There was an addition of a new shade of orange in the Diem household this Christmas. That shade will signify a priceless holiday memory for years to come.
Caroline Diem, a senior on the South Forsyth girls basketball team, hasn’t been able to suit up in full uniform this season. On Thursday, before the Lady War Eagles’ home contest against Northview, Diem sat on the floor of the locker room during the pre-game team meeting donning a beanie, sweatshirt and toting a warm coffee, sipping with a smile as head coach Keith Gravitt once again reminded the team that basketball is about more than what happens on the floor.
Halfway through his speech, Gravitt gladly allowed an interruption as the door of the locker room swung open. A few strangers made their way in, followed by someone who was equally disguised as Diem.
Diem and the visitor made eye contact. Diem’s smile expanded.
Diamond DeShields, the 2013 Miss Georgia Basketball and current All-SEC standout at the University of Tennessee, and Diem embraced.
The relationship between the two lacks tenure—but not heart. DeShields had not met Diem until that hug; Diem has known of DeShields for a while, following her since the superstar faced off with South while Diem was in middle school. From that moment, Diem had a role model.
A multi-sport athlete from a young age, Diem channeled her envy of one of the state’s all-time greats into a drive to become the best basketball player she could. She became a three-year varsity player, evolving from a key role-player off the bench to a starter last season for the Lady War Eagles during a stretch that has been the best in program history.
Then came Nov. 9.
South’s opening contest against Roswell was just a week away, and Diem played the day before in a scrimmage. A persistent cough led her and her parents to take a quick trip to the doctor.
“We were hoping to get some penicillin and head on our way,” Caroline’s father, Dan, said.
That seemingly routine visit took a turn: an x-ray, a CT scan and a sobering talk with doctors were not what Caroline was prepared for.
“They found a tumor,” Dan said. “We were sat down and told she was going to be in for a fight. They didn’t know what it was. It was pretty overwhelming at that point. Everything after that was a whirlwind for the next month, going from doctors to testing to biopsies, consultations.”
The diagnosis: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Also known as Hodgkin’s Disease, it’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
When Diem arrived at South’s arena on Thursday she had just left an appointment for her second round of chemotherapy. The chemo cycles are slated to last a total of six months. The prognosis is good.
“I’m planning on getting this over with, getting back into basketball shape and returning to this floor,” Diem said — fighting off tears of frustration and joy, simultaneously.
“Today meant so much. Just to know that so many people care for you. To know someone like [DeShields] would do what she did,” Diem said.
DeShields, a former Norcross player and originally a North Carolina signee, shared jokes before the meeting with South head coach Keith Gravitt, who still recalls her greatness on the floor from past contests. She was contacted by former South player K.K. Storms’ father, Rodney, through an Instagram message a little over a week ago.
“Coach Rodney reached out to me and it was so random because I never even really check my messages,” DeShields said. “Especially during Christmas. I happened to see his request for me to come visit and it touched my heart. I’m really thankful to be here today.
“It’s one of those situations where you have a chance to do something good, not even for someone in need but just for a human being. It’s a tough situation for anyone to be in, but to know I can have a positive impact on a stranger? I’d never hesitate.”
Although Diem hasn’t been able to lace up the cleats, Gravitt knows her presence has been irreplaceable this season. He pointed to DeShields’ visit as a life-lesson for the team.
“It’s a confirmation to me, seeing players doing the right thing, that many with God-given ability realize they have a greater purpose than what people see on the court. Not many people will see what happened before the game today, but basketball is bigger than what we do in games sometimes,” Gravitt said.
“I think Caroline is giving us unity. I think she’s reminding us to stay humble and supportive. She’s fighting a bigger battle than any ball game we will ever play. What’s important to us is looking forward to having her back soon. Not from a game standpoint — but just having her back. That’s what we want.”