- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- There were times when the adults around Caroline Doty had to physically separate her hands from the basketball, lest pencils, pens, books and other obligations beyond the court wither from neglect. Of course, almost as often, the interventions were needed to save some poor sucker on the other team from suffering her wrath.
Frodo had his ring; Doty had her basketball.
Some of that competitiveness surely came from growing up so close in age to brothers who would go on to play college football: Kevin, her twin, and Michael, little more than a year younger. But tempting though it is to give nurture the nod for starting the fire, her siblings were more likely only the oxygen that fed the flames of her nature. When they ran out of breath, she raged on unabated.
When Doty's father, who is also named Kevin, returned home from work each day, it was invariably Caroline pestering and pleading to practice. His sons? They already had all of her they could handle.
"They were kind of wishy-washy [about the extra practice]," said Kevin, who also coached all three on the same basketball team. "But she was always very, very focused and very passionate, to the point where you'd have to take the ball out of her hands and say we've got to do some schoolwork or do some other things. There were times I benched her because she was just out of control, so competitive going after kids, complaining and everything else. I told her, 'Sit down.' People thought I was crazy, but she had to learn that part of the game, too.
"The competitiveness is what makes her who she is, but the other side has to be controlled, also."
That the ball is back in her hands after she successfully returned from a third tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee is as important a development as any for Connecticut in its first season without Maya Moore. Doty is not the team's best player, not after missing more than half the team's games over the past three seasons. But she might well be this team's most valuable player. She's the one Geno Aureimma trusts with the ball, freeing a stable of scoring guards to do what they do best around center Stefanie Dolson. And she's the one whose smiling swagger could prove contagious.
It's going to take some time for this team to learn how to win, at least at the level it expects and in the kind of settings in which it's used to doing so. Looking to someone who plays with such contempt for losing is a good place to start.
"Of course [she's] going to have one or two times where [she's] thinking, 'When is this going to end? Why does this keep happening?' But she keeps her head high, she keeps her spirits high," teammate Tiffany Hayes said of Doty's travails in staying healthy. "That motivates us, to see her keep going. Like if we get hurt a little bit, we just brush it off because we see what she's been through and it doesn't even compare. For me personally, that's what it is. She's always motivating me, whether she's on or off the court."
There is nothing that matters more to her than being on the court to fill just that role for the Huskies.
But for someone who once hid in the training room rather than deal with a world without basketball, the desire to keep coming back to the court coincided with a realization that it's not the only thing that matters.
The first test came in the first home prep soccer game of Doty's senior season at Germantown Academy outside Philadelphia. Some accidents become a blur after the fact; this one remains a documentary in her mind. She remembers taking a pass near the left sideline and turning over her right shoulder, remembers the defender sliding in and catching her knee and remembers laying on the field thinking she had just screwed up everything.
She hadn't, even though the torn ligament cost her the entire basketball season (Doty had already committed to Connecticut). She went through the rehab and came out ready to start her college career and put the scare behind her, the injury of no more lasting significance than the fractured ankle that preceded it.
Just 17 games into her freshman season, all of which she started, the ACL tore a second time. That it came after the best half of her young college career, a 17-point outburst against Syracuse that cemented her place as a fan favorite, twisted the knife just that much deeper. After all the work to rehab the first injury and reclaim what she thought she'd lost as she lay on the soccer field, she was back at the bottom of the hill with one good leg for the climb ahead. The fun-loving swagger vanished.
"I'm here at Connecticut for the sole reason to play basketball, and I can't play basketball," Doty recalled of her thought process at the time. "So I didn't know what to do; I just shut down. I would be in the training room pretty much all day because I didn't want to be by myself."
She could only watch from the bench in street clothes as the Huskies completed a perfect season with a national championship. But at some point during that season, even as she sat and watched, her outlook started to shift. Family helped, Doty's dad sometimes driving up to take her out to lunch during the lowest moments. Friends helped, those on the team and those she found beyond the court. But as simple as it sounds, she began to think about what was left instead of what had been taken away.
"If you're so passionate about something, there is always an alternative," Doty said. "I was dealt that problem and I reacted the wrong way. I didn't know what to do or think, when there's a million other opportunities out there."
When she talks now about getting a 4.0 grade-point average for her summer coursework, there is a hint of that familiar swagger in her voice. When she talks about wanting to duplicate the grade mark this semester, it's with more than a hint -- you get the feeling she might walk in an exam room, snap every No. 2 pencil in sight and stare down anyone who makes a move toward their bag for a replacement. And when she talks about her major, sports management, she sounds genuinely excited. Perhaps not as excited as if she had just buried two clutch 3-pointers and played 36 minutes without a turnover in a national championship game, as she did against Stanford in 2010, but excited.
"I am very competitive, and I don't know if people take it the right way sometimes, if they take it as I'm being too aggressive with certain things," Doty said. "I want to play, so I'm going to do anything I can to play. I want to get good grades, and I want to have jobs lined up. I want to be successful and have a happy and good life. And I'll fight for it."
When she suffered a torn ACL for a third time during the summer before the 2010-11 season, doctors used part of the patellar tendon from her right knee to fix the damaged left knee, leaving Kevin to look at the painfully surreal scene of his daughter leaving the hospital with both knees immobilized, all in an effort to get her back on the court and test Einstein's definition of insanity one more time. But days later, she was back on familiar ground in the training room in Storrs, ready to get down to work with trainer Rosemary Ragle, quite possibly as influential a figure in Doty's college career as Auriemma.
There were setbacks and setbacks to setbacks, including a minor knee procedure days before the start of this season and a sprained ankle that kept her off the court in Connecticut's two exhibition games. But when the ball tipped for real against Holy Cross, she was on the court. And seconds later, she was on the court in a more familiarly literal sense, laying on the ground as a result not of catastrophic injury but because Doty goes where the ball goes. Always has, always will.
"I'm not going to be as quick or as fast, but there's more to the game than that," Doty said. "Coach was talking about what [is each player] going to bring to the team? I still have to figure that out because I'm not going to be able to get to the basket as quick as I want to. But maybe I can take care of the ball better than I used to, or maybe I can make more open shots than I used to. Maybe I can communicate and be the energizer for the team, bring other things to the court that maybe I wasn't able to do when I was healthy when I first came in here."
Doty's story almost begs for a violin accompaniment, or perhaps some plaintive piano chords -- something appropriately contemplative that gives way to an uplifting flourish at the end. Adversity aside, it's not that kind of story. As she's the first one to point out, there are plenty of people who face problems more dire than missing basketball games. And the nature of sports being what it is, the sad truth is we can't know that the story is over, that the ligament will finally hold and allow her some peace for her final two seasons.
So instead of violin music, perhaps the story ought to end with whatever more energetic beat carries through the earbuds Doty wears as she stands in an empty gym and repeats a motion almost as familiar to her as breathing, time and time again.
"I do that a lot," Doty said of shooting by herself. "I put my iPod in and I'll just play games by myself. Everything is so intense all the time -- and it needs to be to be competitive -- but if I get out there by myself, or with a few of my friends who used to play in high school, and just shoot. It's more the fun part of it, just goofing around.
"Having the ball in your hands is always a good thing."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Caroline Doty is not UConn's best player. But after successfully returning from a third ACL tear, she has the ball back in her hands -- and a confident swagger to go with it -- and might be the team's most valuable player.