Alecia Bell was so excited to take the court in Delaware’s season opener against visiting Lafayette that she had trouble turning off the faucet dripping tears of joy down her cheeks.
It had been one full year since she last played for the Blue Hens. One year since a harrowing moment against Marist in last season’s home opener when she went up for a rebound and shattered her left leg upon landing, breaking her tibia and fibula.
Yet, one thing could not be broken: her spirit.
“The day I broke my leg I asked all the questions, if my season was over and if my career was over,” she said following Tuesday’s 67-63 victory over visiting William & Mary. “It was made clear that with the rod I had placed in my leg I would be able to come back this year. I kept a positive outlook and felt I was definitely coming back.”
While recovering at her family’s Virginia home she did her best to remain a part of things by staying in contact with teammates and watching games online.
About one month after suffering the injury Bell, who will forever have the steel rod and four screws in her leg, was able to re-join the team, at least in a support role.
“I was a co-captain, so I told myself that even if I cannot participate on the floor I can still be a leader,” said the six-foot senior guard, whose father, Alonzo, was an offensive lineman at Princeton and mother, Sandra, played softball at Saint Paul’s College in Virginia. “I talked to the girls about what I was seeing and how to correct things. I think it was good to have that come from a teammate rather than a coach.”
Bell’s value to the team may not be reflected in a box score — she is averaging 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds for her career. But her maturity and ability to do so many things well in coach Tina Martin’s system proved irreplaceable.
“We struggled because we missed her,” said Martin, in her 20th season at the helm of the Blue Hens. “She had such a good camaraderie with the kids on the team. They had so much respect for her before she even got hurt because she understands the game. Her absence hurt us tremendously.”
Delaware limped along in a 15-17 season, the program’s second sub-.500 campaign since 1997-98.
Bell was cleared in June to practice with limited contact. She was making progress and was feeling comfortable as the summer rolled along. Maybe too comfortable. During one-on-one drills in July she gave everybody a good scare.
Bell recalled, “I tried to do a reverse layup and ended up twisting my leg a little bit. I started to cry.”
Martin started to lose her mind.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I think she thought she was Michael Jordan and did a reverse layup. She went down and when she grabbed her leg I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ You could hear a pin drop and everybody ran over to her. Tears were running down her face and she was saying that she is OK and that she just tweaked her leg. I said, ‘You’re done for the day.’”
Fortunately, there was no setback. But it was a valuable lesson in that getting close to full strength would take time.
“Those early months of working my way back were definitely a challenge mentally,” said Bell, a physical therapy major who desires to work with athletes in that capacity. “It definitely took a month or two to build my confidence back up. Sometimes I would drive to the basket, see the defense coming at me and kind of turn back because I was afraid of contact.”
Before Bell knew it she was getting ready for the opener against Lafayette. She came off the bench to play 21 minutes and chipped in with four points, a pair of rebounds and one assist, steal and block in UD’s 20-point victory.
“I had not played in a year and I was ready to get back out there with my teammates,” she said. “I was more excited than nervous and it felt great to play again.”
Swelling bothers her from time to time, but she has 16 played games with seven starts and is averaging 15 minutes per game.
With a lineup that includes Bell, who plays the piano and enjoys Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the Blue Hens have marched to a better tune this season. Heading into Sunday’s game at Drexel on ASN they are 5-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association and 10-8 overall. The Dragons are 9-9/5-2.
“Most kids would not come back from what she has come back from,” said Martin. “The fact that she has shown that kind of grit and toughness speaks volumes about her character and about her competitiveness. I am very, very proud of her and everybody is cheering for her.”