When Shalbretta Ball arrived on South Carolina’s campus two summers ago, she wanted nothing more than to make a good impression with women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley.

Ball is the niece of two-time U.S. Olympic Gold medalist Ruthie Bolton -- a former teammate of Staley’s -- and wanted nothing more than to follow in her aunt’s footsteps playing basketball.

“Basketball was a huge part of my life growing up,” Ball said. “I originally come from a very small town [McLain, Miss., which has a population of 603] and my aunts’ [Ruthie and her older sister Ola Mae] success really inspired me. Their playing at Auburn really heightened my aspirations to play on the collegiate level, particularly in the SEC. When I was growing up, I lived, breathed, ate and slept basketball.”

South Carolina Athletics
BALLIN' WITH BRETT

Never able to play, Shelbretta Ball is still a big part of the South Carolina program. To see more of her video series, click here.

Staley originally met Ball when she was just a toddler in 1996 and Staley and Bolton were members of Team USA. Years later, Staley liked what she saw on the court from Ball, who led Jackson Academy to a Mississippi state title in 2011, and offered her a scholarship.

“She’s a big guard,” Staley said. “She’s a lefty and can create her own shots. She had room to grow as far as being able to consistently shoot the 3 like her Aunt Ruthie, but she was a competitor. She didn’t like lose. If she was anything like Ruthie, I knew we would have someone who would be a hard worker and have her coaches’ backs.”

“I wasn’t really highly recruited out of high school,” Ball said. “I was a diamond in the rough.”

Ball wanted to make that diamond shine for Staley, and worked hard before and after she arrived on campus in July 2011.

“The first two weeks were great,” Ball said. “I was in the best shape of my life. I would wake up at 6:30 a.m. and run because I wanted to make an impact. Everything was going great.”

But that all changed one day as Ball walked up a hill to class. Her heart began to feel like it was beating out of her chest, going “boom, boom, boom.” She had had palpitations before but not to this extent, and it scared her, especially since she was in such good shape.

Ball called the team trainer, and they went to see a cardiologist.

“The resting heart rate for a student-athlete is supposed to be between 50 and 60 beats per minute and mine was 119,” Ball said. “I thought it was fixable with some medication or treatment.”

About a week later, and after a second opinion, doctors diagnosed Ball with myocardial non-compaction -- a very rare congenital heart condition.

“They were scared to release me because it was so rare,” Ball said. “They said it was very serious and I could never play sports competitively again.”

At that moment, the trajectory of Ball’s life changed forever.

“I was heartbroken for her,” Staley said. “I had gotten to know Brett pretty well, and she is a sweetheart of a person. She’s very giving. The only thing she wanted to do was play basketball. To be so young and have that taken away from you at such a young age … not being able to play one collegiate game, it’s heartbreaking.”

Ball, of course, had trouble accepting the news.

“I was confused with my role on the team,” Ball said. “I was confused why this happened to me because I had worked so hard. It was a lot of confusion and disbelief and crying. I was depressed the majority of my freshman year.”

Staley kept Ball on scholarship and the coaching and support staff brainstormed how she could be continue to be involved in the program.

“I wasn’t doing anything at practice and I needed something to do,” Ball said.  “[Media relations person] Diana Koval came up with the idea of being an embedded reporter and giving fans an inside look at our players.” 

And, so “Ballin’ with Brett” was born. The series began online on South Carolina’s official athletics website, and has branched out as a segment on The Dawn Staley Show and as a halftime interview during radio broadcasts.

“It has blossomed into something our fans and students look forward to … each and every episode,” Staley said.

Ieasia Walker honors Shalbretta Ball.
South Carolina Athletics

“Once we found out she had a heart condition and she couldn’t play, it really hurt all of us,” senior guard Ieasia Walker said. “She handled it tremendously. She had her bad days, but she was so good about it and found another way to help the team. It was an incredible symbol of strength.”

Ball has aspirations of sports broadcasting, but is still learning all of the aspects of the business, getting advice from women’s basketball analysts such as Debbie Antonelli and LaChina Robinson, as she figures out her career path.

“It has really grown into something I really enjoy doing,” Ball said. “I really love the game of basketball, and I want to do what it takes to stay around it.”

In the meantime, she is having fun, and keeping spirits up for the No. 17 Gamecocks as they head into the postseason after winning a school-record 11 Southeastern Conference games this season.

“I believe that having Brett around our team has only been a win-win situation for both of us,” Staley said. “I constantly tell Brett that what she would have been able to do on the court in terms of points, rebounds and assists would not be able to have more of an effect on our basketball team than what she’s done in the last two years off the floor. I don’t think the effect she has had on the community and on campus would be as large as it is today had she been able to play.”

You don’t have to look far to find proof of how Ball has inspired her teammates -- just take a look at Walker’s jersey.

“She had always called me her role model and I really took that to heart,” said Walker, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. “For my senior year, I decided to change my number to her old number [No. 2], and she was just floored. She wrote me a letter about how happy she was she had [made an] impact even though she was not playing with us. It meant a lot to her. I knew it would show her we’re not always playing for ourselves, but for her, as well.”

“I can’t even explain the feeling sitting on the bench and seeing [Walker] wear my jersey number,” Ball said. “It was amazing … just priceless. I can’t even find words to explain how I feel about it. It speaks volumes about her character and our closeness.”

While Ball may be sitting on the sidelines, she serves as an inspiring figure every day for the Gamecocks as they go to battle on the court.

“We have someone who motivates us every single day to want to go out and perform at our very best,” Staley said. “Each and every game, we put on the board, ‘Play for Brett,’ because if she could trade places for one play -- not even one game -- and go out and compete, she would do it in a heartbeat.”