A dream shared: Richards’ basketball season was dedicated to her deceased friend
The Jim Thorpe girls basketball team pose with the Schuylkill League championship trophy after defeating Mahanoy Area in Saturday’s title game. The league crown is the first-ever for the Olympians. For a photo gallery go to www.tnonline.com. RON GOWER/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Gabby Green drives with the ball during a Marian state playoff game against Steelton-Highspire. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
Editor’s note: The subtitles written into this story are quotes from Natalia Richards’ award-winning essay and speech presented at the Carbon County Drug and Alcohol Expo this past October.
Sometimes, a loss of a beautiful young life becomes an inspiration.
When former Marian basketball star Gabby Green died last year from an overdose of prescription medication, her close friend Natalia Richards was devastated. Richards made herself a promise to complete Gabby’s dreams of becoming the best she could be on the basketball court and to live a life of giving and gratitude.
Gabby was a four-year starter for the Fillies and led her teams to three Schuylkill League playoff appearances, three District 11 title games, one District 11 championship, three PIAA state playoff berths, and a playoff run all the way to the state semifinals her senior year.
Upon her death, several of her organs were donated to the Gift of Life program so others could have new and healthy lives to live.
‘She was everything I aspired to be’
Growing up, Gabby became friends with the Richards family and played on Little League teams coached by Ralph, Natalia’s father. Her mother, Jeanette Richards, gave Gabby voice lessons that led to the Marian player singing the national anthem at home basketball games.
“I was only 3 years old when Gabby came into my life,“ said Natalia. “She carried me around in her arms and was kind of my babysitter wherever we went. With having four brothers, she quickly became my big sister.”
Backyard basketball games were followed by picnics and sleepovers at the Richards’ home and Natalia never left Gabby’s side.
“I remember watching her play CYO basketball games for St. Joseph’s (of Jim Thorpe). She looked effortless when she had the ball and was just textbook with everything she did. I learned from her how the game should be played,” Natalia explained.
Gabby become Natalia’s basketball summer camp counselor and their friendship grew stronger each time they were together.
“She was not just a great friend. She was a leader by example,” said Natalia. “That’s what I told myself I wanted to be.
“I was her shadow, her mini-me and her biggest fan.”
After graduating from St. Joseph’s, Gabby went on to Marian, and Natalia followed her every step of the way.
“She definitely made her mark there with how she led them to so many playoff games and championship games. If I close my eyes, I can see her rushing up and down the court with her gold number three gleaming as bright as the gym lights.”
This past basketball season was magical for Natalia and her Jim Thorpe Area High School teammates as they won a school-record 26 games.
“I decided the day after Gabby died that I would dedicate my senior year to her,” said Natalia. “I started by asking coach (Rob) Kovac if I could wear the number three that Gabby wore. I even wrote her name on my sneakers.”
‘I felt obligated to live out her legacy’
Back in February, the Olympians made it to the Schuylkill League championship game against Mahanoy Area at Martz Hall in Pottsville — a site for so many of Gabby’s biggest moments on the court. Every time Natalia dribbled that night it was as if her friend’s hand was on the ball too, as she helped her team to the biggest victory of an incredible season.
“On the day of that game, I felt a strong connection with Gabby,” said Richards. “I went to her grave before the game. I painted my nails like she did in a pale blue color. At game time, on the biggest stage where Gabby had played many times before, I felt my heart racing.”
Mahanoy and Jim Thorpe were separated by a single basket at halftime when coach Kovac encouraged Natalia to take her shots when she had clean looks at the basket.
She hit two three-pointers and another key bucket in the first two minutes of the third period as Jim Thorpe surged ahead. The Olympians went on to win by two points to claim the league championship. Richards, a role player on offense most of season, had turned in one of her top offensive games, scoring double figures in a contest where Jim Thorpe needed every point.
During the victory ceremony, Natalia was overwhelmed with tearful emotion.
“l looked up and said ‘thank you’ to Gabby. I felt so grateful and honored,” Natalia recalled. “I felt we had come through a full circle of life.”
‘Live out her dreams
as if they were mine as well’
Natalia was aware that Gabby had struggled with mental health issues. After her graduation from Marian, her friend had gone to Bloomsburg University on a basketball scholarship, but her life went into a tailspin.
“She left Bloomsburg and came back home. But I knew she was still suffering from an underlying anxiety,” Natalia said.
When her friend died, Natalia knew she wanted to do something in her memory.
“After Gabby died, I told her mom that every time I stepped onto a court I would honor Gabby and that I wanted to finish what she started,” Natalia said. “She’s been my motivation to be able to get to play in college.”
Natalia will continue her basketball career at Division 2 Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware.
She has learned through this life-changing experience that someone who appears to be happy might be in a very dark place.
“Everybody is struggling with something and we need to have compassion and understanding,” Natalia said. “Losing Gabby to me was as if Spider-Man had died. I lost my superhero.”
She added, “Gabby will always be pure and perfect to me.”
Natalia Richards looks to her future with an inspired hope and a strong determination sealed with a pledge written inside her soul.
“I intend to make something good out of all of this and finish her dreams and my dreams together,” Natalia said.
A dream season on the basketball court was a perfect start.