ACL ends senior McCray's career at Kansas

February, 6, 2010
02/06/10
12:17
AM ET

Friday marked our annual Women's Sports Awards Luncheon event in Kansas City. It benefits an organization called Win for K.C., a local incarnation of what the Women's Sports Foundation is nationally.

It's an inspiring, energy-charged event, and this year was especially a big deal, with women's sports legend Billie Jean King as keynote speaker. She started the WSF back in 1974, so this was her chance to see the microcosm of her life's work represented in this Midwestern community.

Among the award winners this year was a 73-year-old grandmother who has run 97 marathons. Yes -- 97! Her goal is to reach 100, although I seriously doubt she'll stop there. She has run a marathon in all 50 states and on all seven continents. And guess when she actually took up running? When she was 50.

I swear I'm not making up this stuff. Each luncheon, we hear stories like this, so it's always one of the best days of the year for me. Except …

This year, right as the luncheon was about to start, I saw a message on my BlackBerry that Kansas senior Danielle McCray had suffered an ACL injury and was out for the season.

I had to look at it three times to believe it. I kept thinking -- hoping? -- I was reading it wrong. You'd think after all the ACL injuries I've had to report about in 26 years of covering women's basketball, they would lose the power to upset me. But that isn't the case.

They still do. Some, though, hit harder than others. When they happen to someone whom you talked to on her first college media day, whom you've watched grow from a uncertain freshman to a confident senior, whom you've seen blossom into an excellent pro prospect and also a fine young woman … those hit really hard.

After the luncheon, I ran into former Kansas State players Danielle Zanotti and Marlies Gipson, who finished their careers last season and now are helping on Deb Patterson's staff. Even though Kansas and Kansas State are big rivals, rivalries go out the window when it comes to injuries, one of the unifying miseries of sports.

Zanotti looked stricken when I told her of McCray's ACL.

"Oh, God, no," she said. "I feel sick to my stomach. It's like Dietz."

She was referring to former teammate Kimberly Dietz, who suffered a torn ACL in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Big 12 tournament, in her senior season. All ACLs are awful, but they are most painful when they happen to a senior.

Kansas and Kansas State face off for the 100th time in series history Sunday in Lawrence. It's notable that both schools actually had varsity women's hoops programs before Title IX, starting them in the 1968-69 season.

Both have had sustained periods of success, but Kansas started a down cycle at the start of the last decade. The Jayhawks haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2000, but this year was supposed to change all that.

With a team led by seniors McCray, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, and Sade Morris, plus redshirt freshman Angel Goodrich back from an ACL injury that delayed the start of her college career, Kansas was picked, in a tie with Texas, to finish second in the league by the coaches.

However, Goodrich suffered another ACL injury on Jan. 13 against Oklahoma State. Talking to McCray after that game, I was struck by her resolve and leadership. She immediately began bolstering the confidence of teammate LaChelda Jacobs, whom she knew would have to take on a bigger role with Goodrich out.

This was the player McCray had become in her time at Kansas. And that was quite a journey from the athletically gifted freshman who at times butted heads with coaches early on because she always wanted to know "why?" something was done a certain way. She wasn't obstinate, but she tended to be a bit stubborn and wary about things.

Her mother, though, told her, "You listen to your coaches," and McCray did. An excellent track and field athlete as well as a hoops player in high school, McCray had to reshape her body more toward basketball. She had to learn how to be a perimeter player. She had to realize that her teammates always followed her lead. She didn't "ask" to be the leader. But sometimes you don't choose that role. It chooses you.

KU coach Bonnie Henrickson worked with McCray though all of this. She was very confident that McCray had developed into an all-around star certain to be a WNBA first-round draft pick in April.

"What a phenomenal career she has had here," Henrickson said. "I've never had a kid who's wanted the ball in her hands and wanted to take the big shots at crunch time more than she did."

Unfortunately, Henrickson has to speak of McCray's KU career in the past tense now. On Thursday, during a simple practice drill in which McCray neither did a jump stop nor cut hard nor had any contact with anyone, she simply passed the ball and turned to run …

"And then there was the blood-curdling scream," Henrickson said. "It didn't buckle like you sometimes see. Plus, you look at the kid -- she's so strong, especially in the lower body. She said, 'Coach, I've done that [move] thousands of times.'"

Of course, we all know that's how it can be with ACL injuries. They're the perplexing, infuriating, heartbreaking, soul-shattering boogeyman of women's basketball.

The good news, since we always have to look for some, is that while she suffered an ACL tear, she did not sustain any other damage to her knee. When McCray heard that, she suggested trying to brace it and play through the rest of the season.

Henrickson, though admiring her resolve, told McCray that would not be in the best interest of her future.

"I have no doubt she's going to be drafted and she's going to be a good player at the next level," Henrickson said. "She'll get surgery, she'll rehab … this will make her even stronger. That's the big thing we communicated to her, 'Your basketball career is not over; there is still a lot left.'"

However, the 5-foot-11 McCray -- who was averaging 19.8 points and 7.2 rebounds -- won't get to play in her last Big 12 tournament, which is in K.C. She went to high school in nearby Olathe, Kan. And if the 13-7 Jayhawks can manage an NCAA tournament bid, she won't get to participate in the Big Dance.

The Jayhawks have the deepest team they've had since Henrickson has been at KU, so there are at least other talented players who now will have to do more. As a coach, Henrickson has to focus on that, although she admitted she had some depressed moments Friday, when she still had a hard time believing McCray's career as a Jayhawk was finished.

"It's such a horrible part of our profession," Henrickson said. "Every coach has had to deal with it. It's such a horrific injury for the kids, and then meeting with their parents and trying to be strong for them. You have to let them know how many kids have gotten hurt this way but continued on. But it's gut-wrenching to watch them go through it."

As women's basketball followers, we all feel that. I wish McCray's story was a rare one; unfortunately, it's not.

A ray of light? Hours after this happened to McCray on Thursday, Southern Cal's Jacki Gemelos -- who has been through four ACL surgeries -- made her long-awaited college debut. She had eight points and five assists in 28 minutes.

The ACL "club" is something no one wants to join, and it has far, far too many members. But it means McCray has a whole lot of great examples to follow.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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