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The floor was a little slippery when Oklahoma played San Diego State in the Virgin Islands last season, so Sooners guard Whitney Hand made sure to wipe her shoes one extra time before walking back out to the court. It turns out she would have been better off sliding. The game was well in Oklahoma's command when, towards the end of the first half, Hand filled the lane in transition for a fast break. When the ball came loose behind her, she planted her right foot, turned to pursue it ... and got no farther. As the sophomore set her foot down, she felt her knee pop out of place, and then a fiery feeling came over the limb.
"Coach [Sherri] Coale came running over," Hand recalls. "When she had tears in her eyes as she was trying to get me off the court, I knew something pretty serious happened."
That injury -- a torn ACL -- came in the fall of 2009, the beginning of Hand's sophomore year. She was told immediately she would miss the entire season, but what was supposed to be a six-month recovery from reconstructive surgery turned into a much longer road for Hand. In August 2010, after a summer of tedious rehabilitation, doctors discovered damaged cartilage that would require microfracture surgery -- a potentially career-threatening procedure that cost Greg Oden his first NBA season. Another surgery meant another five months missed for Hand: the start of her redshirt sophomore season was pushed back until midseason while she waited for the cartilage to heal.
Two seasons ago, in 2008-09, Hand had impressed women's basketball fans across the country with her pluck and her skills. Showing poise that belied her true freshman status, Hand had no reservations about firing 3s off of Courtney Paris kick-outs. Paris' guarantee of a national title made headlines that season (Oklahoma's run ended with a two-point defeat to Louisville in the Final Four), but it was Hand's long brown braid, disarming smile and sharpshooting that made the 2009 Big 12 Freshman of the Year a favorite among the Sooner faithful.
But with the pop of the knee that haunts every athlete, Hand's sophomore season was put on hold -- for what would turn out to be the better part of two seasons. Exchanging her uniform for fashionable clothes, the stylish Hand took on the role of assistant coach, monitoring practices and games from the bench, keeping stats, and greeting her teammates on the floor at every timeout. That role helped ease the pain of watching her teammates make another run to the Final Four -- without her.
"They counted on me. I was their leader," Hand says. "Any time I would go through a practice and be invisible, Coach Coale would call me out on it, [saying] 'You made no one better today'. She felt I was important, she cared enough about who I was."
Hand's faith and positivity was tested mightily in August 2010, when she learned she needed microfracture surgery. The aftermath of that setback was particularly difficult, because the recovery requires inactivity. Following Hand's ACL surgery, there was always something to do. A next step to take. Surgery one week, increase range of motion the next. Ride the bike one month, jog on the treadmill the next. But the prescription she was given after the microfracture surgery was simply: wait for the cartilage to heal.
It was the steps she literally couldn't take that tested Hand's will. But she learned how to cope: "Don't just disappear during those months of recovery," she advises other athletes trying to recover from injury. "Don't just try to survive."
She certainly did more than just survive. A physical therapy major, Hand used her enforced time off from sports to focus on her studies this fall. Then on Jan. 2, she returned to the court to face TCU in her first game since she originally hurt the knee in November 2009. Four hundred and one days after she had tore the ACL, Hand set career highs in points and rebounds, and she's been playing well since.
"I'm not scared at all," says Hand, a Fort Worth, Texas, native and the daughter of former major league pitcher Rich Hand. "I feel strong and stable. I'm more aware of my body now."
Hand wants to be an All-American, but now she's able to play with a lightness others don't know, for she's discovered a perspective that her long exile, and recovery, provided.
"I'm a person before I'm a basketball player," she says. "I've learned what I'm capable of."