Luciana Naldi on Finding Empowerment Through Alopecia in Basketball and Storytelling

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD CHANNEL

Through lessons learned in her collegiate athletic career, Luciana Naldi finds herself stronger after being diagnosed with alopecia.

In the season six premiere of Stories from the Stage, stories by three women of distinct walks of life – Luciana Naldi, Su Joun and Robin Schoenthaler – demonstrate how the most powerful sense of empowerment comes from within.

Naldi, a California native and mother of two sets of twins, will take the stage in Changemakers on Monday, September 26 to share her experience with hair loss following an alopecia diagnosis. Throughout her story, Naldi articulates how she navigated her diagnosis and rediscovered a sense of strength, empowerment and beauty that wasn’t tied to her appearance.

A former collegiate athlete and current physical education teacher and basketball coach, Naldi shares how her experiences on the court gave her the confidence to face alopecia. “Basketball was the first place that I realized I could do hard things,” she said.

Naldi spoke to WORLD and Stories from the Stage about what she wants her story to convey to audiences, the kind of example she hopes to set for her children and students, and how sports and storytelling can strengthen a person’s sense of self.

WORLD Channel: Why was this particular story important for you to tell on Stories from the Stage?

Luciana Naldi: [My hair loss] is very visible, and people are curious. I spent the first 37 years of my life with hair, so not having it for the last seven has made the people that knew me and the people who just met me to ask questions. I've told pieces of this story as people have approached me, but I wanted to tell it from beginning to end and share how it changed, in a positive way, how I think about myself and the things I talk about with my children and athletes.

WC: How has your experience as an athlete shaped you as a person and storyteller?

LN: My father was a basketball coach, so my earliest memories are going to the gym with my dad and staying after the games that he would coach. After every game, we could play until my dad was done calling in the stats. So the smell of a gym – the hardwood, the locker room – and sounds are very ingrained in me and comforting. 

On the basketball court, when you do something hard, it feels really good. [And when] you do it enough times, you start to realize you can do hard things off the court. All the parts of myself that I wanted to cultivate more, like being more outgoing or more assertive, or different things that I thought I needed to be outside my normal life, I could try out on the basketball court first. That was empowering, because when you're a high school kid, you don't always know how to do those things. But if you learn how to do them, and you practice doing them in sports, you understand that you can apply those things to your life.

Playing basketball fostered resilience, discipline and mental flexibility. Those helped me as I went forward in my job, in having children, and in my teaching and coaching. I encourage kids to try those parts of themselves that they don't think others will accept on the basketball court, and eventually those parts come out and they apply them to their life. That's really cool to see. 

WC: How do you translate what basketball taught you about yourself to your coaching?

LN: I use my previous experiences as an athlete, as a person, as a child to connect to my athletes and what they're going through, to help them realize that this is one small part of their story – it's going to build on the next one. When they do something well on the floor, that's part of our team's success as well as their individual success. It's a piece toward them feeling more confident every single time they step on the court. Every moment they spend with me, they're building a story of themselves as an athlete and as a person together within our team. It flows through everything that we do as coaches and as teachers. 

There are so many lessons that each of us have been through that we can then recognize in the kids that I'm working with. I can share those experiences and those vulnerabilities, and say, “I've been through that. I want to give you just a little bit of hope that it can get better or that you're going to make it through whatever you're going through. 

WC: How does basketball relate to storytelling?

LN: Teams tell a story. Every time they step on the floor, they tell a story: by the way they warm up, by how they carry themselves, by how the players interact with each other. When something happens on the floor that doesn't go as planned, you're seeing the real life story play out on that team and how they deal with adversity and success. I find that you can watch players and see the stories of who they are as they play. That's amazing.

WC: What do you hope audiences take away from your story?

LN: [I hope they think] about the things that are hard in their life a little bit differently. And think about it from the place of, “What do I think is the right thing to do at this moment?” instead of, “How will other people think about the decision that I'm making?” We sometimes make decisions with others in mind, in terms of how they're going to interpret what I'm doing and if it's the best thing for me. There are times when you absolutely have to consider others in your decisions, but I also believe that you need to think about what the right step is for you and the person you want to be and become.

Watch Changemakers on Monday, September 26 at 9:30/8:30c.

Discuss and engage with us on Facebook, InstagramTwitter and TikTok using the hashtag #StoriesFromTheStage and tagging us @worldchannel. Subscribe to our newsletter and YouTube for more features including events and interviews.

Enjoy our content? Consider donating to keep important storytelling like this going, and find more on PBS Passport.

Related Content

Stories from the Stage: The Podcast – True Stories to Take on the Go

Hosted by Liz Cheng and Patricia Alvarado Núñez, Stories from the Stage: The Podcast presents the stories and storytellers, at once inspiring and relatable, in a whole new way for fans of the show and new listeners alike. Listen to our collection of short, true stories that take you inside the mind and heart of people from all walks of life with new episodes on Mondays.