Jaidyn Harris felt cheated.
She started her sophomore basketball season at Capitol Christian Academy with big goals — and the talent to achieve them.
But she ended the season in a hospital, with a surgeon who repaired her ACL but couldn’t repair her aspirations. She had to do that herself.
In the two months following surgery, Harris couldn’t walk. She didn’t cope by getting a new hobby or watching too much Netflix.
In fact, she may not have coped at all.
She laid in bed almost every night for two months, ball in hand, and questioned the basketball gods.
“Why me?” Harris asked herself as she flicked the basketball in the air.
“I remember asking ‘Why me?’ a lot,” Harris recalls. “I was furious. That year, going to a private school and having a national schedule, I got interest from big AAU programs. That year was going to be my year to break out, and it was stripped away from me.”
She watched basketball games on TV. She practiced her shooting motion. She even slept with a basketball.
“I was trying to open my hands more so I could grip the ball and have more control with my movements,” Harris said. “I would even sleep like that with my hands wide on the ball to get the muscle memory.”
Almost two years after tearing her ACL, Harris is back on the court, and playing like someone who had her junior year stolen from her. Now playing for Oakland Mills, the 5-foot-8 combo guard is fourth in Howard County in scoring at 16.6 points per game.
“I knew I had so much more to prove, so when I came back I knew I had to play so hard to catch up for the year that I missed,” Harris said. “Being able to come out and play well is what I was supposed to do. I feel, not rewarded, but confident that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Harris still vividly remembers the play during which she tore her ACL in February 2018.
She went up for a layup against TPLS, landed awkwardly on her right ankle and heard a pop in her knee.
She didn’t just tear her ACL; she also tore the medial and lateral meniscuses in the same knee. She had surgery a few months later in May, and it was during the first few months of rehab that Harris was apprehensive about the situation.
“I remember early on I had a lot of doubts,” Harris said. “I had to learn how to walk again. I couldn’t bend my knee. The first few months of my rehab were to learn to bend and straighten my knee and learning to put pressure on it. I couldn’t walk for two months.”
Harris said she felt “abandoned” by many basketball people in her life after she got surgery. Former teammates and coaches didn’t seem to care as much about Harris as they did when she had a healthy right knee. She said that was a teaching moment, though, and she learned to appreciate the people who did support her — like her family, Oakland Mills assistant coach Aresenio Copeland and Scorpions teammate Jazmine Washington.
“She’s like a sister to me,” Harris said about Washington. “She stayed with me throughout the whole process.”
“She had a lot of down moments,” said Washington, who first met Harris in the eighth grade. “Since I’ve known her for so long, I would know what to do to make her happy, whether it was watching a game on TV or doing something off the court. Sometimes we’d even just go in the gym and I’d feed her [the basketball] as she took stationary shots.”
Harris transferred to Oakland Mills for her junior season. She wasn’t cleared to play, but she was still a part of the team — giving advice to teammates, talking with coaches and wishing she could be on the court playing.
“It was extremely difficult for her, because Jaidyn is a competitor,” said Scorpions head coach Walt Hagins.
Harris was cleared about 10 months after surgery in March 2019, which is when Copeland and Harris got to work in the gym. Copeland, the assistant at Oakland Mills, trained Harris at times growing up, and Harris said she is thankful for his support while she was injured.
“Once she could trust her body again, everything else fell into place,” said Copeland. “She’s a fighter.”
When Harris played in her first high school game in nearly 22 months earlier this winter, she wasn’t nervous. She knew the work she put in during the summer prepared her knee for the high school season — and she played like someone who was confident.
After scoring seven points against powerhouse Howard on Dec. 11, Harris scored 23 points against Atholton. So far this season, Harris has scored 20-plus points on five occasions, including a career-high 24 points against Hammond on Jan. 15.
“I try not to let my knee be a part of my game. Having a knee injury is more an assumption for outsiders. It makes them think I’m not capable,” said Harris, who wears a large knee brace while she plays. “I felt like I trained and prepared all summer. Now, it’s my time to make a statement. There’s no time for nervousness.”
Washington said Harris “demonstrates what it means to be an all-around player,” and that adding her to the team has been crucial for Oakland Mills, which has a 9-5 record this season. The young Scorpions graduated four starters from last season’s team and needed another scorer alongside Washington this season. More important, though, Washington said she’s just happy her friend is back and healthy.
“It seems like her confidence level has shot back up,” Washington said. “It’s even higher than it was when I first knew her. It’s great to see my friend back out there, because I saw her for a year and a half not be able to do the thing she loves the most.”
Halfway through the county regular season schedule, Harris and Washington are averaging a combined 36.7 points per game — making them the top scoring duo in Howard County this winter.
“This is what we do,” Harris said. “Our connection on the court is like no other. We have a solid connection off the court, and it shows on the court. There’s no competition between us. We just want to see each other grow and shine.”
As exciting as watching Harris play basketball again is, Hagins said he’s more so looking forward to her future. While Harris is healthy, she’s not fully at 100 percent, as athletes often return stronger in their second season after an ACL tear.
“For me, it’s been a pure delight watching her play the game she loves,” Hagins said. “But she’s not completely 100 percent yet. When she gets to that 100 percent, it’s going to be awesome to see.”
While Harris’ high school career will end in a few months, she’ll continue playing at Gannon University (Division II) next winter.
“I chose Gannon because they were one program didn’t look at me and say ‘well what happened to your knee,’” Harris said. “They looked at me as just Jaidyn the player.”
Harris’ injury and recovery has colored her worldview — as most big injuries do. From the way she felt “abandoned” after her injury, to the way she thinks others see her with her knee brace, to being respected as a talent during her recruitment process, her ACL tear will always be part of her basketball story.
Because to Harris, basketball is more than a game.
That’s why when she was in bed feeling dejected, she didn’t put the ball down. She kept it in her hands, while envisioning getting healthy and performing exactly the way she has so far this season.
“Basketball isn’t just a game to me,” Harris said.
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“It’s a lifestyle.”