Oregon State was clawing through a tough Pac-12 season in February, 2020 when it happened.
The Beavers were in a zone defense, and Kennedy Brown kept her eye on defending the right side of the court. As an Arizona State player whipped the ball cross the court to Iris Mbulito, Brown made her way toward Mbulito, who was behind the 3-point line.
As she was moving to get in position to defend the shot, Brown planted her left leg and her knee buckled, sending the 6-foot-6 freshman to the Gill Coliseum floor. The pain and agony was evident immediately by the grimace on Brown’s face, as teammates gathered around her.
Mikayla Pivec and Aleah Goodman, along with head coach Scott Rueck, stayed by Brown’s side as athletic trainer Jason Liew tended to her. About a minute later, Brown was helped off the floor and headed out of the arena for further evaluation.
While Brown was upbeat and optimistic following what turned out to be a thrilling win over the Sun Devils – Oregon State scored the final four points in the last 1.3 seconds as Pivec hit the game-winner off an inbounds pass at the buzzer – the worst case scenario was revealed a few days later: she had torn her ACL.
It was a blow not only to the Beavers, who lost Kat Tudor just over a year earlier to the same injury, but to Brown, who had started the first 23 games of her freshman campaign.
That seems so long ago.
Now, after nearly 21 months, Brown is finally poised to make a return to the court next Saturday when No. 14 Oregon State takes on Western Washington in an exhibition game before their Nov 12 season opener against Loyola Marymount.
Brown said this week that she had mixed emotions about returning, as welcoming fans back to the arena after COVID-19 protocols kept them away last year.
“It’s definitely exciting. I’ve got like nervous butterflies for the first time being in Gill again playing actually,” Brown said. “Then with the fans in there will just add that element that we’ve been missing.”
“(I’m) super-excited to just get back to have that atmosphere. The fans bring so much energy which helps us on the court a ton. I’m just looking forward to playing the game I love and being able to do that with these girls by my side.”
Brown welcomed the love and support from fans and teammates throughout the long, tedious rehab process. But even the toughest of players can feel the weight of the mental and physical toll of the recovery process. Throw in trying to do so during a pandemic, and the journey can feel like it may never come to an end.
“I think coming back from an injury is honestly more mental than it is physical,” Brown said. “At some point your body can do all these things, but it’s about your mind trusting your body and trusting that you can do these things again and that you can do them to the best of your ability, and in some cases even better.
“So I think that the biggest thing for me was I knew I was going to get there strength wise and skill and that I was going to be back physically, but it was just the mental side of it and trusting myself to be able to do those things.”
There’s no doubt the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on so many, but having the college sports world in flux may have helped Brown, who started 23 games as a freshman before suffering her injury, feel less pressure to make a quick comeback.
While the isolation was difficult at times and likely slowed the rehab in some ways, Brown powered through. The craziness and unexpected challenges of COVID, though, helped allow her to take the time she wanted to fully heal before returning without worrying so much about when she would be back on the court.
Brown didn’t have surgery until March 2020, and knew even before the pandemic hit that the likelihood of her seeing the court for the 2020-21 season would have been difficult, as rehab from an ACL typically takes about a year. But she said she also heard that a reinjury is more likely to occur if rehab takes more than a year.
That was all she needed.
“I said from the beginning I wasn’t going to rush anything because I wanted to be 100 percent, both physically and mentally,” Brown said. “And I wasn’t going step on the court until I was mentally ready to do that. So really I didn’t have a goal to play at a certain time, and I think that helped a lot just to make sure I was fully recovered.”
“I didn’t want to rush that process, and I just wanted to be stronger than I was before. And that comes with time.”
Brown said she was able to have a major say in the physical therapy process, and was able to go at her own pace. She said she was able to focus more on what was uncomfortable and what she was struggling with the most.
“It was really interactive, and I kind of led a lot of it in that way, which I liked a lot,” she said. “Kind of gave me control to work on things that I knew I needed to work on. It was definitely tough (but) I had a great support system with my family and the team, coaches. And then just all the love I got on social media was really encouraging and uplifting so I appreciate all that. It definitely helped.”
On the court, the focus has been on getting back to the fundamentals, and gradually taking the next step – like playing defense or cutting. As she began to become for comfortable with each step, her confidence grew.
“I don’t think there was ever like a day that I was just like, OK, I can do this,” Brown said. “It was just gradually with the reps I got more comfortable doing different things.”
Rueck said knowing Brown for as long as he has – he has been talking with her since her sophomore year of high school – he expected her to handle the rehab and all that the pandemic through at her well.
Still, the work she has done has been impressive.
“The way she went about the process of coming back and handling the injury doesn’t surprise me but it’s still incredible how she stayed positive through it and made the most of every part of it,” Rueck said. “She’s like, ‘OK, I can’t do this, but what can I work on now?’ And ‘OK, I’m focused on getting better at this and turning that adversity into growth.'”
“Now we’re seeing the benefit of that. Now she’s coming back with more wisdom. She’s fine-tuned some of her skillset and she’s in the best shape of her life. She’s quicker than she was before injury and she’s never been as athletic.”
Before being injured, Brown, a high school McDonald’s All-American, was averaging 6.3 points and 7.6 rebounds in just under 28 minutes a game, playing mostly at the four position. While the numbers weren’t bad, Brown did struggle shooting from the field, hitting just 36.7 percent from the field and only 25 percent (15 for 60) from beyond the 3-point line.
She expects more of herself.
“I think of that as like a learning year for me, honestly,” Brown said. “There were a lot of adjustments. I was thrown into a role that I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable in, and had to learn and grow throughout the season that year. But I think overall I learned a lot through that year and then just this year off, just from having a different perspective off the court as well has helped me grow in many different areas.”
While it’s hard to tell exactly how much Brown has progressed until she actually takes the court in a game, all signs are positive for her to not only contribute in a major way with her performance on the court, but also with the leadership she provides – something the Beavers saw play out last season, even during her rehab.
“That girl has worked her tail off for the past who knows how long,” said teammate Taya Corosdale, who also was injured at the start of the 2019-20 season and missed nearly the entire season with a leg injury. “Her progression has been amazing. She was hit with a lot of adversity and to see her power through that and still be such a positive impact on our team on the sidelines was amazing.”
“She’s a natural leader, and so she did a really good job of not only taking care of herself but taking care of us while being injured. I know Gill’s going to go crazy when she takes her first steps on to the court.”
Corosdale said she sees a big year ahead for Brown.
“I’m just really excited for her, and she’s made huge strides even before her injury,” Corosdale said. “I mean, she’s gained a lot of skills and just knowledge, honestly, and so I’m really excited for her and it’s going to be a really great season for her this year.”