Dionna Lenardo grins a lot when she talks about her trip to the NBA All Star game last month.
At 11 years old, she already has a lifetime of experiences that others might not see in their whole lives.
Yet behind her delight is another series of lifetime experiences that have already motivated her in ways that most people could never imagine: fear of losing her mother to breast cancer, fear of facing the same fate herself a few years later, and then seeing other kids her age facing challenges of cancer.
After dealing with life and death issues, things like winning a trip to Orlando for the 2012 NBA All-Star game might have seemed easy. During an interview last week, however, she recalled that the timed competition that allowed her to go was pretty tough.
Of course, she laughs about the details of the adventure that allowed her to be among the top kids in the nation in the 2012 NBA FIT Dribble, Dish & Swish National Finals and being selected as an NBA All-Star Game Ball Kid.
Dionna, who is from Bayonne, got to meet some of her all time sports heroes in a dream trip to Orlando, meeting other greats such as retired New York Knicks star John Starks. She said her favorite player is Kobe Byant.
Picked out of 40,000 competitors
Sponsored by the NBA, the Dribble, Dish & Swish competition is a nationwide, time trial contest for kids from seven to 12 years old. It allows them to demonstrate their individual skills in the game. Dionna was among 40,000 kids who competed to become one of the 12 finalists.
Her father Anthony noted that the organizers were very generous about praise.
“They said all of the girls were winners, just because they got that far,” Anthony stated. Dionna shared the limelight with 12 other winners of the Dribble, Dish & Swish competition, and was selected as the ball girl for the All Star Game.
A student athlete on an undefeated team at All Saints Catholic Academy, for which she plays point guard, Dionna also plays soccer and baseball. She was a pitcher in the local Little League.
Dionna did extremely well in the first round that would eventually lead her to the national finals.
She said trials were difficult, but she did it in good time. These involved her dribbling up the court through cones, making a pass to her coach and getting the pass back, and making a jump shot.
“I had to dribble through more cones and make a layup,” she said.
As the clock ticked, she wasn’t aware how well she did until the end, when she found that she had the top time and was among the top three kids in the NBA regional of Northern New Jersey. Her scores sent her onto the second round of competition at the New York Knicks’ training facility in Tarrytown, N.Y.
“We got two tries there,” she said.
She did very well, ranking second in her age group, which qualified her for a free trip to Orlando for the finals.
Her outstanding record in the sectional sent her on a seven-day trip to Orlando, paid for by the NBA. This included a stay at a hotel in Disneyworld, and free tickets to watch the NBA practice sessions, as well as the Slam Dunk Competition and the All Star Game
Her father seemed as thrilled as she was about going, put up in a hotel in Disneyworld, attending a banquet, and all the other events that surrounded the All Star Game.
Dionna competed on a Saturday, and then to her amazement, she was selected as the official ball girl for the NBA All Star Game the next day. While she performed excellently on the court, she also worked hard outside of the competition, raising money for breast cancer research.
“They said all of the girls were winners, just because they got that far.” – Anthony Lenardo
During the interview with the Bayonne Community News, Anthony and Dionna recalled some of the magic moments being on the bench with some of the greatest players in contemporary professional basketball. She remembered sitting on the bench with Dirk Nowitzki, talking with him about how to improve her free throwing shots.
Anthony, who owns a jewelry store in Bayonne, said, “My daughter kept talking to the players during the game.”
“But they talked to me first,” Dionna responded in a friendly exchange that made it clear both of them knew just how special a moment that was. They will remember it for the rest of their lives, although Anthony probably understood even more than Dionna did what a rare privilege it was to be there.
Anthony said his daughter raises money for breast cancer research with her family in Hudson County, partly because her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and also because three years ago, Dionna got a scare when doctor’s found a lump in her chest. Tests done at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, however, showed it was not cancer. But the experience of seeing other children there left an impression on Dionna.
While sports became a passion, helping in the fight against breast cancer motivated her to excel.