- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The night before the surgery that would officially end her season and, for the third consecutive year, her hopes of beginning a college career, Michigan State junior Madison Williams went to see a movie with some teammates after all returned from a game at nearby Eastern Michigan. Any drama awaiting her in the real world could wait while the the supernatural angst of the most recent "Twilight" installment played out on screen.
As she watched the midnight premier, someone broke into her car and stole her laptop, among other items.
Talk about a country song waiting to be written.
"It was a rough day," Williams sighed in recollection.
There have been a few of them.
Williams is something of a ghost these days in college basketball, a name that registers with fans but one which likely causes many of them beyond East Lansing to stare off into the distance while trying to place the last time they heard it. A 6-foot-7 post player who totaled 13 rebounds in the 2010 McDonald's All-American Game and averaged nine blocks as a high school senior at Detroit Country Day, she is now a college junior who has played two more minutes for Michigan State (25) than she did in that high school all-star game (23).
Three years and three ACL tears, two to her left knee and one to her right, are to blame. Each before Thanksgiving. Even in a sport in which hers is an all-too-common injury, the repetition is painful to read, let alone experience.
She plans to come back and play again, to be the subject of the story about perseverance and beating the odds. But that isn't her story. Not yet anyhow. Hers is the one with the ambiguous ending, the one in which all the heart, sweat and effort in the world won't necessarily keep ligaments from fraying.
Pessimism is the enemy, but there are times when pragmatism is the best she can do.
"I will never have that time to live up to my full potential, nor will my body be the same as it was in high school," Williams said. "I lost that. So kind of accepting that I will never be the player that I could have been has been really hard to deal with. I don't think I'm fully OK with that yet. And also just that feeling of inadequacy for not having done anything since I've been here. It's hard to have a lot of hype and not be able to back yourself up."
There isn't bitterness in her words, just the matter-of-fact introspection of someone who had a lot of time to think.
The first injury brought the most physical pain, two ligaments in her right knee torn during an intra-squad exhibition on Halloween her freshman season. The second came just three games into her sophomore season, this time the ACL in her left knee gave way. Again she went through the rehabilitation process. She found a silver lining in the first injury, able to learn and absorb basketball at the top end of Division I, something she came to believe she would not have been ready for had she been able to play. It was harder to find positives in the second injury. She didn't want to sit at the end of the bench for another season or be measured as a freshman when she wasn't new.
Still, she did the work to build back the strength in her leg and be ready for her long-awaited and presumably lasting debut. There was some swelling in her knees after workouts started this fall, but nothing she thought would stop her. Nor did she think the clicking sound she heard in her knee during a practice drill was a particularly big deal, probably just scar tissue moving around.
What she couldn't put out of her mind was the instability she felt in the knee in the days thereafter, a feeling she had experienced twice before.
"For a girl who has gone through as much as she has, when she says something like that, it immediately gets everyone's attention," said Tim Wakeham, a longtime Michigan State strength and conditioning coach in his first season with the women's basketball team. "Those are hard conversations because you just don't even want to go there, you don't want to think there is any chance that the worst can happen."
Williams still didn't think there was anything seriously wrong when she went to see Dr. Michael Shingles, an orthopedic surgeon, to get the results of an MRI. She knew Shingles well, for obvious reasons, and had spent enough time in his care to end up tutoring his children. When he didn't say anything for a long time that night, instead just looking at the results, she knew what he then confirmed, that she had suffered a partially torn ACL again and would need surgery.
"In my mind, I'm thinking I'm broken, I'm never going to be fixed, there's no point," Williams recalled. "I feel bad for my coaches who got this huge recruit who isn't going to do anything for them. I'm like, 'They're not even going to want me back because if I try again, I'm just going to tear it again.'"
It was late at night when Williams got the results. She couldn't handle being on campus in that moment and hoped her roommates would be asleep when she got back to her apartment. She quietly grabbed her car keys and her laptop, not even worrying about clothes, and got in her car to drive the hour or so home to Berkley, Mich. She talked on the phone to her parents and to coach Suzy Merchant and team staff, worried about her getting home safely, but the only other person she called was Sam Ostarello, a senior on Purdue's basketball team with whom she had become close friends in the preceding months, the two bonding over their faith when Ostarello visited East Lansing in the spring.
"She's a very, very strong woman of faith, and I kept telling her there's a plan for this, God has a plan for everything," Ostarello recalled. "But even I couldn't rationalize what that might be for the third year in a row, at the same time of the year. That was unreal to me."
Ostarello also had a question, one everyone who heard the news thought but she voiced. What was Williams going to do?
As much as Williams now dreams about getting back on the court, for multiple seasons in a best-case scenario but even for a single conference game if she's honest about it, basketball wasn't something that held much magic for her when she was a kid. She hated being tall when she was growing up -- not just taller than her friends but tall in that all-consuming way that draws eyes and whispers every time you go to the mall. And she loathed the drudgery, to use her word, of AAU practice, persisting in playing those games only because her teammates had become like sisters to her and because even after she committed to Michigan State as a junior in high school, she hoped the college coaches who still came to watch her would offer those friends scholarships. By her own admission, she has never been what anyone would describe as a gym rat.
"I couldn't tell you how many conferences there were and what teams were in what conference or who played where," Williams said of her college basketball expertise in high school. "I knew nothing. Basketball was never who I was or even what I did -- it was part of what I did, but it was kind of a means to an end. Yeah, I had fun because I was good at it, but it wasn't ever my passion."
Yet here she is hoping her career holds more games than rehabs, the person whom Wakeham notes will already be waiting for him when he arrives 15 minutes before opening up shop at 8:00 a.m., waiting to get started.
Williams plans to go into medicine, to go to nursing school and then a physician assistant program. It's an interest that predated her own injuries, but it also means she's all too aware of what's going on in her knees and all too aware of the odds. She knows the research that suggests she is predisposed to the injury with biological parents who both suffered torn ACLs. She knows that her own tears make her more susceptible. If there was a checklist of warning signs in front of her, she could keep a pen busy. Her brain knows all of that. The rest of her believes this is the time it will work out.
She went under the knife again in January for exploratory surgery on her right knee, which had been the more troublesome one before the most recent ACL tear. There was a chance microfracture surgery would be required, which she wouldn't find out until she woke up. As it turned out, for once, the worst-case scenario didn't come to fruition. But for someone who puts walking away at "20 million times" harder than coming back, would there be a point of no return?
"She would recognize it, definitely," Ostarello said. "But I think she would need to be persuaded a bit to maybe fully take it in that this is it, it's time to stop."
Spend any time talking to Williams and two things seem clear. She would consider it a great loss if that time comes before she takes the court in Big Ten play. And she would be just fine in life. She would be fine for the reasons she remains perhaps the most popular Spartan when kids come for basketball camps and for the reasons that make her like a second mother to her younger siblings. She would be fine because she's more than a basketball player.
It would hurt because she is also a basketball player.
"I didn't earn those things; those things were given to me," Williams said of her natural gifts. "So not using them seems like a crime to me. That's another reason I want to come back again is because I don't feel done, I don't feel finished.
"I don't feel I was given everything I was to be able to impact other people for nothing, to give up. And it's not even really giving up -- I don't think anyone would consider it giving up if I didn't play right now, because I have given a lot."
As much as anyone else in her class in college basketball, even if she has just those 25 minutes to show for it.
In 2010, Madison Williams was a McDonald's All-American. But the highly prized recruit has barely played a half after suffering three ACL tears in three years.