Penn overcomes devastating knee injury
Karisma Penn took a seat at her dining room table, head sunk in her hands and tears dripping down her cheeks. The prognosis for her injured right knee was devastating: six months to recover from a meniscus torn on both sides in a scrimmage against rival Regina prior to her sophomore season.
The surgery would be the second procedure the 6-foot-2 Shaker Heights (Cleveland) forward would have to undergo in less than six months. The first, on her left knee, sidelined her for nearly a month during the summer AAU season.
"I was asking God why this happened to me," says Penn, now a senior. "I go to church and I don't do a lot of things people my age do. The first time I was so lazy (rehabbing), I thought it was bad karma. My faith was tested."
Her Shaker Heights teammates were tested too, forced to play without the services of the All-League forward who had led the team in scoring (13.1), rebounds (11.2) and blocks (2.5) as a freshman.
"I never got discouraged, but I was upset I wasn't contributing," Penn says. "They went to regionals without me and I was real proud of them."
After months of grueling rehab, Penn was cleared during the summer before her junior year, just in time to play in a pair of AAU tournaments with the All-Ohio Black team in July. But she probably should have waited.
"It was a bad experience, being out six months and trying to play in a big tournament," she says.
All-Ohio coach J.B. Bethea saw the struggles Penn endured upon her return.
"She wasn't explosive," Bethea says. "Her timing wasn't there and her touch was not there. I may have been more nervous than she was when I put her in the game."
Realizing some of her skills had diminished, Penn dedicated herself to becoming a more complete player. She worked with Bethea to regain her timing and tried to strengthen her knee with the assistance of Lutheran East head coach Melvin Burke.
Penn returned to the court stronger as a junior, focused and intent on building on the experience of a missed season. And after seeing the team's success the previous year from the sidelines, Penn had a renewed sense of competitiveness and a desire to take on more of a leadership role with the Red Raiders.
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She came on strong from the get-go, upping her scoring average to 19.4 points per game to earn her second All-League nod. Her block (3.2) and rebound (12.3) averages also saw a spike, and she earned Player of the Year honors in the Lake Division of the Lake Erie League.
"She had a phenomenal year," Shaker Heights coach Don Readance says. Seeing the fruits of her labor, Penn became relentless in her pursuit of excellence. The gym became her favored extracurricular activity, as she was determined to never again allow an injury to hamper her success, or that of the team.
"The turning point in her career was this summer," Readance says. "Last year, she played at another level, but I don't know if she trusted her knee. This summer, we went to a camp at Kent State, and she was hands down the best player."
Her transition to superstar was a complete 180 from the lanky fifth-grader who joined a rec team because her "friends were doing it." The old Karisma hadn't the foggiest idea what it took to be a prime-time player. Instead of being a presence in the middle and instilling fear in her opponents, Penn was just a confused kid on the court.
"It was embarrassing," she says. "(Once) I shot at the wrong basket and cried after."
Fed up, Penn sought out the instruction of her father, Charles, a former high school player, and emulated the play of professional ballers. Evening sitcoms were quickly substituted with hours of ESPN Classic and "SportsCenter." She quickly found an idol in NBA All-Star Allen Iverson.
"I love his energy," Penn says. "He gives it his all and has overcome so much. I love his heart."
As she grew, so did her talents on the court. In seventh grade, she stood nearly 5-foot-10 and almost matched the stature of Readance, who became intrigued by the budding talent.
Benefiting from frequent trips to open-gym sessions at the high school, Penn became more coordinated and adjusted to her size. She developed into a ferocious rebounder and a potent offensive threat in the paint. Her game was capped off with a menacing stare that at times intimidated even her coach.
"She had a very serious, Robert Parish-like stone face to her," Readance says. "I wasn't sure how our first meeting went because she didn't crack a smile. I knew I couldn't lose this girl. My main priority was to keep her in the Shaker system."
Readance was successful in retaining the talented star and mentored her as a freshman. Her game took another turn for the better when she aligned herself with the elevated talent level of the AAU circuit.
"She learned how to play every possession," Bethea says. "It's like in football -- you have the potential but you don't play hard every down. Her upside is tremendous. She is playing at a high level, and at the end of the day, she could be a pro."
Although her height forces her to play predominantly in the frontcourt, Penn has worked hard to develop a perimeter game and occasionally can stroke the 3 ball or catch a defender with a tantalizing crossover.
"She will be in the running for Ms. Basketball in Ohio," Readance says. With her resurgence on the court, Penn has become a sought-after commodity in recruiting circles. She is the nation's No. 18 player in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, third among forwards. She received interest from a multitude of Division I programs but picked Illinois over Louisville and Rutgers in early October.
While no athlete enjoys injury and the rigors of rehabbing, Penn has become the player she is largely because of it. She also uses the experience to educate her younger teammates about the importance of working out and not taking days off from their routine.
"The work you have to put in is the most difficult part of playing basketball," Penn says. "You have to keep on working 'cause there's always someone in the gym trying to get better than you. I think the sky is the limit as long as I work hard and as long as I don't settle."
And with a little luck, there will be no more sad days at the dinner table.
David Auguste covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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