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The sun has yet to peek over the tree tops...
Along with the few birds announcing the arrival of morning is the thump thump thumping coming from the Guilmette family's driveway. That sound is like a heartbeat in this family, something that has just always been there.
"String music." 22-year-old Marshall Guilmette sinks a 3-pointer from near the garage door.
"When in doubt, bank it out." 17-year-old Zoe Guilmette banks her shot beneath the net that towers over the top of their driveway.
There is some mild trash talk and teasing. Marshall makes tomahawk dunks with Zoe's 3 pointers a split second behind, her ball riding atop his on the way to the ground. They are the sorts of shots that most people will never make.
Their parents watch from the back door. It looks like a slice of Americana, a family united by its love for a sport. But a snapshot cannot tell the Guilmette family story.
Beneath the graceful moves is a deep grief, a knowledge that driveway basketball is where it begins and ends now.
It is Christmas 20 years ago...
Marshall, an 18-month-old toddler has just received a Little Tikes basketball net. "Alright, Marshall!" Without missing a beat, he sinks his first basket, to his parents' delight.
Bobbing and weaving in a way that seems requisite to toddlerhood, he picks up the ball and makes another basket. He does this over and over again. Two years later he would play in his first organized league. "I was really tall and goofy looking. It took me a long time to learn how to move," he later said.
By the 7th grade, Marshall was 6-feet-5-inches tall. Photos from school show his sprawling legs folded awkwardly beneath a desk. Zoe, four years younger, was 6-foot-1 by 5th grade. She remembers it as the first time, "My teacher was as tall as me."
The Guilmettes are a remarkably tall family. Mom Laura, known as "Shorty" in the family, is 6'3". Dad Todd is 6'7". Zoe is now 6'5" and Marshall is the tallest at 6'10." Ask them what it's like to go out as a family and they will groan and laugh. Yes, everyone comments on their height. Yes, everyone stares. Yes, 'how is the air up there' is something they've heard more times than they can remember.
PHOTOS | Marshall Guilmette
Zoe and Marshall love being tall, and as fate would have it, they loved basketball from the beginning. With their father as their first coach, both of them were star high school athletes at Cobb County's Harrison High School, heavily and aggressively recruited by Division I schools around the nation. "It gives you something to look forward to, work on, kind of keep you steady almost," Zoe says of her love of the game. "When you're playing a game. it's like no other feeling. Your adrenaline is pumping and you're smiling inside but you have that grit face on the outside."
Marshall decided on East Carolina University, where despite some injuries, he had a great career. It was a life he hoped would continue after college. "If you're playing Division I sports and your dream isn't to go professional, you're probably doing the wrong thing. Everybody on my team -- you're pushing to get to the NBA."
Zoe, in her senior year at Harrison, had her pick from around the country. Her father drags a hamper out of her bedroom. "It weighs 70 to 80 pounds." The hamper is overflowing with recruit letters from just the past year. They read like suitors competing for her attention. Wake Forest sends her a Wheaties box with a picture of her on the front of it. UCLA tells her how she is perfect for its program. Each letter is filled with flattery and promises and pleas for her to consider them. Mom Laura reads aloud from one letter. "I look forward to following Zoe on the court throughout July --" She chokes up and cannot go on. Dad Todd says, "I know, they're hard to read, aren't they?" She nods and finishes. "If you all have any questions for me please don't hesitate to ask."
Such a straight forward sentence, but one that speaks to possibilities which are no longer possible.
"I was in the weight room, feeling some stuff in my chest."
One year ago, Marshall, a rising senior at ECU, was training with his team, putting in six to seven hours a day. He started experiencing what felt like a racing heart. He was getting dizzy. He would get tingles that extended to his fingertips. After practice one day, "My heart rate was 220. That was just like sitting there 10 minutes after working out." His trainers sent him to the hospital. The eventual diagnosis was one he had never heard, ARVC, Arithmygenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy.
ARVC is a rare genetic condition in which exercise acts like kryptonite to the heart. Whereas exercise will strengthen a typical heart, in those with ARVC, exercise turns the right ventricle to fat and gristle. There is no cure. Dad Todd explains, "It's like weightlifting, the more you weight lift the muscle gets bigger. In ARVC, your muscle turns to fat and scar tissue. It's a diminishing return to exercise is what it is. It's going to restrict the muscle and eventually your heart will not pump correctly."
Mom Laura found out she was the a carrier of the gene. Though it is not of her doing, she carries tremendous guilt. "It can be fatal," she explains. "They say sometimes that's the first symptom."
An MRI at Duke confirmed that Marshall had already damaged his heart. His commitment to athleticism was already taking a toll. His basketball career was over.
When Marshall talks about his diagnosis, he is pragmatic and realistic, but he falls apart when asked a question that is not about him.
"It wasn't good..." Marshall's tears are for the day he learned that his lost dream was compounded, shared by his baby sister. "It was a hard day. I was studying for finals and my mom called me and I could tell something was wrong and I was like 'What's going on? What's going on?' and she was like, 'Zoe's test came back and she tested positive.' It was really tough. You want your sister to do amazing things and I knew she could...yeah, it wasn't easy. It was harder hearing that then when I got the news."
Marshall may give his sister light hearted grief on the court, but no one is prouder of her than him. "She was way better than me. She was way more talented. You can tell that when she played. It came naturally for her. She can see things that a lot of girls just don't see on the court."
And then there is his sister, off the court. "She is an unbelievable person. Anybody who meets her is like, 'She's the nicest sister, ever.'"
When Mom Laura and Dad Todd found out she was a carrier, and Zoe had a 50/50 chance of being positive, they said they didn't tell their daughter right away. They just couldn't.
There were many nights of lost sleep and long talks and tears.
Zoe's diagnosis was just two months ago. "It's hard, nightmarish." Dad Todd says. "You always think your kids will outlive you. Normally your wife outlives you. Those things became different. You have a lot of fear about it, suppressed fear. Like right now I'm fine until you ask a question and it all rolls through the emotions where it overcomes you." He thinks back to how hard Marshall worked. "He would say, "I put up a 1,000 shots today.'"
Now, Todd worries if Marshall and Zoe should hike or do all the things their family has always done, like kayaking and cycling and yes, hiking out of steep canyons. Intense activity was a rewarding, shared part of life in their family. They were adjusting to Marshall's diagnosis when Zoe's came. "Grieving yeah, that's going to take a while because you start turning off parts of your life. Our concern is getting Zoe launched in the right direction."
PHOTOS | Zoe Guilmette
Sitting in her driveway, Zoe is poised and free of tears. She is matter of fact about the diagnosis that snatched away the future for which she had worked so hard. "At first you're like what and why? You say 'What does my life look like now' because for the longest time I always pictured myself playing college basketball. That was pretty devastating. I'm not the type of person who likes to sit around and mourn." She says soon after the diagnosis she started writing a bucket list of things she wanted to do. One of them was still be involved in basketball, maybe as manager or coach. "I'd love to be a manager on the basketball team, so something with that. I'd love to be a coach because I love motivating and being around athletes."
After word got around the basketball community about Zoe's diagnosis, the University of Florida called and offered Zoe a manager's position on its team. She accepted. It is not an athletic scholarship but it almost a full scholarship. It it will keep her close to the game she loves.
Zoe and Marshall are now allowed very light exercise, 15 to 30 minutes a day. Doctors have told them any time they're out of breath, it's too much. Zoe says it's scary to think about. She has embraced yoga. Marshall is playing golf.
The sun is now atop the trees...
The basketballs are put away. Zoe is heading off to 80's day at school wearing one of her mother's smock dresses and a high half ponytail. Marshall is in a suit, headed to his job as a recruiter at a financial firm. He is throwing himself into life after basketball, using the strength of his training to get him through -- discipline. work ethic, dedication.
"There are so many things that I'm so thankful for that I can still do." Zoe says. This is the hardest defeat so far. She has come back from them before.
She will this time.
"This isn't the end of the world. It is difficult. I wanted to be that light in my family that shows everyone it's going to be okay. I know deep down this is my purpose."