphere, everyone’s so nice, it’s pretty, it’s different from LA, I didn’t need to see anything else,” Branham said. “I called [Fogel] up that same week and told him, ‘Don’t fill my spot, I want to go to Chico State.’”

Branham caught the eye of head coach Brian Fogel as a stand-out player in high-school.

Branham caught the eye of head coach Brian Fogel as a stand-out player in high-school.

Once here, she did not disappoint. She was named the CCAA Freshman of the Year, earned second-team all-CCAA honors her sophomore year, and first-team all-CCAA this season.

From the start, Branham has been a go-to for Fogel. She arrived at Chico State as a promising shooting guard but was asked to take over starting point guard duties after another player was injured.

“That definitely made me step out of my comfort zone, like being a team leader and showing by example,” Branham said, recalling she had to be more vocal, something she lacked confidence in doing, especially as a freshman.

After spending her entire freshman season leading the Wildcats’ offense, Branham returned to her natural shooting guard position for her sophomore year and settled in nicely. She’s cracked into Chico State’s top 10 lists in career 3-pointers made (138), she’s tied for ninth for career free throws made (247), and she’s knocking on the door of career scoring.

The basketball court isn’t the only place where Branham excels. The biology major holds an overall 3.8 grade point average—including a 4.0 in the fall 2016 semester—and would like to become a doctor, although she’s not sure what kind yet.

“I was looking into neurology, because that’s where all of my hospital experiences came from,” Branham said. “Everything they gave to me, I want to try and give back.”

Branham also received the 2015–16 Division II Athletic Directors Association Academic Achievement Award, and is currently a member of the Chico State Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. She was also named to the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-District Team this year.

“She’s an absolutely outstanding role model to any young female athlete because of her athletic accomplishments, she’s an outstanding role model because of her academic achievements, and she’s a perfect community member,” Fogel said. “We’re really lucky to have a kid that has achieved as high as she has, athletically and academically. She’s the full package. She’s a true student-athlete.”

Branham makes those around her better, both on and off the court. She has embraced what makes her different and is even thankful for it.

“I went through all of this, and I’ve come out of it victorious,” she said. “Whatever people are going through, mentally or physically, they can do it. Anything is possible if you put the time into it, you believe in yourself, and you have the support system.”

—Sean Murphy (BA, English, ’97) is the public affairs coordinator at Chico State.

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