Brown Women's Basketball Team Considers Ellie One of Their Own

As an honorary member of Brown University women’s basketball team, Ellie Leo gains a team of role models and friends through Team IMPACT 


Ellie Leo is the smallest player on the Norton (Mass.) Middle School basketball team. Yet despite barely reaching the shoulders of many of her competitors, she has been the team’s leading rebounder for two straight seasons.

Ellie has had to overcome more than most children her age. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) while in utero, and has spent her childhood visiting doctor’s offices.

“CF has a certain lousiness to it, but Ellie is tough in all the ways she needs to be tough,” said her mother, Jenica Leo. “And when she puts her mind to something, she achieves it.”

Both mother and daughter were thrilled to learn that Ellie, who’s now 12, would be paired with the Brown University Women’s Basketball team via Team IMPACT, a program sponsored by Vertex that matches children with diseases like CF with college athletic teams.

“They’re really, really, good basketball players, and they work so hard,” said Ellie, who plays guard on her school team and is also a gymnast. “I admire them a lot.”

“These girls are such phenomenal athletes,” said Jenica. “They put in a lot of hours in the gym, and they are also incredible students, tackling really difficult majors. They’re showing Ellie what’s possible.”

Ellie became an honorary member of the Brown Bears last fall, and during her draft day ceremony, she was presented with her own uniform. She now proudly wears jersey number 4 and sits on the bench with her new teammates during their games. The team has also welcomed Ellie’s older sister Abby, who is 13 and also a basketball player, into the fold. Last year, both girls attended Brown’s basketball camp for middle school players.

Sarah Behn, the Brown University Women’s Basketball coach, said she is grateful to be involved with the Team IMPACT CF project. She hopes her players can serve as role models for Ellie, and inspire her to set and reach her own goals.

“The women on the team are beautiful people, inside and out,” Coach Behn said. “They’re terrific students, Division 1 athletes, and extremely kind people striving to be successful in their lives. We couldn’t be more lucky than to have been matched with Ellie. Her friendship means so much to all of us.”

The team considers Ellie to be one of their own. She frequently attends practices and games, and socializes with the team off the basketball court, including watching movies and going bowling. And in February, Ellie was recognized at the start of the team’s home game against Harvard.

Still, the highlight of the season for Ellie so far was when roles were reversed, and the Brown women came to cheer her on at one of her own basketball games.

“They brought signs and cheered really loudly for my team,” she said. “They helped my team perform better that day.”

“When the team came to Ellie’s game, there was a real shift in dynamics,” Jenica said. “Ellie had been sick for an entire month, missed a lot of team bonding experiences, and was a little bit on the outside. Having the support of the Brown girls at her game really opened them up to what Ellie goes through, and it was an affirming experience for Ellie.”

Having CF is often challenging, said Ellie, but she feels it has opened her up to new experiences. Her relationship with the Brown Women’s Basketball team is a prime example.

“It can really be frustrating to have CF, and I wish I didn’t have it,” she said. “But if I didn’t have CF, then I wouldn’t know a lot of the people I know now. Like my doctors, and all of the girls on the Brown team.”