Bad knees can’t keep Willis from showcase

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 7, 2002

[03/07/02]The pain in K.K. Willis’ right knee started with a foul under the basket 21/2 years ago. A year later, she took a charge and the pain returned. This season, the pain was a constant reminder of what might have been.

After two season-ending knee injuries, nearly two full seasons in the stands and four surgeries with one more on the way the Porters Chapel Academy senior will end her high school career Friday at 2 p.m. in the MPSA Academy A-AA All-Star game at Mississippi College.

It’s the sixth straight year that PCA has had a representative in the game, and it came as a surprise to Willis.

“I was really excited. I didn’t think I was going to make it because of my knees,” Willis said.

The All-Star game caps a bright, yet disappointing career for Willis. After averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds per game and helping PCA to the state championship game in her freshman season, she and the Lady Eagles were poised for a run at a state title entering the 1999-2000 campaign.

Those dreams only lasted until the second game of the season against Adams County Christian.

While trying to block a layup, Willis was pushed by the ACCS player and fell on top of her. She remained on the floor for several minutes before being helped off the court, and returned later in the game. Two days later, however, doctors told her she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament.

The injury ended Willis’ season before it even began, and disoriented the Lady Eagles as well. Missing her scoring and rebounding, they never really got back on track and lost in the first round of the state tournament.

“It was very frustrating. I used to cry after games when I first tore it. I couldn’t go to any of the games because I’d cry because I wanted to help,” she said with a laugh.

Willis had surgery to repair her ACL and some cartilage damage, then had to have a second surgery to repair more cartilage damage. Other than simple shooting drills, she didn’t return to the basketball court until that spring.

She returned in the fall, and by January was back to full speed. She was averaging 19.3 points and 10 rebounds, and the Lady Eagles had rolled to a 13-8 record against stiff competition. But her season and her knee were torn apart again in a game against River Oaks.

On another play under the basket, a River Oaks player drove in and stepped on Willis’ foot as Willis tried to take the charge. Willis’ leg didn’t move, the same ACL tore, and her season was ruined again.

“Right then, I knew I did it again. I started screaming for my mom,” Willis said.

She had a third surgery to repair her ACL and more cartilage damage, and a fourth before the season to fix a rough spot under her kneecap.

“It was really painful to me to watch her some games where she had an average game, and the only reason she had an average game was because of her legs,” said PCA coach Mitchell Willis, also K.K.’s brother.

K.K. Willis’ performance this season about 16 points and eight rebounds per game was good enough to make her the Conference 7-A MVP and a unanimous nominee for the All-Star game.

At the all-star selection meeting, the reaction was the same.

“Everybody wanted her, even with her bad legs. They’ve been around long enough to know what kind of player she is,” Mitchell Willis said. “She earned everything she got this year, and she did it with bad knees.

“I know that made me proud because I know she was frustrated that she stuck it out. A lot of people wouldn’t have.”

It was a nomination that was based on grit, determination, and maybe a little bit of reputation as much as her stats.

After the injuries, she played most games at far less than 100 percent and her role was limited because of it. Where she could once run the floor like a gazelle, she often was reduced to battling for rebounds and putbacks under the goal.

“I tried to save her from a brother’s point of view,” Mitchell Willis said. “I’m glad it’s over with, because I want to see what’s wrong with these knees and get them fixed to where she can function in life.”

K.K. Willis will likely have at least one more surgery this summer to repair some lingering damage from the second injury.

“(Doctors) said my right knee should get back to normal … If there’s a piece of scar, it’ll dissolve, but if it’s not then he’s going to go back in there,” K.K. Willis said. “I hope it gets back to normal. That’s my dream is to run full speed again. I was watching tapes the other day, and I was so fast in eighth grade and ninth grade.”

She’s also had to put basketball on hold, possibly forever. K.K. Willis said Mississippi University for Women coach Glenn Schmidt, who landed Willis’ sister E.J., wanted to scout her. K.K. turned the offer down, however.

“E.J. asked me if I wanted to play for them, and I told her no, just not to come watch. It’s too much pain. I don’t want to play college basketball,” K.K. Willis said. “Unless I sit out next year and start the year after, because I’m not ready right now. I want to wait until my knees get well.”

So Friday’s all-star game will be her last in a PCA uniform. After everything she’s been through, she said it won’t be as emotional as being forced to watch her teammates from the stands, or her last game with them in this year’s state tournament.

“I’ve thought about it. It’s not going to be as hard as it was for my last game with my team. That killed me,” she said. “It’s probably my last time to play. It won’t affect me like it did against Delta though.”