An opponent comes barreling into the paint, full speed, so Massapequa's Carmela Gampero positions herself. She sets her feet and braces for impact.

A big collision. And a charge is called.

The senior stumbles before landing hard on her back. Gampero quickly hops up to the cheers of teammates. Those plays, she insisted, are her favorite part of the game and she jogs up court with a smile.

Then, she says, the pain registers. Gampero has difficulty breathing for a moment; she freezes as her ribs ache and her upper back stiffens. She suddenly is reminded of her condition.

"It happens almost every time after a hard fall," she said. "You're great at first, and then you start to feel it."

Gampero, 17, suffers from scoliosis -- an excessive curvature of the spine that can lead to chronic back problems. Those collisions certainly take a toll and Gampero often is still in pain days after the games, teammates said.

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But she does it again. And again.

"If there was a stat for drawing charges, she would hold the program record," coach Shari Roessler said, adding that Gampero draws at least one per game. "She's unbelievably tough."

In most people, the spine bends less than 10 degrees, according to medical website WebMD.com. Gampero's parents said a recent X-ray revealed a 43-degree curve in hers. Gampero's condition was discovered during a physical before she entered the ninth grade and surgery was recommended then, said her mother, Kristine Gampero.

The surgery would involve the insertion of a titanium rod in his daughter's back, Lou Gampero explained. Afterward, there would be a minimum sixth-month recovery with no guarantee Carmela could return to basketball, which had become her passion.

According to Dr. Abigail Allen, chief of pediatric orthopedic surgery at The Mount Sinai Hospital, it isn't uncommon for scoliosis patients to continue athletics, so long as they can cope with the pain. "Sports don't make [the condition] worse or better," Allen said.

After mulling her options, Carmela begged to have the surgery put off for a year. "I told them if it wasn't life-threatening, I'd rather continue playing," she said.

The year passed. But she was promoted to varsity as a 10th-grader and helped the Chiefs win the Nassau Class AA championship.

"It was definitely a bold choice," teammate Meghan McCabe said. "You look in her face and tell she's hurting, but she's such a fighter."

Carmela sometimes spends hours at home icing and heating her back, trying to recuperate, her parents said.

"I worry all the time, but we respect her decision," Kristine Gampero said. "We always taught her that if you love something, give it your all."

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Another year passed. Gampero became the starting small forward. She insisted then she would have the operation the summer before 12th grade, but "Every time it came up," Lou Gampero said, "she'd say, 'But they're depending on me!' "

The Chiefs did depend on her. Gampero, at 5-9, was a defensive standout, averaged 8.1 rebounds and capably guarded multiple positions. She also was a captain, and the bruises she proudly wears tell of her tenacity.

"Seeing Mela sacrifice her body for the team inspires everyone," said teammate Amanda Crowley, who returned this season from torn knee ligaments. "How can you not push yourself when you see what she's going through?"

Gampero's defense was a key in Massapequa (16-2) holding opponents to 32.5 points per game and reaching the county final, though the Chiefs lost to Baldwin on Feb. 28.

Her high school basketball career is over, but the surgery remains on hold.

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Earlier this month, Gampero committed to play basketball at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue. There of course is an unbridled excitement, but Gampero said she fully understands what awaits: four more years of pain.

"I spend a lot of nights thinking about it when I'm hurting and think, 'No, I can't do this,' " she admitted. "But really, this is what I love. I won't give it up."