The battles of Megan Carter

Junior guard Megan Carter attempts a layup against Buffalo’s tight defense during the second half on March 13 2019, Kent State lost, 85-52.  

When 14-year-old Megan Carter went up for a jump shot at AAU basketball practice, she landed awkwardly on her knee.

It hurt every day for three months.

She sat with her dad in the doctor’s office, waiting for MRI results that would tell if her ACL was torn. Though her father and the doctor told her how serious an ACL tear could be, she still thought she’d be fine. Maybe a few weeks of physical therapy. Maybe missing a game or two. It was a bummer but not the end of the world. 

Then the doctor turned to Megan.

“You’re going to need surgery,” he said. “And it will probably mean at least six months without basketball.”

Megan started to cry at “without basketball.” Six months was longer than she had gone without playing since her brother handed her a ball when she was two. She didn’t know how she could stand that. 

The doctor offered her a tissue and her dad put his hand on her shoulder. 

“It’s going to be OK,” he said gently.

By the end of the month, Megan’s knee was fixed by a surgeon recommended by her doctor. 

At first, she went to therapy four or five times a week for an hour-and-a-half at a time. She got frustrated when she couldn’t immediately grasp how to do the heel raises and hamstring curls. Megan missed the court terribly. She isolated herself, not seeing friends or teammates. 

It got better after the first month. Her appointments were cut down to three times a week, and she started to get the hang of the exercises. The first time she went to an AAU game to watch her team, she had to step out of the gym for a while. She missed playing so much. But by the third game of her freshman year she was back on the court.

But all season, something didn’t feel right. Megan tried to put it out of her mind and just enjoy the chance to play. 

Schools like Michigan and Michigan State had started to recruit her.

But then, in January, as she was driving to the middle of the lane during a high school game, Megan faked a step to the left, then drove to the right. Her newly healed knee buckled. 

She went in and out of the rest of the game and managed to limp to the final whistle. A week later, she was in Dr. Stephen Lemos’s office. He is the surgeon for most of Detroit’s professional athletes. 

He told them the first surgery was the wrong surgery.  It was for people who just wanted mobility. Megan played basketball at full speed — always.

It would take a whole new surgery on the same knee to get back on the court.

She didn’t want to quit. But if basketball meant getting hurt over and over, she wondered if she had it in her to keep playing. 

“Whatever you want to do, I’m going to support you,” her dad told her over the kitchen table one afternoon. “But you’ve loved basketball so much your whole life.” 

In the end, Megan couldn’t imagine life without basketball. 

So it was back to rehab.

She could feel herself starting to get better, but she was still so worried that even walking up the stairs was scary. What if that caused another tear? 

Megan got back onto the court a month into her sophomore season. Even when she came back, she was afraid every move could lead to another injury. 

It wasn’t until her junior year that Megan felt healed. That season, she averaged more than 20 points a game. In January, she had back-to-back 34-point games.  

The Big Ten schools that had recruited her pulled back after her injury. But Mid-American Conference schools, including Kent State, were still interested. For Megan, it didn’t matter. She just wanted to play basketball. 

In September 2014, Megan visited Kent State for her first official college visit. Two weeks later, she called Kent State from her living room and committed. Her dad walked into the house a minute after she hung up, and they celebrated together. The team wanted her before she was injured, while she was injured and after she was recovered. 

Two hours after she graduated from high school, Megan climbed into the car with her parents and headed to Kent. The next day she would start workouts.

When the fall semester started, Megan moved to Fletcher Hall. She lived next to teammate Savannah Neace, and they were in each other’s room all the time. Practice was going well and Megan had high hopes for the season. 

Megan played 11 minutes in her first college game. The second game, she played 22 minutes and had nine points. She looked poised to be the primary backup to sophomore point guard Naddiyah Cross.

Then at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne on Nov. 19, Megan went up for a layup.

Before she even hit the ground, Megan could tell something was wrong. She landed and started crying and screaming,

“No, no, no.” She lay on the court for minutes. Coaches and trainers looked at   her knee and tried to calm her down, but it didn’t do much good. This time it was her other knee.

She sat behind the team bench with her leg propped up for the rest of the game. On the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride home, Megan sat by herself and cried. Her dad kept trying to call, but she let it go to voicemail. 

An hour into the trip, she picked up the phone. Megan kept crying but listened as her dad talked. 

“It’s going to be OK,” he said. “Life goes on, with or without basketball. You’re going to be OK.”

She went to a doctor in Kent the next day. She was sure it was her ACL. He scheduled an MRI to be sure. Megan’s diagnosis was right.

Her parents were with her when she went under anesthesia on Dec. 11. Watching them drive home a few days later, she felt her heart break. Having family around her made everything a little bit better.

Megan was on crutches for four weeks and as soon as she was off them, she went back for shoulder surgery to fix a nagging injury. For the next month, only half her body — her left leg and right arm — were working.

Every day that spring, she went through two hours of rehab. Her shoulder exercises went a lot easier than her knee, but rehabbing two injuries at once was still tougher than she had anticipated. She often just felt numb and went through the motions of school work.

In the spring, the effort of keeping up with her rehab, classes and watching as her team play without her got to be too much. In February, she told team trainer Emily Moran that she was about to break down. 

Moran talked to the head coach Danny O’Banion.

“Go home for the weekend,” O’Banion said. “You’re not playing. You won’t miss anything.” 

Being home with family, even just for a few days, felt like pressing a reset button. Though at times, she still felt like she was going through the motions of life, she started to feel more positive about returning to basketball. She tried to take charge of her recovery.

Kent State went 6-23 that season and in early March, it was announced that O’Banion would not have her contract renewed. 

Over the next few weeks, head coach prospects were brought to the team for interviews. The team — and Megan —  liked Todd Starkey, an assistant coach at Indiana, the best. 

After he was officially hired, Starkey met individually with everyone. 

Because of her injury, Starkey hadn’t seen much film of Megan. Instead, Starkey asked her to tell him about her role on the team. 

By summer, Megan was eager to prove she was as good as she told him. She started non-contact drills during practice and workouts. 

In November, she came off the bench as Kent State won Starkey’s first game. She played 10 minutes, scored six points — and felt as proud as she had ever been of herself.

By the end of the season she was playing more minutes than starting point guard Cross. She played a key role as the Flashes, picked last in a preseason poll, won its first outright MAC East title since 2003. 

On a cold night in March, Megan climbed up a ladder at the end of their last home game and cut down a piece of the net. Megan felt like she was on top of the world. But in the back of her mind, she worried about school. 

Megan had come into college as a pre-med student and was starting to hate it. She played hard to win a MAC East title. But she struggled to get out of bed and go to classes. Often times, she would only attend class on exam days. 

It wasn’t a surprise to her when at the end of the year, she got a call from Kerrie Hunter’s office, the academic adviser for the team. Megan’s spring grades made her academically ineligible to play in the fall. 

Starkey told her she would get a chance to fix her academics. But if Megan slipped up again, she would be done playing at Kent State. 

Megan started meeting with Starkey and Hunter almost every day. She switched her major to public health and liked it. Megan practiced with the team but when they played she watched them play from the stands or, when they traveled, from her apartment couch.

On Jan. 3, 2018, she played her first game. Though the team lost 81-79 to Northern Illinois, Megan played 29 minutes and scored 17 points. 

The next game, she scored 15 points. The game after that she didn’t score at all. All season, Megan lacked consistency. She tried to remember the advice of Lacey Miller, a senior leader on the team.

“You’re better than what you’ve been displaying,” Miller had texted on the team bus one time. “I know you can do more. You’ve got it. Just do it.” 

Megan tried to remember other people believe in her too. She worked on focus and consistency through the offseason, and the next year she led the team in scoring and made the MAC all-conference third team.

The team had its first 20-win season in eight years and beat Green Bay in the first round of the WNIT for the team’s first postseason win in 23 years.

As she plays the first home game of her last season against Ohio State tonight, she remembers the highs and lows. She remembers the friends she has made, the travel she loved — Florida in 2017, New York last year, Canada last summer, Las Vegas next month. She and her teammates are determined to challenge for a MAC championship this season.

All the injuries, all the rehab, all the struggles had been worth it. 

And basketball would always be a part of her life.

Contact Gina Butkovich at [email protected].