May 11, 2012
SEATTLE - Mackenzie Argens was still wrapped in the warm effects of anesthesia when the doctor's words hit home.
The fifth-year senior had just come out of a recent surgery to repair the meniscus in her left knee. She figured the procedure would be a slight setback to her plan to sign with an agent and weigh the different professional options available to her overseas. So it came as a shock when the post-op conversation centered more on her anterior cruciate ligament.
"I was like whoa, whoa, whoa," Argens said. "And then the doctor said I had (torn it). I swear I went deaf when he said it. I just remember being in shock."
The ACL wasn't supposed to be part of the discussion. Yet when the doctor went into Argens's knee to repair the meniscus he had found her ACL had suffered extensive damage. Without consent he had to leave it as is, meaning another surgery is needed to reconstruct the ligament.
When she returned home from the hospital Argens went to her room and cried under a blanket for hours. Recovery from ACL surgery is typically 9 to 12 months, shelving Argens's plans to play overseas next season. But since this is the second ACL injury for the 6-3 forward her parents have discussed whether she should retire from basketball in order to preserve future mobility.
When Argens went into surgery it was to fix a relatively minor injury. Now her career is most likely over. In a cruel twist of irony, Argens had only recently become comfortable with the idea of playing abroad. A noted homebody, Argens had trouble embracing the idea of playing thousands of miles away from her family, in a country where she didn't know the language. It was only after she warmed to the idea when she was surprised by the ACL tear.
"I was getting really excited about it and the possibilities of what I could do overseas and you know get to extend my career in basketball," Argens said. "And I know it's not the worst thing that could happen to somebody, but it happened to me and I've really been lost for a few days."
By admission Argens played most of her senior year with a host of niggling ailments. Over time those leg/knee issues manifested into actual injuries and Argens believed she actually played almost two full games on the torn ACL, which may have occurred during the Huskies game at Oregon State in the Women's National Invitational Tournament. There is a chance Argens played on a damaged ACL longer, possibly as early as the Pac-12 Conference opener against Oregon State, as the injury was discovered post-op after being previously undetected on MRI tests.
In the first half of that WNIT game at Gill Coliseum, Argens crumpled to the floor after making contact with an OSU player and was in considerable pain in the locker room at halftime, tearing up as trainer Jenn Stueckle worked on the damaged joint. Her original diagnosis suggested Argens had broken up some previously collected scar tissue.
"Honestly I didn't even think I tore my ACL," Argens said. "But with the WNIT, you lose and you're out, and I didn't want that to be my last game."
Argens played five minutes in the second half, and then 14 minutes in her final collegiate appearance against San Diego.
"Mack is the type of kid who is just tough as nails when it comes to tolerating pain. The unfortunate part is that no one, even she, could tell she was actually playing without an ACL," Stueckle said. "She is a quiet leader and I think she found a renewed passion for the game this year. She would do anything to have been on the floor, even if we had known."
After taking a few days off to rest, she scheduled a surgery to fix the meniscus that had been plaguing her all season, which typically has a recovery time of only a couple of weeks. When the doctor told her the ACL was torn as well, it was if someone had unfurled a haymaker right into her stomach.
For women's basketball players no injury is as devastating as a torn ACL. Female athletes are far more susceptible to blowing out their knees, according to a June 2011 New York Times article, because of wider hips, core instability and a greater imbalance between strength in the quad and hamstring muscle. The injury was an epidemic for the Huskies this year as five student-athletes ended the season with torn ACLs, beginning with Kristi Kingma during a summer exhibition game in Norway.
Playing on a previously torn or missing ACL is extremely rare, but not impossible. Perhaps most notably, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers played in the 2008 AFC Championship Game with torn knee ligaments.
Argens first blew out her knee four games into her freshman season in 2007. She called the injury a "blessing in disguise" because it allowed her to play with first-year coach Kevin McGuff, who guided the Huskies to a 20-win season. In 34 games, Argens averaged a career-high 6.9 ppg in addition to 6.3 rebounds. She started 28 games and was a valuable producer on both ends of the court, offering a skill set coveted by overseas professional clubs.
"One thing I've championed all year was the level of dedication and leadership shown by our seniors," McGuff said. "We could not have had the season we did without the efforts from our upperclassmen. While ACL injuries are devastating, I know Mackenzie will be successful in whatever she decides to do after basketball."
Growing up, Argens had no desire to attend another school besides Washington. Her family home in Laurelhurst is a short bike ride from campus, meaning Argens spent her childhood years going to all sorts of Husky events. A high school star at Roosevelt, Argens made a commitment to Washington the day before her junior year. Her parents, Jeff and Erin Argens, are a familiar site at games, both home and away.
In search of new directive, Argens is now looking to network in her chosen field. She's interning at 950 KJR AM, working as an assistant producer for the Dave "Softy" Mahler show. More importantly, Argens is making important connections in the business, which has seen a former Husky women's basketball player - Elise (Niemela) Woodward - ascend to ranks previously unseen by women in a male-dominated industry.
"It's just an amazing opportunity that I got," Argens said. "And it was kind of like a light in the dark right at that time; I was a week out of surgery and kind of down in the dumps. So it was nice to have something to do that makes me happy."