Theresa Plaisance

Liz Cambage #8 of the Las Vegas Aces is fouled by Theresa Plaisance #55 of the Connecticut Sun during their game at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Aug. 11, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/TNS)

Less than two hours before the Connecticut Sun's Aug. 1 matchup against the Minnesota Lynx, Theresa Plaisance was sitting in chapel, on the verge of making her first game appearance of the season. The chaplain took a moment to say a prayer for her grandfather.

She lost it.

While she was preparing for the game, her family was laying her grandfather to rest back home in New Orleans after he had suddenly died eight days earlier.

Theresa knew she had to pull herself together. Coming off of two back surgeries this past spring, she had barely done any full-court work in practice. But she knew her grandfather would want her to give her best effort if she got on the floor.

Her number was called late in the third quarter, as the Sun fought to hold their lead. Back in to start the fourth, Theresa posted up her defender, called for the ball, took two dribbles into the paint and sank a fadeaway, her first shot of the game.

It was only one basket. But after the events of the previous week, and really, her last nine months – battling COVID-19 during her overseas season in China, undergoing an initial back surgery, contracting an infection that led to a second operation and now losing her most devoted fan – it was a moment of relief, however fleeting.

"I knew she was going to hit it," said her mother, DoBee.

Her grandfather – "Paw Paw," as she called him – never missed those shots, traveling all over the country and even venturing overseas to support her, regardless of whether she played 40 minutes or rode the bench. Amid extraordinary circumstances, this time, she couldn't be the one to make the trip, the most important one, to say goodbye.

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Raymond Ronquillo Jr. and his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, had five children, including the eldest, DoBee, the head women's basketball coach at Nicholls State. But Theresa, the oldest of the 10 grandchildren, was basically their sixth kid. When she was young, her grandparents watched her when DoBee and Theresa's father, Scott, were working, picking her up from school and taking her to Baskin-Robbins before watching "Jeopardy" together at home.

The grandkids were a little scared of their Paw Paw when they were younger. He was a tough guy who, thanks to his military training, never had a hair out of place. But he was also humble, family-oriented and hard-working, and he strived to empower those around him. Theresa shared many of those same qualities, a likeness, DoBee said, that solidified their special bond.

As Theresa turned into a budding basketball star – a 2010 McDonald's All-American, two-time Gatorade Louisiana player of the year and member of the USA Basketball U18 national team – her grandfather was her fiercest supporter. He was a huge sports fan and had been a two-sport athlete in college with potential to play professionally. Instead, he got a job as an engineer at Boeing and helped build the first lunar rover.

"I think he was subconsciously living out his professional career through me," Theresa said, "which I loved."

Theresa was recruited by colleges all over the country. But her grandfather promised her that if she went to LSU, he'd make every single one of her games.

"It was exactly where I knew she was going," DoBee said. "Not that these other schools wouldn't have been perfect for her. It was so Maw Maw and Paw Paw could go watch her play."

He kept his promise, driving 90 minutes each way to LSU (and to any game "within earshot," DoBee said), even when Theresa barely got playing time her first two years. His road trips got more impressive as Theresa's career took her all over the country and the world. There was the trip to the NCAA regional in Washington during Theresa's junior year, and visits to Tulsa and Dallas for a week at a time when she turned pro. When she played overseas, he learned how to use WhatsApp to keep in touch with her, and in 2017, both grandparents visited her during her season in Italy.

He came up to Connecticut for last year's WNBA Finals, too, after Theresa was traded from Dallas to Connecticut mid-season. He got ready to head to Mohegan Sun hours before tip and couldn't wait to sit front row – "there in his glory," as DoBee put it – with his new Sun gear and sunglasses to cheer his granddaughter on.

"He called me after every single game," Theresa said. "He thought every coach that didn't play me was a moron because I'm the best athlete he's ever seen. I'm like, 'Paw Paw, I don't know what kind of basketball you're watching, but athleticism really isn't my thing.' At the same time, when the coach would play me, he was the best coach in the world.

"He was just one of those guys. He just believed in me so much."

Her grandfather was fully prepared to drive all the way from New Orleans to Bradenton, Fla., once the WNBA season was announced. Much to his disappointment, the league did not allow fans in the bubble during the course of the season, and there were no exceptions for Paw Paws.

"He knew that I was struggling with my back and struggling with COVID and overcoming all these things," Theresa said. "Seeing me get back on the court was something that he was really looking forward to."

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Theresa and her family had decided the week prior to her grandfather's funeral that it would be best for her to stay inside the bubble. New Orleans was still a COVID-19 hotspot, and if Theresa had left, she would have had to undergo a four-day quarantine period before rejoining the team. She was finally about to return to the court, and going without treatment for an extended period of time would only set her back.

Plus, it was what her grandfather would have wanted her to do.

"He would think I was nuts, absolutely nuts (to leave)," Theresa said. "He would probably be so mad at me."

Since then, Theresa's days have been packed with the hectic routine of film sessions and treatment, shoot-arounds and games, basketball serving as her escape. All the while, her teammates have helped her stay afloat. Family has too, albeit from afar. She also took advantage of speaking with a mental health professional provided by the WNBA.

Being sequestered in the bubble and separated from loved ones for the last two months has been hard enough for players, coaches and support staff around the league. For Theresa, the last six weeks have also entailed processing her grandfather's death away from the rest of her family.

"Cope is a good word, because it's hard to heal," Theresa said. "It's just learning how to deal with it. Death is just ... it's over. You can't bring them back. You can't tell them anything."

At times, it still doesn't feel real. She thinks she can still give her Paw Paw a call and he'll pick up. He's on her mind more than he was when he was alive, she says, and she thought about him a lot then, too.

She wishes she could tell him how much he means to her. She never got to have that one last conversation with him before his death.

"How do you put your heart back together when it's broken to pieces?" DoBee said. "I don't know. But I guess that'll happen in time. Or, if it doesn't, you learn how to live with maybe more than one heart."

If Theresa has had any solace over the past six weeks, it's that she had 28 years with her grandfather. She'll miss his presence, the small talk, their road trips and hearing stories about his time in the army and working at Boeing. She'll miss seeing him in the stands of her games, from Baton Rouge to Connecticut to Italy, beaming with pride. It's almost unfathomable to her that he won't be there to watch her finish out her playing career.

Theresa still isn't where she wants to be physically following her surgeries. But she senses the improvement as she inches toward returning to her normal self, and knows her grandfather would be proud of the hard work she put in to get there and back on the court.

"I feel him there. There's some peace that comes with playing," Theresa said. "It feels really nice to know he's looking down on me."

Since his death, Theresa has written her grandfather's name on her wrist before every game. He'd always wanted to be in the bubble with her. Now, he really is.

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