I laid belly down on the table and rested my head on my arms folded out in front of me. My gym shorts were pulled just below my waistline, exposing my lower back. The doctor wiped the L4/L5 section of my spine with the iodine-laced antiseptic and showed me the long needle that was about to inject steroids in the space between the bones. I said OK and turned my head toward the X-ray monitor where I could watch in real-time what I couldn’t actually see and not quite feel.
“It’ll just feel like a little pinch, and then I’ll inject the medicine,” he said.
I felt the pinch. It was weird to see the needle on the monitor and know that it was incredibly close to a million nerves in my spinal cord. It didn’t feel any less weird the second time I had this done. It just felt even more unhealthy. I shouldn’t have a needle in my back like this, I thought.
It was a painless procedure. Ten minutes later, I was discharged and given a bottle of muscle relaxers for my journey. For the better part of my 20th year of living, I was either in excruciating pain or completely numb. This inability to move was depressing, and I had collapsed under the pressure to still perform on the basketball court. The epidurals were a short-term solution that had little promise for long-term recovery. I surrendered to the reality and took a medical redshirt for the year. I wasn’t coming back until I felt healthy–physically, mentally, emotionally. Basketball could wait. I couldn’t. So I returned home to New Jersey for some R&R.
When I met Dr. John O’Connor of Velocity Chiropractic and Physical Therapy Center in Red Bank, I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I never had a debilitating injury. I had no idea what it meant to go to rehab, and I was certainly clueless as to how far down I really was. When I stepped on the scale for my first weigh-in, I wasn’t surprised when it read 188.78 lbs. I was humiliated.
“That’s not playing weight,” Doc said.
I looked at him blankly.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He grabbed my folder. “Follow me. We start right now.”
I followed him to the back room and nearly turned around when I saw the treadmill and stationary bike.
“Which one do you want?”
I didn’t answer.
“Get on the bike. You’ve got 30 minutes. When I come back, you better be breaking a sweat.”
And so began my personal comeback. In six months time, Doc shook the cage and poked the bear. He woke me up from hibernation and called back my killer instinct. My first practice back on the court was with 7th graders who schooled me and crossed me over. I missed lay ups and got winded within minutes. Together, Doc and I had managed my back pain on a daily basis, with an enormous effort put toward rebuilding my back by strengthening my core muscles. I was pampered with the latest chiropractic technologies only to be broken the next hour during training. It was a grueling and unforgiving process. But Doc was relentless and never let me give up on myself. He even made me laugh. He mastered the art of understanding a young woman of few words, who had fallen from the grace of the game, and questioned herself ever step of the recovery.
Was I going to be the same kind of player? Was I still going to be able to do the things that made me great? How were my teammates going to be upon my return? How was I ever going to get back in shape?
Nothing was certain. Everything was without guarantee. But I trusted him. And on the days I didn’t believe in myself, I never doubted him. His positive energy was contagious and his laser focus was motivating. His mission, quite literally, was to help others get better. It is a gift when someone welcomes you into their mind and offers you a line of thinking that turns your own self-doubt into undeniable self-belief. No question, he was the kind of leader I had one day hoped to become.
It was hard to argue with his commanding presence and sharp decision-making. There was no room for negotiation. The choice was simple: you either put in the work to get better, or you don’t. I remembered that during the 7am beach workouts during the summer. I remembered that on every 400m run that was timed on the track. I remembered that during every ball-handling and shooting drill, every conditioning hour and every agility session. I remembered that every time I questioned why it was that I wanted to get better: because I never wanted to experience a back injury ever again. I didn’t like what it made me. I knew I was better than that, and I was determined to make something of it instead.
I wanted to get from A to B, with B being a healthy basketball player winning Patriot League championships. I did that and got to go March Madness dancing.
Little did I know, he wanted the best of me. He was determined to get me from A to C, with C being a relative unknown. In the four years since retiring my laces, I know now C was not a place in time or a milestone accomplishment. It was the return of something I once believed to be long lost: a sense of purpose. And it wasn’t basketball. It was how I feel when I say my name.