It’s a midweek practice smack dab in the middle of the Chico State women’s basketball season. The bulk of the California Collegiate Athletic Association conference schedule looms ahead, and the Wildcats have the postseason in their sights.
This week, Whitney Branham, the Wildcats’ junior shooting guard and quiet leader, focuses on buoying a shorthanded squad during this critical midseason stretch. Through it all, Branham smiles quickly and laughs openly, and knows she has a lot of work ahead of her if she hopes to reach her first collegiate postseason.
Branham has fought through more than this in her life. Much, much more.
Branham was born with a mild case of spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spinal column fails to properly form to protect the spinal cord. Branham was born prematurely in 1996, on February 29—Leap Year Day—and endured multiple surgeries throughout her childhood. The first surgery, performed soon after she was born, was meant to repair her exposed and twisted spinal cord. At age six, her spinal cord became attached to the spinal column again, prompting another surgery.
Today, she lacks the flexibility that most of her teammates enjoy, and her back gets fatigued and sore from certain drills and strengthening exercises. But, as Chico State Head Women’s Basketball Coach Brian Fogel points out, Branham doesn’t just sit those out.
“Instead, we just make the adjustment and adapt to what she can do,” said Fogel. “She handles it really, really well. It’s not like, ‘I can’t do it, so I give up.’ It’s more like, ‘What can I do in place of this to be able to get the same result?’”
If that weren’t enough, doctors nicked a nerve during Branham’s first surgery, leaving her without feeling in much of her left foot.
“I can’t move my toes. I’ve played with broken toes, I’ve stepped on things not knowing that I did,” Branham said. “Even doing a simple push-up, I don’t have traction because I can’t grip.”
When Fogel describes Branham, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, he uses words including “tenacity,” “work ethic,” “fighter,” and “inspiration.” And it’s hard to disagree. Branham has been nothing short of spectacular during her Chico State career. She was named the CCAA Freshman of the Year, and earned second-team all-CCAA honors during her sophomore year. So far during her junior campaign, with 16.1 points per game, she is second in the conference in scoring. She is third in 3-point percentage, at 37.9 percent. And she leads the conference in free throw percentage, at 89.2 percent.
While one of the causes of spina bifida is a genetic predisposition, it’s clear that Branham’s father, Richard Branham, passed along his basketball abilities and work ethic. In the early 1990s, he played for the Jason Kidd-led University of California, Berkeley teams—where Fogel was an assistant coach.
“You can see the same characteristics in them both. Rich always practiced as hard as anybody, day in and day out. Whitney’s the same way. There’s just a level of consistency that you know you’re going to get, which is really a nice thing to be able to rely on,” Fogel said. “Whitney doesn’t take days off, and her dad never took any days off. Her dad was an undersized post and just battled in there, and was very tenacious. He was a great teammate. That’s the connection.”
From the start, Branham has been a go-to for the Wildcats. As a freshman, she arrived at Chico State as a promising shooting guard, yet was asked to take over starting point guard duties after the Wildcats’ regular floor general was injured. So, instead of looking to receive the ball and score, she was forced to run the entire offense.
“That definitely made me step out of my comfort zone, like being a team leader and showing by example,” Branham said, recalling she had to be more vocal, something she wasn’t comfortable doing, especially as a freshman.
“It’s helped her develop and grow as a wing player, because you see the game differently,” said Fogel. “[As a point guard], your responsibilities are different. You try to involve everyone else before yourself, especially the way we play, where you’re more of a pass-first, shoot-second point guard in our system.”
After spending her entire freshman season leading the Wildcats’ offense, Branham returned to her natural position for her sophomore year, as a shooting guard, and has settled back in quite nicely. Now Branham is knocking on the door of multiple Chico State career top 10 lists, including points scored, 3-pointers made, and free throws made.
Basketball isn’t the only place where Branham excels. The biology major holds an overall 3.81 grade point average—including a 4.0 last semester—and is interested in becoming a doctor. Branham also received the 2015–2016 Division II Athletic Directors Association Academic Achievement Award, and is currently a member of the Chico State Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“She’s an absolutely outstanding role model to any young female athlete because of her athletic accomplishments, she’s an outstanding role model because of her academic achievements, and she’s a perfect community member,” Fogel said. “We’re really lucky to have a kid that has achieved as high as she has, athletically and academically. She’s the full package. She’s a true student-athlete.”
Branham didn’t ask to be born with spina bifida, and doing so may prompt some people to fold up and bemoan the hand they’d been dealt. But not Branham. At the end of the day, she’s thankful for the condition.
“I went through all of this, and I’ve come out of it victorious,” she said. “Whatever people are going through, mentally or physically, they can do it. Anything is possible if you put the time into it, you believe in yourself, and you have the support system.”