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Cusick basketball player overcoming odds as parent

Taunie Cullooyah holds her 7-month-old son, Lewis. The senior divides her time among basketball, school and her son, with help from her family and her close-knit community.
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Taunie Cullooyah holds her 7-month-old son, Lewis. The senior divides her time among basketball, school and her son, with help from her family and her close-knit community. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

At every game she plays during the State B basketball tournament, Taunie Cullooyah looks to the bleachers and checks up on a fan of hers.

The 17-year-old starting point guard for Cusick High School gave birth to a son, Lewis, last August. She looks to see whether he’s sleeping, whether he’s being passed around to the many people who adore his big cheeks.

When she gave birth to Lewis, “my whole life just flip-flopped,” Cullooyah said. “I live my life the way I want him to live his.”

Everyone – her friends, mom, and even coach – attest to the change.

“She’s been a big reason for our success,” coach JR Bluff said.

This is the first time the Panthers girls have gone to the tournament, and they won Friday’s semifinal against Sprague-Harrington. If they win today’s championship game, they will be the first basketball team from Cusick – girls or boys – to take home the state trophy.

Last year, Cullooyah didn’t have the discipline she has now, Bluff said. “She just matured a lot and took responsibility,” he said. “She’s been the leader on the floor all year.”

Having Lewis “keeps me in line,” Cullooyah said. While she used to spend her lunches in detention for being late to classes, Cullooyah now is punctual and makes the most of her time. Though national statistics show that most teens who become pregnant drop out of high school, Cullooyah’s grade-point average has risen from 2.0 to 3.5.

“I used to procrastinate real bad but not anymore,” she said. Cullooyah does homework during class and her free period so that she can go home and spend time with Lewis. “Now I have something better to look forward to.”

When she found out she was pregnant, Cullooyah worried about her father’s reaction and didn’t want to burden her then-boyfriend, Lester Latimer, 17.

“I wanted to run away so bad,” Cullooyah said.

She postponed telling her parents until after last year’s basketball season, knowing that they would pull her off the team. When she did tell them, her parents were supportive, though it took her father a while to come to terms with his youngest daughter carrying a baby.

Latimer said he was initially excited but worried that he would have to drop out of school. Cullooyah’s parents told both teens that they would help care for the baby so they could focus on studies.

Now, Cullooyah’s older sister cares for Lewis during the day – they watch the Lifetime channel together – and Cullooyah and Latimer spend time with him after school. Cullooyah’s mom has the night shift.

Cullooyah’s teammates have become Lewis’ aunties.

Kimberly Bluff has designated herself the shoe-buying aunt. Friday afternoon, while she was supposed to be resting up for the evening game, Bluff held Lewis while he bounced up and down, giving her arms a solid workout.

Jael Johnston leaned over and kissed Lewis, like she does before every game, for good luck.

Cara Shepherd, who had first dibs on Lewis after the girls came back from practice and lunch, said she noticed that Cullooyah has become more responsible since having a baby.

“I think it’s good, besides the fact that she acts like my mom now,” Shepherd said, noting that Cullooyah calls her out if she’s late or doesn’t turn in homework. “It’s been good for her.”

Her mom made sure Cullooyah knew that having a child wasn’t going to turn into an excuse.

“We expect her to graduate, go to college,” Wilma Cullooyah said. “We’re there for her so that makes it easier for her to do what she has to do.”

Wilma Cullooyah often reminds her daughter and Latimer how lucky they are to have support from both sets of parents. Responding otherwise, she said, would be “kind of like kicking them when they’re down if you don’t help them.”

Being pregnant made Cullooyah think hard, Wilma Cullooyah said. Her daughter resolved to take advantage of the opportunities in front of her after she gave birth.

Wilma Cullooyah thought that determination might pass. “But she’s doing it, and I’m really proud of her,” she said.

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