“You know what this means now,” laughed Missy Traversi, coach of the Adelphi University women’s basketball team, to 11-year-old Rockville Centre resident Bianca Onorato, who signed a letter of intent on Nov. 1 to officially join the Panthers. “You have to defend and rebound.”
Bianca, a South Side Middle School student, gathered with the squad at a draft ceremony through Team Impact, a national organization based in Boston that pairs children suffering from various illnesses with college teams. In 2013, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition with no cure that can cause abdominal pain, weight loss, anemia, fatigue and other symptoms.
Bianca’s mother, Joanna, said the illness affects her daughter’s skin, joints, stomach and vision, and has caused juvenile spondyloarthropathy, a type of arthritis. “It’s been four years that she’s had a little cloud around her, and she finally has a silver lining,” she said. “No matter how she feels, when she sees [the girls], she’s happy.”
The team met Bianca — or “B,” as some of them call her — in May, and have hung out with her on several occasions in the last few months. Bianca gleamed as she reunited with the team for the official ceremony at Adelphi’s center for recreation and sports, and the student-athletes greeted her as they would a sister.
“You have 14 big sisters now,” said second-year coach Traversi, who explained that one of her goals when joining Adelphi was to work with Team Impact to bring aboard a new recruit. “We are here for you both on and off the court. It is an absolute honor, [and] it is a historic day to invite you officially as a member of the Adelphi University women’s basketball team.”
Through Team Impact, Bianca will attend Panthers practices, games, team dinners and events, and she and the team have already hit it off away from the court. “It’s been really fun so far,” Bianca said, as she paused in excitement for more words. “I don’t really know,” she added, resorting to a grin as the room laughed.
The players recently surprised her by attending one of her basketball games at Covert Elementary School, for example, and even came to Bianca’s home for support during one of her hours-long treatments.
“From the first day we met, I knew that you would be special and that you would have an amazing bond with all of us,” said Simone Hobdy, a junior guard on Adelphi’s squad. “Your positive outlook on life despite your circumstances has been a major influence and has put a lot of things in perspective for all of us here. You are the amount of strong and resilience that we all aspire to be.
“You may look up and love us, but we want you to know that you are the real hero here,” she continued. “I hope that one day we could be half as tough as you are, so we want to thank you for being the beautiful soul that you are and impacting our lives the way that you have and they way you will continue to.”
Daily medications and various treatment regimens have been tough on Bianca, her parents said, adding that the Adelphi players provide a support system that her 11-year-old friends may not be able to. Sporting a brand new, bright gold Adelphi jersey, Bianca was led to the locker room, where she was designated a locker, and later mingled with her college friends on the court.
She can forget about some of the struggles she faces because of her illness, Joanna added. “All those medications take a big toll on her, but coming here, you wouldn’t think that she, just two days before, had been hooked up to an IV for eight hours, so it’s great.”
The girls have been great role models, Bianca’s father, Tony, said, as he added with a smile that he is now getting used to his daughter going out on the town with college girls.
“You are making a phenomenal impact on people, and a phenomenal difference,” he told the team. “I hope that you carry that forward with you throughout your entire life. Just know that everything you’re doing is absorbed and meaningful and leaves lasting impressions that are really powerful.”