IT was a little more than one year ago that Allison Patterson of the Handsworth senior girls basketball team did what players all over the world do all the time - she rolled her ankle.
Then a six-foot-three Grade 11 forward, Patterson was an all-star calibre player averaging a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Royals when she hurt her left ankle in the opening round of the Lower Mainland championships.
"It looked innocent enough," Handsworth head coach Scott Palmer told the North Shore News this week as he recalled the play. "She got caught, came down on somebody's foot and just went over on her ankle. There were tears on the court but I guess either I didn't want to believe it was as serious as it was or I just didn't think (it was a serious injury)."
Patterson, however, knew something was wrong. "As I went down I heard kind of like a crack and I was just like, oh no," she said. "I knew it was more than just a regular ankle roll. Not good."
Coach and player didn't know then but it was, in fact, an injury that would haunt Patterson for a year, nearly killing her entire Grade 12 season.
X-Rays came back negative, however, and so two weeks later Patterson was on the floor as the Royals battled in the 2011 provincial championships held at Capilano University.
"I was still in a lot of pain but I wanted to play and help my team out as much as I could so we ended up taping it like a cast and putting an ankle brace on it and I ended up playing through the four games," said Patterson. "It was very hard. The first game was the hardest because I wasn't used to playing with that pain yet because I hadn't practiced at all up until then. The first game I just remember being in tears after the game because it was so painful. . . . By the fourth game I was completely dead, I had no power off the left side of my body."
Handsworth was trying for their third straight B.C. title but with a young team they ended up eighth. As the season faded away Patterson's pain continued and her hospital tours began: three bone scans, an MRI, a CAT scan and still no answers. By summer the injury was still there and doctors, hoping to avoid surgery, tried three cortisone shots, two in the front of her ankle and one in the back.
"They're really painful," Patterson remembered. "The one in the back they had to go through the bone to get to it and they didn't freeze it properly when they did it - that was quite painful."
That shots didn't work either, so next came surgery number 1. "They did a scope and they found a bone chip and an impingement and a whole bunch of other doctor terms, so they removed that," said Patterson. This was August now, and Patterson was hopeful that she would be back on the court for the start of basketball season. But pain came back in the back of her ankle, and another surgery was scheduled. Then came the staph infection. With surgery number 2 postponed, Patterson battled the antibiotic resistant infection that spread into her blood and sapped her of her strength for more than six weeks. When she finally beat that it was time for more surgery, this time a more invasive procedure than the first to remove a piece of bone from her heel. It was now December.
"I couldn't walk," Patterson said. "I went out on Boxing Day to the mall on crutches."
In early February Patterson was finally ready to try out her ankle in a game. Minutes in, she tweaked it again, putting her back on the shelf to heal her wonky ankle and frazzled confidence. The weight of waiting on the sidelines was a burden.
"It was really, really tough," she said. "I found that sitting at practices at first was the hardest part."
It was tough for her coach too. "When does she get a break?" said Palmer. "I know the big guy upstairs has different cards for all of us - it's time to deal her a bit of a good card for a change. How much longer can I lose at blackjack here? I kept saying to her, 'the cards are going to turn sooner or later.'"
The cards finally did turn, nearly a year after Patterson rolled her ankle. Back in the same tournament in the same gym - StevestonLondon secondary in Richmond - Patterson started in the Lower Mainland championship semifinal Feb. 23, playing about eight minutes in a 65-57 win over New West.
"I can't even explain how happy I was," said Patterson. "I was just so excited. It's been such a long time. Everyone knows what I've gone through so they were all really supportive and they were cheering as I was going on." Two days later Patterson played about 17 minutes in the tournament final, an 81-65 loss to York House.
"I've been around this for a while and I just hate it when Grade 12s are hurt in their Grade 12 year - it's their last high school year and you can't get it back," said Palmer. "To never play in your Grade 12 year, it's just not fair. I was really happy to see her back."
Through it all Patterson has maintained a commitment to play at SFU next season, a testament to the skill and determination she has already shown as well as coach Bruce Langford's loyalty to her as a person and player.
The provincial AAA championships will be held March 7-10 at Capilano University and Patterson will be there, helping her team go for gold. The Royals have had a good season without her, winning the North Shore league and earning a No. 4 ranking heading into the B.C. Championships, but Palmer said he'll do his best to take advantage of Patterson's strong defence and rebounding without changing the team's look too much.
"The worst thing I think she can do is put too much pressure on herself," he said. "The kids, some of them have played with Alli for three seasons now so they know what she can do. My challenge is just making sure we don't disrupt the chemistry, how we score and how we do it with the (starting) five but also get her some minutes so she can help us. . . . We know she can rebound, we know she can score and I think if she can give us something in the 15-20 minutes a game - that's huge."
Whatever happens, Patterson's story already has a happy ending.
"Basketball has always been something that I've been so passionate about," she said. "I've never really been a quitter. You know when you read those inspiring stories about how people push through stuff - I don't just want to give up and waste away opportunities. I think that's what kept me going."
There's a good story here for anyone facing tough times, said Palmer.
"You can't quit on yourself, things are going to get better," he said. "It's been interesting to watch this young 16/17-year-old. I don't think she dealt well with it early on. You go through that, 'Why is it my turn all the time. When do I get a break?' It's turned her into a much more mentally tough person. She deals with it really well now and I think it will be a good thing for her for the rest of her life. It's going to take a lot of adversity to beat up Alli Patterson now."
. . . The AAA girls provincial tournament will run March 7-10 at the Capilano University Sportsplex and both Handsworth and Argyle from the North Shore will take part. The two squads will play in the feature evening games on Wednesday with Handsworth taking on Maple Ridge at 7 p.m. and Argyle facing Oak Bay at 8: 45 p.m. The championship round will be played Saturday, March 10, with the bronze medal game at 2 p.m. and the gold medal contest at 4 p.m.