Orlando Magic Forward Rashard Lewis Credits His Daughter's Health for His Inspired Play

Rashard Lewis (9), the Magic's all-star forward, struggled earlier in the season with his 1-year-old daughter's mysterious illness. In late March, a virus was diagnosed, and medication has improved Gianna's condition.
Rashard Lewis (9), the Magic's all-star forward, struggled earlier in the season with his 1-year-old daughter's mysterious illness. In late March, a virus was diagnosed, and medication has improved Gianna's condition. (By John Raoux -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

For nearly a month this season, Orlando Magic all-star forward Rashard Lewis played the games, but neither his mind nor heart was in them. When he was home in Orlando, Lewis waited by a hospital bed, staring at his 1-year old daughter, Gianna, wondering what made her so sick, afraid because not even the doctors knew her condition. When he was on the road, Lewis never was far from his cellphone, waiting for updates from his longtime girlfriend or calling to get his own.

Filled with fear, Lewis fell into a funk that was noticeable by teammates and coaches. But he kept playing and praying, hoping that Gianna would be able to shake her fever; that the rash on her arm would go away; that she would be able to walk again without a limp; and that she would be the lively, outgoing girl she was before coming down with a mysterious ailment.

The Magic is one win from reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 13 years. Lewis's elevated play this postseason is one of the reasons the team is in Game 7 tonight against the defending champion Boston Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden. He credits his inspired performance to the improved health of Gianna, who has felt well enough to attend home playoff games after missing most of the second half of the season. When he was at the foul line or on the bench at Orlando's Amway Arena, Lewis could look out in the stands and see Gianna smiling and waving at daddy.

"She's back to being the normal kid she is. To see them back in those seats during the playoffs makes me feel better," Lewis said of Gianna and his girlfriend, Giovanna Fortes.

Lewis has raised both his scoring and rebounding averages from the regular season, and leads the Magic in scoring against Boston at 20.7 points per game. Dwight Howard's put-up-or-shut-up, 23-point, 22-rebound performance after calling out Coach Stan Van Gundy received most of the attention following the Magic's hard-fought 83-75 victory in Game 6. But Orlando would not have been in position to win the game if not for a critical two-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, when Lewis scored six of his 20 points during an 8-3 run that helped the Magic take its first lead of the game.

Lewis is used to being under the radar, spending his first nine seasons in Seattle and maintaining relative anonymity outside Orlando despite possessing a nine-figure contract. He calls himself "an Underground King" -- a reference to one his favorite rap groups from his native Houston area and also to the low-profile he maintains, even after making two all-star teams.

In his 11th season, Lewis still might be more known for crying in the NBA draft green room in 1998, when he slipped into the second round. Lewis once referred to that night as the most difficult one in his life -- until he had several worrisome nights this year. "That was one of the toughest months or two months in my life," Lewis, 29, said of Gianna's illness.

Gianna, who turns 2 in August, became ill during all-star weekend in February in Phoenix, where Lewis was making his first appearance as a member of the Magic. She battled vomiting, diarrhea and a serious fever. The headaches and fever lasted for several weeks afterward, the condition grew worse and Gianna was in and out of the hospital. She stopped asking her daddy questions, scribbling in her coloring book, getting excited whenever she heard a plane going over their home or begging to watch her favorite television show, "Barney and Friends."

"For a while, she stopped playing around. She was always aggravated, frustrated, crying. She was always grouchy," said Lewis, who would visit Gianna in the hospital in the afternoon then prepare for home games. "This is my own little girl and we don't know if this is a sickness she's going to get over or is this going to be forever. It could've been anything. Just knowing that she's just a little kid. Can't talk, can't tell you what's wrong when you ask her. It's more scary when you don't know what it is and you don't know how to cure it."

Doctors in Orlando ran tests for several weeks to discover Gianna's ailment, but when they couldn't find any definitive answers, Lewis and Fortes were prepared to take Gianna to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Lewis's worries were compounded because his 21-year-old half brother, Dorian, was diagnosed with lymphoma in January and was going through chemotherapy treatments. "It was most definitely tough because family is more important than anything. Basketball always comes second," Lewis said. "At the time, it was mind-boggling."

Lewis asked his mother, Juanita Brown, a former registered nurse, to come in from Houston to help out with Gianna and around the house. But she also helped her son regain his focus and overcome a serious shooting slump.

"Like I had to tell him, 'You have little to no control over a lot of things. Sometimes we have to accept things the way they are and do what we have to do,' " Brown said in a telephone interview. "And if he's going to take the time to pray for his daughter to be well and healthy, then he has to have faith that she's going to be okay and let it go."

In late March, a virus was diagnosed and Gianna began receiving medication, which has led to her improved condition. With her ailment still uncertain, Lewis and Fortes plan on having her checked out when they return to Houston, whenever the Magic's season ends. In the meantime, Lewis said he is pleased to have his happy little girl back.

"It helps a lot, especially when you know she's healthy," said Lewis, whose brother is also improving. "That's the most important part, the family is safe and everybody is healthier. I can focus on basketball and my mind is not wandering off the court."

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