Black Undaunted by Injury-Plagued Career
In every classic story of courage triumphing over adversity, the hero or heroine must first fall into the depths of despair, rise again, then confront the enemy, all the while proving the skeptics wrong.
For Kelly Black of the women's basketball team, the road to playing Division I basketball made pit stops at every chapter of the classic outline.
Yet four years later, it seems that only recently has the dream melted into reality for the co-captain.
That dream started to become a reality when Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith recruited Black to play for the Crimson. What could possibly go wrong? Kelly had committed to Harvard, her AAU team seemed poised to be a national power...
Perhaps the hardship began when an Atlanta paper questioned Black's decision to attend Harvard. It criticized her choice of a school with a lesser basketball tradition than the southern powers. It mentioned her equally-talented AAU teammate, who chose the University of Georgia. "Kelly Black: Harvard?" the headline read.
Then, the ill-fated omens began to emerge.
CHAPTER ONE: THE INJURY
"I noticed I couldn't jump as well, couldn't run as fast, my legs were hurting," she said. "I didn't really know why."
Little did Kelly Black know that these pains would turn her Division I dreams into a two-year long nightmare.
Kelly ignored the pain, contributing to play until the throbbing and the soreness just became unbearable.
Stress fracture was the diagnosis, yet this was a unique injury--the crack went a third of the way through Kelly's tibia. But the ailment should clear itself up by the time Kelly entered Harvard, the doctors said.
"I got through that disappointing time knowing I should be able to play at Harvard," Black said.
Kelly Black's freshman orientation at Harvard provided the usual first-year supply of placement tests, roommate bonding...and a one-way ticket to the training room.
"They said it hadn't healed, that I couldn't practice, that I couldn't work out," she said. "I was depressed, unhappy, just not a pleasant person."
CHAPTER TWO: THE FIRST TWO SEASONS
Kelly was finally cleared to practice at Christmas, and on December 30, 1993, made her only freshman year appearance against Vanderbilt. Was her dream finally to come true?
"We were getting killed, and coach asked me if I wanted to test it out in a game."
Boom. Kelly's kneecap popped out of place one minute into her collegiate debut, and her freshman year was finished.
By the beginning of her sophomore year, the leg had healed enough to be cleared, but her knee still retained too much fluid. Plus, the pain in her legs continued. Running was tough. Sprints were practically impossible. To this day Black can only run on a basketball court, and even that on a limited level.
Finally, after the months of waiting, after the countless days spent in the training room, Black was cleared for the February 3, 1995 contest against Columbia. She added nine points and four rebounds in the Crimson's 92-45 trouncing of the Lions.
Black would see action in 12 more games for Harvard her sophomore year, yet the pain persisted. Two seasons of eligibility gone, and not much to show for her efforts.
"Those were the two most miserable years of my life," she said. "I would call home crying nearly every other day. I really feel for all my parents went through."
But Delaney-Smith stood by her prized forward, repeatedly telling her not to give up, that her time would come.
"Kathy has been absolutely wonderful through all of this," Kelly said. "She told me that this is the worst thing that would happen to me, that it would be how I dealt with this adversity."
The comeback trail plodded along, yet the end was near.
CHAPTER THREE: THE COMEBACK
Kelly returned to the court for her junior season, and although the injuries would not go away completely, Black was ready for the test.
"Because Kelly was not able to play, she worked hard in training, and as a result she grew," said coach Delaney-Smith. "When she came back for her junior season, we were looking at this wonderful inside player!
As Harvard cruised through the opposition on its way to a 13-1 Ivy record, Black played in every one of Harvard's contests, averaging 5.6 points per game and adding another three-point shooting threat for the Crimson.
"Since I couldn't jump, I had spent so much time in the past two years just standing and shooting that my injury ended up helping my shot," Kelly said.
One could hear the motivational music thundering in the background, as Kelly had finally proven to herself and the Ivy League that she had arrived.
Yet as in every classic tale, there seemed to be one final step to be taken, one final challenge begging to be faced.
Harvard advanced to its first NCAA Tournament bid ever, traveling to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt, the same team against which Kelly had ruined her knee.
In preparation for this David-Goliath showdown, Kelly's father, Jim Black, chartered a bus that would eventually seat 50 of Kelly's supporters--her parents, her hometown fans and her former coaches--all of whom would make the five-hour trip from Atlanta.
"I have never felt so happy, so proud, seeing that group and my parents at one of the biggest moments of my life," she said.
Though leading at halftime, and despite setting a NCAA Tournament record for three-pointers in a game, the Crimson would fall. Nevertheless, Kelly had successfully returned to the region where so many people had condemned her decision to travel north.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE DRAMATIC BUILDUP
After being elected co-captain of the 1996-97 squad, Kelly has led the Crimson out of the starting blocks fast. Already possessing a perfect 7-0 league record, the Crimson seems poised to capture a second straight Ivy League title.
Black currently stands third on the team in scoring, and ranks in the league's top ten leaders in blocked shots and field goal percentage.
But perhaps the most telling characteristic of Kelly's career emerges in her role as captain; often unable to sprint with the team, Kelly stands to the side when the team is chastised, laboring away with push-ups or sit-ups while the other players run.
"I've had to adjust to doing things differently," she said. "On teams with less chemistry and camaraderie, my situation would be troublesome."
While her teammates often ask her if she's sad with such few collegiate games left, all she can do is smile.
"My freshman year I questioned the possibility if I'd ever play, much less be a starter, much less a captain!" she exclaims. "Seven more league games are seven more games I didn't think I would play in."
In the strange twists and turns of life, Kelly's injuries have brought much more to her career than just countless tears.
"Kathy says that things happen for a reason, and though its easy to say, I truly cherish every opportunity I get to play," she said. "I've learned so much more about aspects of life that I never gave any time to."
"Kelly's had such an extraordinary, unbelievable career here," Delaney-Smith said. "She's battled her injuries to become a legitimate Division I player, filling a key role for us as we come into the homestretch."
But still, the legs hurt. The knees ache. Most of Black's nights are spent icing both of her legs, preparing for the next day, when she'll hit the court again.
CHAPTER FIVE: ???
The exciting conclusion has yet to be written, but for Black, perhaps the imminent ending serves as the beginning of the real story.
"I wouldn't ever wish my injuries on anybody, for I feel for anyone who has to go through what I did," she said. "But at the same time I've learned how to deal with injuries and disappointment."
For fans of Harvard basketball, the last page is about to be written. For Kelly Black, it is the finishing touches on a long and arduous prologue.