|Lauren Avant committed to Pat
Summitt at Tennessee at age 14 and played for the Lady Vols. The
road that has gotten her here is long and painful but full of
Rhodes athletics photo by Allison Bowen
By Tyler Springs
Special to D3sports.com
“I was a soccer player at first, definitely.”
This was not a particularly revealing comment by Lauren Avant. Everybody and their little brother played soccer as kids: the essence, whether at recess or in rec leagues, was kick the ball ahead and run. Avant, the lone senior on the No. 18 Rhodes Lynx women’s basketball team, was probably as good at youth soccer as any of us, though there’s a chance that she was better.
“She initially played every sport there was,” recalled her mother, Dana. A lifelong Memphis native, Dana had an offer to run track at the University of Tennessee, but she declined, instead pursuing a nursing degree. “She wanted to play tennis, she wanted to play softball, and I just told her that she had to choose one sport.”
Lauren Avant (pronounced AY-vant) turned 4 on March 4, 1996. That summer, the American women won a gold medal in basketball at the Atlanta Olympic Games, and a certain dynamic shooting guard led the Chicago Bulls to their fourth NBA title of the decade. Softball didn’t stand a chance.
|This piece originally appeared in TheGrind.|
“Just by watching games [on TV], I was a huge fan of Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, and all those guys — it sounds cliché, I know,” Avant admitted. “Then when I started playing basketball, I was really, really bad. I was awful. And I would get uninterested a lot, but my mom helped me stay the course.”
This is a bit of an understatement. For a lot of kids, “helped” would probably mean “encouraged me and reminded me of my commitment.” In this case, “help” meant Dana Avant having a basketball court installed in the backyard of the home in the Raleigh neighborhood of Memphis where Lauren grew up.
|Lauren Avant, as a youngster,
played everything, including soccer, before settling on
Photo by Dana Avant
“It was more for me not having to cut the grass,” Dana explained, laughing. “But I felt that it would give her an opportunity to be able to do things [outside].”
It did. What Dana failed to realize, given their location in a new subdivision, was that the court would soon become a beacon of leisure for all of the neighborhood boys. With Lauren, they pulled no punches.
“They would play all day long, and they would never pick me [to be on their teams],” Lauren said. “Or they would pick me for literally the last game they were going to play, and they would let me take one wide-open shot, and I would generally brick it. And I think that kind of worked on me, on my mental psyche, a little.”
It affected her enough that at age 7, Avant would jog down her street every summer morning, dribbling a basketball for a mile-and-a-half. About what time was this?
"Oh my gosh,” she chuckled, “at like five or six in the morning.” Enthusiasm permeates the comment as though she never knew that sleep was an option for a 7-year-old at that hour.
“My mom told me, 'If you want to play, you've got to work at it. You have to get out there and try and dedicate yourself to it," Avant said. "And I thought, 'Well, I'm tired of sitting over here [on the bench] while they're playing.'"
Two summers later, after long hours of shooting and dribbling, 9-year-old Lauren was finally getting picked to play with the regular guys.
“I remember one game where she’d gone down on her foot awkwardly, and I could tell she’d hurt herself, but she refused to come out,” Dana said. “She kept going and acknowledged it afterward, but that was her attitude. It was ‘If I can play through this, I will.’ And mostly she did."
Given Lauren’s growing talent, the “regular guys” with whom she played had changed. It was Jonnie West, son of NBA legend Jerry West, who worked with Avant on her jump shot before going off to West Virginia University and being a part of the Mountaineers’ 2010 Final Four squad. It was Derrick Rose and other University of Memphis players who were training alongside Avant at the Larry Finch Center in the offseason. It was Joe Jackson, a future Memphis Tiger himself, who was an every-morning workout buddy and close friend. For someone in Avant’s position, these associations were never a big deal, though mercy wasn’t shown when it came to on-court physicality.
“I looked at them as the best, and I thought of myself, as hard as I worked, as one of the best in my respective age group, so there was never even a question [for me],” Avant said of working out with a future NBA Most Valuable Player. “That was the person that I wanted to be.”
Avant made the varsity squad at Lausanne Collegiate School as an eighth grader, averaging 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals in her first season under head coach Wayne Kelley. More impressively, she was named a team captain before she even played a game as a freshman.
“She was one of the most determined players that I’ve ever come in contact with,” Kelley said. “The hard work that she had to put in to be really good, she was not afraid of that. And immediately, all her teammates saw her as a leader, even as an eighth grader."
Someone else saw that leadership, too: Nikki McCray, a two-time gold medal winner at the Olympics and the first Memphian to play basketball for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. McCray, then an assistant coach under Summitt, took charge in the recruitment of Avant, and it wasn’t long before she was persuading Summitt to take Avant seriously. When the six-time national champion coach of the Lady Vols offered Avant a scholarship, she didn’t say no. In an interview with Time for an article titled “Courting 8th Graders,” she said what anybody would: "When you get the opportunity, you have to jump on it. You can't let that pass you by."
Over her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, things went preposterously well for all the teams involved in Avant’s life. 2008 was particularly sweet: a state title for Lausanne, a national title for Avant’s AAU team, Memphis Elite, and yet another national title for the Lady Vols, a portrait of what the future could hold for Avant. Yes, she was developing tendinitis in her knees and had picked up two more concussions during this time, but being a target of physicality was expected, since people beyond Memphis were now realizing her talent.
“The 5-foot-9 lead guard was not far removed from a bout with mononucleosis and the thumb on both of her hands were badly mangled,” reporter Glenn Nelson wrote for ESPN.com back in the summer of 2008. “Still, she helped Memphis Elite claim the [AAU] national title.” Avant, the top-ranked point guard in her class by ESPN, also took home the MVP award at the AAU national tournament. The hardware was heavy.
By the end of her junior season, Lausanne had Avant's jersey retired. She was barely old enough to be allowed to see an R-rated move, much less be told that nobody else would be allowed to wear No. 24. That was early March 2009, five years ago. Weeks after her 17th birthday, Lauren Avant experienced her first car accident from the driver’s seat.
|In 2008, Lauren Avant won a
state title in Tennessee and was named the state's Miss Basketball.
The next spring, her number was retired.
Photo courtesy of Dana Avant
“I was on my way to school,” she recounted. “I remember it was a Wednesday, because we would dress up on Wednesdays for ceremonies. I was at an area by Kirby & Westminster where I’d make a turn every day, and I just saw the car barreling toward mine, and there was nothing I could do but try to brace [for the impact]. I was stopped with my turn signal on, and I tried my best to slam on the brakes so I wouldn’t go into oncoming traffic. I just had a gut feeling that [the other SUV] wouldn’t stop.”
Her instinct was right: Avant’s SUV was totaled from the rear-end collision. As she lay slumped over the steering wheel post-impact, her right arm was far enough out of place that her fingers touched her ankle. She had suffered a Bankart tear of the labrum and a dislocated shoulder, injuries that required surgery a month later. Complicating the matter was the fact that Lauren’s joint cuff had been stretched by the accident. Put a tennis ball inside of a big coffee mug, tip it over sideways, and then bounce the mug up and down in mid-air to see if the ball stays tightly in place — that’s the equivalent process of trying to stabilize the ball-and-socket joint in a shoulder such as Avant’s.
“That shoulder injury just did something to her,” Dana said. “I saw her change from the player she was before that injury into what she had [left over] after she had the surgery. It was definitely upsetting for me as a parent, because I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for her. And unfortunately, it happened really during the most important time of her playing, so she basically spent the summer of her eleventh-grade year rehabbing, not being able to go to scouting camps. And in the first game she came back, she ended up [re-injuring it], so her season was effectively over.”
Lauren was limited to playing eight games in her senior season, averaging 15 points in those contests. The re-injured shoulder rendered her right arm useless for almost two months, numb down to the hand. The numbness, she would learn later, was part of her case of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a chronic nerve disorder that also manifested itself through exaggerated inflammation of injuries. Even the smallest nicks and dings became exponentially more difficult to heal when affected by CRPS.
There were a lot of communications between Dana, Summitt, and the athletic trainers at UT about the player that would arrive in Knoxville and how they planned to help her back to form. Dana had her doubts, but she was also hopeful that the continuing physical therapy would bring Lauren as close to her old self as possible.
“In terms of expectations coming in, I mean, they were sky high,” Maria Cornelius recalls. Cornelius, who has covered the Lady Vols for InsideTennessee.com since 2004, was particularly impressed by Avant’s play on the defensive end.
“As a freshman, she was very rare, in that she could keep someone in front of her on defense,” Cornelius said. “You don’t see that with freshmen players—they are so behind on defense, they’re not used to the quicker D-I players that can get around them.”
In mid-February 2011, with Tennessee sporting an undefeated record in SEC play, the Lady Vols found themselves down by 13 at halftime on the road at Vanderbilt. Avant played only three minutes in the first half, but assistant coach Mickie DeMoss stumped for Avant to be on the floor more in the second half. DeMoss, now an assistant coach with the Indiana Fever of the WNBA, remembered the game without prodding.
”We needed a penetrator from the top [of the key],” DeMoss said. “And that’s what [Avant] did.”
In 17 second-half minutes, Avant grabbed four steals and scored 11 of the Lady Vols’ 50 second-half points, going two-of-three from the floor and six-of-nine from the free-throw line. The comeback kept their undefeated conference record intact.
“She really, really played well at that game, and if we hadn’t had her, we wouldn’t have won,” DeMoss said.
Tennessee went on to win the SEC regular season and tournament crowns. In the NCAA Tournament, they advanced all the way to the Elite 8 before falling at the hands of Skylar Diggins and eventual national runner-up Notre Dame. For Avant, however, the writing had been on the wall for most of the year.
No longer the dream
Two months ago, Lauren Avant and former teammate Sharwil Bell attended a doubleheader at FedExForum, the latter half of which featured the No. 1 University of Connecticut women against the Memphis. The two friends sat in one of the higher sections during a well-attended men’s game, but they moved down to the lower bowl when most of the fan base for the early game departed.
“It was pretty much choose-your-own-seating for the women’s game, and at one point we had a little girl sitting next to us,” Bell remembers. “And she looked at Lauren and asked, ‘Are you Jasmine James?’”James is a 5-9 point guard who graduated from Bartlett High School in 2009. She played collegiately at Georgia, earning all-SEC honors three times and played in 16 of 34 regular season games for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 2013.
James was the player who was always mentioned on the Memphis basketball scene alongside Avant.
James had earned accolades at the highest level of collegiate basketball, the level at which coaches and scouts had once projected Avant to thrive. James was now playing professionally.
Avant had to tell the girl that no, she wasn't that player.
“It wasn’t anything that we talked about,” Bell said. “Lauren probably doesn’t even remember it now — that’s not the kind of thing she dwells on. And maturity has helped with that. But I could tell it bothered her, just for a moment. I mean, if Lauren’s body would have just stayed in one piece, you know?”
Almost from the start, Avant was behind the 8-ball in Knoxville. As she continued to rehabilitate her shoulder in her first month on campus, she contracted a respiratory infection from a reaction to an environmental allergen in her freshman dorm room, necessitating a change of living space. Weeks later, she suffered a preseason injury to her thumb that Cornelius characterized as “bizarre,” torn ligaments that quickly grew inflamed because of CRPS, to the point that Avant’s hand was rendered effectively useless.
“Looking at Lauren’s body and her strength, I would never think she would be injury-prone,” DeMoss said. “She’s not frail or weak, she’s got a great, athletic body … I think it was kind of freaky, because it seemed like it was one thing after another, and we could never get her consistently healthy.”
In mid-November, Avant rolled her right ankle in a bad way, dislocating it with the possibility of torn ligaments. With CRPS-enhanced swelling compounding the healing process, Avant was not cleared to travel with the team to the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virigin Islands over Thanksgiving Weekend. She was the only one who couldn’t go.
“I’ve never seen a career gutted the way hers was by injuries,” Cornelius said. “This kid went from a top-10 talent to one just struggling to stay healthy. One of the main issues she had was with all the injuries, she missed so much practice. ... If you’re a freshman trying to break into a rotation and develop team chemistry with your teammates, that’s done in practice. It felt like she was always in catch-up mode, always trying to get up to speed with what was happening on the floor.”
Two more concussions at different points during the year effectively sealed the deal for Avant. At season’s end, she had played in 19 of 37 games, scoring a total of 49 points in 152 minutes of floor time. If you mapped the numbers across a 40-minute span, Avant would have averaged 12 points per 40 minutes, certainly an acceptable scoring impact for a freshman ball-handler. But Avant could never get that far without getting pulled or getting hurt. After the season finished, Avant went to Summitt to relay her decision to transfer.
“I hated to see her go, actually,” DeMoss said. “I think she’s a heck of a player and person. I loved having her on the team. Teammates loved her —she’s a good teammate. I never worried about her grades, or [breaking] any kind of training rules, stuff like that. She’s smart, catches on really quickly. She would have had to be consistent from 3, but as far as her having the ability and skills, I do think [if she had stayed healthy] she would at least have had a chance to play [in the WNBA].”
“I don’t think Tennessee expected her to leave,” Cornelius said. “They knew she was having injury issues, that she had been struggling because of that. But I think they expected her to still be able to come back, and when she went to Tennessee and told them, I think that took them by surprise. I think in Lauren’s case, she wanted to get home, she wanted to de-emphasize basketball, and you can’t de-emphasize basketball at Tennessee.”
In her interview with Sports Illustrated in July 2008, Avant had stated that her primary objective was always to forgo a professional basketball career and go into medicine as Dana had. After a year of physical hell at Tennessee, continuing to play basketball at a Division I level seemed unreasonable. Nonetheless, Avant kept basketball on the table as she narrowed down her choices to three NCAA Division III schools, all of them with superb academic profiles, metropolitan locations, and smaller student populations.
Washington U. featured a powerhouse D-III hoops program. Birmingham-Southern boasted excellent facilities, having reclassified from NCAA Division I in 2006. Rhodes, a conference foe of BSC, was a short drive from home, and Sharwil Bell, a teammate of Avant’s on the 2008 Lausanne state title squad, was about to begin her senior year playing for coach Matt Dean. It might have helped that Bell, like Avant, was a biology major, not to mention that she had also spent her own freshman year playing basketball at Elon, a D-I school, before transferring back home to Rhodes.
With Bell in the mix, the deck was stacked against BSC and WashU from the start. That said, Dean remembers the initial conversations being more about student life that basketball, though he could tell that hoops was never far from Avant’s focus.
“She was kind of feeling me out, how I would be on the basketball side as a coach and player manager, because she had had such a hard time at Tennessee staying healthy,” Dean said. “Her body was in a bad state, not sure how much she could take. ... So our conversations initially were just convincing her that this was such a good academic fit. I think because Sharwil had a positive experience at Rhodes and playing for me, that was one of the overriding factors when Lauren decided, ‘Hey, we’re going to give this place a chance.’"
Within Avant’s first week on campus as a student in late August 2011, she tore her left Achilles’ tendon in a pickup game. For the third year in a row, she would begin the season on the bench, trying to heal.
“Most of the people [who tear their Achilles tendon] do not get [their full pre-injury ability] back,” Dr. Owen Tabor Jr. explained. An orthopedic physician and Bluff City native, Tabor has practiced in Memphis since 1999. “They do not get quite the same jumping ability — it doesn’t work quite like it did before you tore it. Most people that tear it are older, and most of the time, when they tear it, they don’t go back to what they were doing before.”
Tabor used 16-time NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant as a point of reference. Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon last spring at age 34, and his rehabilitation to return to the floor lasted roughly eight months.
“Do people get all the way back? Sure they can, sometimes,” Tabor noted. He estimated the odds of full recovery from an Achilles tear at 50-50. “Would there be a negative impact on your career as a basketball player? Absolutely.”
In some ways, having time to settle in on North Parkway without having to worry about basketball was not such a bad thing for Avant. Lausanne was a good school, and she had always been a straight-A student, but her initial adjustment to the classroom was a significant change from what she had come across in Knoxville.
“I’m seeing some people walk around with barely a 3.0 GPA, barely a 2.0, and still get in to medical school,” Avant said, recollecting her initial disbelief. “It’s just a different academic community here — people actually value studying, they value meeting with professors. Office hours are a real thing. As an athlete at Tennessee, we had practices, but we had so many other obligations that we could never make it to office hours. And if we could make it, there was no guarantee that the professor was going to be there, just because it’s such a large school, you know? And it was hard to get people to accommodate your schedule. Here [at Rhodes], school really does come first. The hardest thing was adjusting to the schoolwork, but that ended up being fine.”
The basketball mentality at the Division III level was a different animal as well. Especially jarring for Avant was the transition from Summitt, the ultimate disciplinarian, to Dean, who Avant described as “a players’ coach in every right.”
“We went on a road trip during the season and we lost, and I was expecting this awful post-game speech,” Avant remembered. “In any Division I program, a loss is horrible. And Coach Dean was like, ‘It’s on me, that was my bad.’ And I was confused, you know — I didn’t know how to feel. The bus ride was nice, people were talking, having fun, and I was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into? These people don’t care about basketball, clearly.’ And I realized later that they do, but at this level, a loss isn’t the end of the world. At a higher level, it’s a business — a loss is unacceptable because of all the hours you put in, all the people they have around you [to help you succeed].”
“Adjusting to why you play the game — I feel like that was a big part of Lauren’s adjustment process,” Bell said. “Because she was like, ‘Is this how it’s going to be?’ And I was just like, ‘Wait it out, feel it out, and you’ll realize how it is.’ You want to give your all for someone who’s going to take up for you and always have your best interests at heart.
“It’s just different tactics,” Avant concluded. “In the same way that I was scared to death to mess up because I respected Pat so much, I’m scared to death not to give it my all for Coach Dean because I love him so much, and he loves me just as much, and you don’t want to let that person down. So even though they are polar opposites, they’ve both been able to get the best out of me, in my time with each of them, for different reasons.”
As she grew more comfortable at Rhodes, Avant’s repaired Achilles’ managed to heal in just over 4 months. She saw action in 14 games for the Lynx in the 2011-12 season. Her 11.7 points per game average ranked second on the team in scoring, not half bad for someone who had barely played in half of her team’s games. Bell, a graduating senior, was the only one ahead of her who had scored more that year.
But the universe, in its infinite lack of wisdom, had decided again that this was an appropriate time to saddle Avant with another medical concern. The right ankle that had hampered her at Tennessee was flaring up again, spraining itself almost every time Avant stepped up onto a curb. By now, she knew that intense compression on an inflamed area, painful as it was, gave her the best chance to avoid complications from CRPS. The thing was, the ankle was too loose to stop itself from getting sprained.
“If you’re having ankle instability with activities of daily living, and it’s not responding to a brace or [physical] therapy, then you should have it reconstructed,” Tabor said. ” He explained that there are two types of patients needing reconstructive surgery — athletes who are unable to plant and cut in an opposite direction without precipitating a sprain, and regular people who will turn an ankle merely by traversing the supermarket. Avant may have started as the former, but her symptoms more closely resembled the latter. Curbs were the worst.
In describing Lauren’s ankle to Dana, there was only one word used by the surgeon: shredded.
The summer 2012 procedure left a nasty scar, but she would be able to walk and run without an ankle brace once it had healed. The question that remained was always the same: how long will this hold up?
Every athlete who goes through a period of major uncertainty or injury probably grows weary of hearing about Langston Hughes and that famous soliloquy on a dream deferred. A competitor’s mind has only so much space dedicated to the past — they must leave room to focus on all the game plans and routines that will prepare them for their next challenge. At the same time, they are products of their path, in that what has happened before can shape what will happen next.
Sustaining eight concussions over the course of a career — yes, Avant has suffered two more in her time at Rhodes — could make anyone risk-averse with regard to sports. The lingering discomfort from a torn labrum and torn Achilles, along with ankle reconstruction surgery, CRPS, tendinitis in both knees, and recently diagnosed osteoarthritis would be enough to make even a tough competitor wince. But the catch with cumulative pain is this: if you subject yourself to such prolonged torture, and then you give up before you get back what you sought, have you won or have you lost? It depends on whom you ask.
For Avant, the answer is in the numbers, though she said she doesn’t pay much attention to statistics. After having her ankle surgically reconstructed and her Achilles tendon repaired in the last two years, Avant has played in more than 75% of her team’s games, helping the Lynx to back-to-back 20-win regular seasons and their first NCAA tournament win in 2013. She’s averaged 20 or more points, 7.0 or more rebounds, 2.0 or more steals, and 2.0 or more assists per game both years. She has made over 50% of her field goals this year while averaging 25 points per game, the only guard in the country to do so.
This past weekend, Rhodes hosted the end-of-season Southern Athletic Association tournament on their home floor. The SAA is in its second year of existence, making it the only conference in Division III which cannot grant an automatic NCAA tournament bid to the winner of the regular season title or to the winner of the conference tournament. Thus, every win mattered for Rhodes and Centre, the two teams that had legitimate chances to gain NCAA berths even if they didn’t win the conference tournament.
On Friday night, Avant scored 20 points and shot 53% from the floor; Rhodes beat archrival Sewanee, and with a swished three-pointer from the right wing in the second half, Avant broke the all-time Rhodes record for points scored in a season. Centre, featuring 2013 conference player of the year Paige Baechle, bested Hendrix to advance as well. On Saturday night, Centre defeated Millsaps to advance to the final, with Baechle, a senior forward, netting her 23rd double-double of the season. Rhodes topped Berry in the other semi-final, Avant scored 24 on 53% shooting, and she broke the all-time school record for free throws made in a season, too.
|Rhodes won the Southern
Athletic Association championship and moved on into the NCAA
Rhodes athletics photo by Allison Bowen
In Sunday’s finale against Centre, Avant scored 18 first-half points to Baechle’s 10, helping the Lynx to a 44-26 halftime lead, one they would not relinquish. When it was almost over, with 1:17 to play in the 2nd half and the Lynx holding a steady lead, Avant went to the bench for maybe the final time on her home floor. As she made her way down the row of players and coaches who stood to greet her, the crowd inside Mallory Gymnasium gave Avant a standing ovation.
Playing her third game in three days on a body that had been bumped, bent, bashed, and bandaged more times than you would ever guess, the senior captain had just scored 36 points, hitting 15 of her 21 field-goal attempts (71%) while grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists.
Seventy-seven seconds later, Rhodes won their second consecutive conference championship. Avant had supplied 80 points on 61% shooting from the floor on the weekend, including a 45% mark from three-point range. She was awarded tournament MVP honors, but nobody smiled brighter that she did when holding the SAA trophy aloft one more time.
“She has definitely beaten the odds,” Tabor said. “Those three [ankle reconstruction, torn Achilles’, Bankart tear of the labrum] are all big injuries. Any one of them could be career-ending to a basketball player. The number of people who can come back from all three of those and still perform at a high level is really small.”
One night, I listed off all of Avant’s injuries over the last 10 years to a former college varsity athlete, not telling him at first what the list was. “Oh, of course,” he said after about the sixth or seventh affliction. “That’s the L.A. Lakers’ injury report this year, isn’t it?” He was serious.
DeMoss was more concise when told her former player was scoring 20-plus points a game: “Wow.”
Avant credited her recent good health to her intense work with physical therapist Kevin Olds and Rhodes athletic trainer Jesseca Holcomb. In a week where the Lynx are not playing on the road, Avant will spend six days a week doing multiple hours of treatment with Olds or Holcomb, coaxing her fractious body into cooperation for the few hours of sprinting, leaping, shooting, dribbling, and passing that she so enjoys. Getting out of bed on Monday off days is a slow, prickly process, particularly after a three-game weekend, but for Avant, it is worth all the therapy.
“I just appreciate every single win,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s any [one] thing that I’m [most] proud of, except for really being able to stay on the court this long.”
On Monday afternoon, Rhodes learned that for the second year in a row, they would host first- and second-round matchups of the Division III NCAA Tournament, The Lynx take on Spalding at 7pm Friday night in Mallory Gymnasium. For Avant, who turned 22 on Tuesday, there’s no better present than one more game, especially at home in Memphis.
“If we play a team that’s better than us and we give it our all and we lose, I’m okay with that,” she said, seemingly at peace with wherever the end falls. “I just want us to always come out and perform in every game the best we can. Whatever happens happens. I just hope that we continue to get better throughout these last couple games.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Dana Avant had a backyard basketball court installed behind a home in East Memphis where she lives. In fact, the home was located in Raleigh.