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Coppin State’s Aliyah Lawson is thriving after three ACL surgeries. A shoebox under her bed kept her going.

Coppin State's Aliyah Lawson handles the ball against Penn State on Nov. 25, 2020.
Coppin State's Aliyah Lawson handles the ball against Penn State on Nov. 25, 2020. (CRAIG HOUTZ/Courtesy of Coppin State Athletics)

Under her bed at her family’s home in Ontario, Canada, Aliyah Lawson keeps a shoe box containing letters from more than 70 NCAA Division I women’s basketball programs. She has occasionally thumbed through the mail from schools such as Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Nebraska that were intrigued by the four-star recruit when she played for the Sinclair Secondary School.

“I still hold onto my box full of letters just as a reminder that all of these schools took interest in me for a reason,” she said.Injuries kind of kept me off the court, and it’s hard to get that opportunity if you can’t stay healthy and you haven’t been seen in forever, and I understand that. This is a business. But I was never able to complete those offers because of my body.”

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Lawson, a 5-foot-7 junior at Coppin State, is referring to a history that includes enduring three operations to repair torn ACLs in both knees. Almost four years removed from the last surgery, the point guard is thriving this winter, ranking first in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in scoring (16.8 points per game), second in 3-pointers made (3.4 per game), first in 3-point percentage (.362), and ninth in free-throw percentage (.679).

And Eagles coach Laura Harper is quick to point out that Lawson is carrying a 3.8 GPA as a health science major.

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“She does everything with greatness in the back of her mind,” Harper, a former Maryland standout, said. “That is just the goal for her. That’s just who she embodies as a person, a woman and a Christian.”

That Lawson, 22, is leading Coppin State (1-6, 1-4 MEAC) is remarkable considering how often her knees betrayed her.

Lawson suffered her first ACL injury in May 2014 while playing for her Amateur Athletic Union team in a tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. Trying to duck under a ball screen, she planted her right knee, which buckled.

“I didn’t know anyone who had done that or what to expect,” she recalled. “Before that, I had never had any serious injury. The worst experience I had before than was a fractured finger. So I had no idea. I just knew that it was really painful.”

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Coppin State's Aliyah Lawson shoots over a Delaware State defender.
Coppin State's Aliyah Lawson shoots over a Delaware State defender. (Timothy Rice/Courtesy of Coppin State Athletics)

After undergoing surgery a month later, Lawson began a yearlong rehabilitation, which she described as being worse than the actual injury.

“The hardest part was the mental aspect of it,” she said.Because it’s so long, everything feels like it’s so slow and it feels like you’re taking baby steps. You had to teach yourself how to walk again and how to do all of your mechanics. So yeah, it was painful, but it was more of the mental side of it. Just having to continue to wait and feeling so stagnant, that part was really hard. I’m very independent, and having to depend on other people to help because you can’t really move around even though you have your crutches and you have a big brace, I think the whole process itself was very overwhelming.”

After sitting out her junior year at high school, Lawson returned to the court for her senior year. But while attempting a left-handed layup during practice in December 2015, she tore the ACL in her left knee.

“That time, I knew that I tore it,” she said. “I knew because it was all just too familiar. I actually felt it. I knew that it was not good.”

It was around that time that the offers from Division I programs began to dry up. That is when Lawson would sift through the letters in the shoe box under her bed.

“When I was going through everything, I would come across it every now and then just to remind myself,” she said. “Or when I felt like I was really low and just discouraged or I was questioning if I even could do it, those were reminders that I could just go through and look back on as things that I did achieve when I was younger and that I still could achieve them.”

Lawson opted to take a postgraduate year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and was medically cleared in December 2016. But 24 hours later in her first game, she tore the ACL in her left knee again while running back on transition defense.

“I think I was just a lot more in shock because I was by myself and I had my brace on in the open floor,” she said.

Lawson dreaded a third rehabilitation. But she couldn’t give up what has been a lifelong passion.

“I just didn’t want to be the person that had the potential to be good but got hurt,” she said. “Even worse, I didn’t want to ask myself one day, ‘What if I did keep going?’ So I just wanted to at least try and from there, allow everything else to happen.”

Despite Lawson’s injury-riddled past and the knowledge that she would miss the 2017-18 season, Franqua “Q” Bedell recruited her to join his team at Tallahassee Community College.

“Sometimes I think we get caught up in the injury aspect, and I had faith in what we did as a program and the people that helped her get to where she needed to get,” said Bedell, current coach at Odessa College and brother of Morgan State associate head coach Wanika Owsley. “I knew she was a really good player and most of all a good person. So I wanted her to be a part of our program and our brand.”

In her one season at Tallahassee in 2018-19, Lawson averaged 7.0 points, 2.7 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 25 games, including 20 starts. She ranked fourth among her teammates in 3-point percentage (. 348).

Lawson said that she played tentatively that season because she was concerned about retearing the ACL.

“When I first came back, I didn’t even attack the basket,” she said. “You couldn’t pay me to go downhill. My coaches always used to tell me, ‘You’re going to open things up more if you get aggressive and go downhill and just trust yourself.’ I wouldn’t go into games thinking of getting hurt because that’s just a setup for failure, but subconsciously, I wouldn’t do it.”

Still, after that one year, Lawson was recruited by former Coppin State coach DeWayne Burroughs and his staff. As a sophomore last winter, Lawson started 27 of the 28 games she played in and averaged 10.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 steals.

In Harper, who has undergone eight knee operations herself, Lawson has found an empathic partner who gives Lawson two full days off after back-to-back games and emphasizes the importance of seeking treatment from the team’s trainers.

“As a coach, I feel like I know what she needs to feel really good and have that spring in her legs to be able to really release her shot from three feet in and from behind the [3-point] line,” Harper said. “For her to really be effective like that, she’s just got to have the juice to feel like she can do that. … I always tell her, ‘Your body is important to our program. If this is what you need to perform and feel good, we’re going to do everything that we can so that you can do it.’”

Junior center Jalynda Salley said any aches and pains she has suffered recently pale in comparison to what Lawson has experienced.

“I’ve rolled my ankle, and I know from experience just how rolling your ankle can bring you down. So imagine tearing your ACL twice,” Salley said. “That makes me look at her differently. Liyah is definitely someone I look at as a strong person because she perseveres through everything.”

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Salley said she believes the Eagles will go only as far as Lawson takes them. Lawson cringes somewhat at the comment, but is grateful for the sentiment.

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“It’s humbling,” she said. “I do think that the energy, focus and leadership I can bring to the team can help set the tone for every game we play, but I tell Jalynda and everybody else on the team that I have their backs 100%. For them to say that and believe in me, that makes me feel really good.”

As torturous as that five-year stretch was, Lawson said she has developed a certain level of admiration for even things as mundane as stretching and practice drills. And in the end, she said her current performances have made that experience worth it.

“It definitely changed my perspective on the sport, my appreciation for the sport, and it’s something that motivates me every single day,” she said. “It’s part of my why and the reason why I play this game. As much as it sucked and it hurt and the process was very hard, I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way.”

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