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"From her tiny beginning, she has come a long way"

Earl Gustkey, The Los Angeles Times

"I will not be able to save this baby."

Judy and John Wideman were beyond tears. They heard the surgeon's words, but by then, two weeks after the birth of their premature baby, Jamila Ann, they were drained of emotion.

Still, they refused to give up hope.

And for sure, their tiny baby, easily held in one hand by her father, wasn't quitting. Her tight little fists, the contorted face and emphatic whimpers, her father recalls, were proof of that. She was a fighter, this one.

Jamila Wideman, who today is the go-go-go, whirling dervish point guard of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, weighed 2 pounds 13 ounces when she was born nine weeks premature on Oct. 16, 1975. She was 16 inches long.

"She was a bloody little pulp when she came out," recalls her father, a University of Massachusetts literature professor and author of 14 books.

"She looked like she'd just come out of a boxing ring. The doctor had to smack her several times to get her to breathe. And when she did, I remember it was a little whimper, not a cry."

The Widemans were living in Laramie, Wyo., at the time, where John was a professor at the University of Wyoming. Judy began having pregnancy complications and they went to see a specialist in Fort Collins, Colo. They were immediately directed to University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, famed for its survival rate in premature births.

John Wideman was in the delivery room throughout. "It was a C-section birth and there were a lot of complications," he said.

"It took hours. Judy was already bleeding when it all started, and she nearly bled to death. There was blood everywhere, but what really bothered me--even today, it still does--was the sound of blood dripping into a glass container under the table.

"It was a 'ping-ping-ping' sound that I can still hear."

Was he hearing the lives of both his wife and daughter slipping away? Would only one die?

And which one?

"Judy was touch-and-go all that night," John recalled.

"She stopped breathing several times. But after the first night, she was out of the woods."

But not Jamila.

She survived three life-and-death crises before the Widemans were allowed to take her home, 10 weeks later. On her fourth day on Earth, Jamila developed an intestinal infection common among premature infants.

"She was X-rayed every hour, and her belly swelled up," Judy recalled. "The doctors told us if it was in one spot, they could go in and take it out. But it was throughout her intestines. That's when one of them told us he couldn't save her."

"She grew weaker. Then suddenly, when she was two weeks old, an X-ray showed her intestines were totally clear. The doctors were stunned. There was no medical explanation."

Then, there was a heart valve abnormality.

"It [also] was a problem common to preemies," Judy Wideman said.

"Today, it can be corrected with drugs. Then, we were looking at open heart surgery. It was monitored all the time. Suddenly, when she was 5 months old, it began working perfectly."

Next, there was a salmonella infection.

"An infection went right through the preemie ward and all the little babies got it," Judy said. "Jamila and the rest of them had diarrhea and they didn't have any weight to lose."

"It lasted for months but she steadily got better with antibiotics. She still had it when we brought her home."

Almost as an afterthought, Judy recalled some home crises.

"She had pneumonia twice after we brought her home. And we had to watch her around the clock, because preemies sometimes forget to breathe. Every so often we had to grab her, pick her up, and shake her, to get her to breathe."

Only when Jamila was 5 weeks old, her mother said, was she convinced the child would live.

"At that point, I started shopping for clothes for her," she said.

"Her first clothes came from the doll department of a department store. My mom knitted her a little cap, which she sized on an orange.

"She was so tiny, I could pick her up with one hand. My right thumb would go under her left armpit, and my fingers would go almost all the way around her chest. I bathed her under the kitchen faucet."

Twenty-one years later, Jamila, a 5-foot-6, 135-pound rookie from Stanford, has become a fan favorite in the WNBA, with sign-bearing young fans proclaiming an allegiance to Wideman's compelling style of basketball--jaw-to-jaw, gum-chomping, gutsy defense, the trailing ponytail her emblem.

Photo--Jamila guarding Theresa Weatherspoon

When the team visited Charlotte last Saturday, Marie Gamis, 17, held up a sign that read: "Jamila is the FIREWORKS behind the SPARKS."

Gamis is from Lynchburg, Va., and had persuaded her mother to make the three-hour drive so she could see her favorite.

"She's my favorite athlete in any sport because she plays so hard," Gamis said.

"I can't imagine playing against her, if I had the ball. That would be really scary."

To Judy Wideman, there is a clear connection between her daughter's fight for life in the fall of 1975 and her aggressive, high-energy style of basketball.

"Jamila always had something special inside her," said Judy, a lawyer. "She would not be alive today without it. That special spirit always affected her personality in different ways."

"She's always shown a tremendous zest for living. She was always curious, active, lively and ready to try anything."

Perhaps a clue to that spirit lies within a quote attributed to Jamila in the WNBA's media guide:

"The greatest power I have over my own life is my ability for self-definition--to know who I am by learning where I came from and where I have been."