At 17, Lauren Avant hasn't been driving an extraordinarily long time, but she knows trouble when she sees it in her rear-view mirror. On March 25 trouble was coming in a Mercury Mountaineer -- and it was coming fast.
Waiting to make a turn near her school, Lausanne Collegiate in Memphis, Tenn., Avant had just enough time and instinct to glance over at her step-sister, Selena Pruitt. Avant noticed that the 10-year-old had slipped out of the shoulder strap of her seat belt and was leaning forward in her seat. With impact imminent, Avant thrust her right shoulder into Pruitt to brace her against the passenger door, while maintaining control of the steering wheel to avoid oncoming traffic.
The 81-year-old driver of the Mountaineer barreled into Avant's Ford Explorer (which she calls, "the Exploder -- because it shuddered when you started it up in the winter") at an estimated 60 mph and, according to the crash report, he was cited for failure to maintain proper control of his vehicle.
Avant's actions helped keep Pruitt in the totaled Explorer, but they left her more vulnerable to a couple common outcomes of automobile accidents -- shoulder dislocation and psychological trauma.
"It had to be the scariest moment of my life," said Avant, who attracted national attention by committing to the University of Tennessee when she still was in the eighth grade. "Even now when I'm in a car and have to take a left turn, I'm paranoid. I'm checking my mirrors throughout the turn."
The nightmare is far from over. On the bright side, the 5-foot-9 point guard has a lot more in common with her future Lady Vols coach, Pat Summitt. Both now have had surgery to correct chronic instability in their shoulders (recurrent dislocation) and both suffered their injuries while protecting a loved one (Summitt, of course, shielding her Labrador from a raccoon). On the negative side, the injury and consequent rehabilitation could cost Avant as much as her next year of basketball.
When a patient suffers a dislocated shoulder, doctors tend to look for strains and tears in the associated ligaments. None were found in Avant's, but that's because, it was later discovered, her ligaments exploded clean off the bone. Before that discovery was made and surgery conducted three weeks ago, Avant played 15 painful and disastrous minutes at the Boo Williams Invitational, a spring exposure event in Hampton, Va.
Playing for Memphis Elite against Nike-sponsored Essence, Avant had her shoulder pop out three times -- the first time when bumped on a loose ball, then when she fell to the floor on a rebound attempt, and finally when she blocked a layup with her right hand.
"After that, my arm literally was dangling from my shoulder," Avant said. "My finger was touching my kneecap. It was disgusting."
Almost worse, in Avant's mind, was the six turnovers ("I counted them," she says); she could dribble with her left, but every time she crossed over, her right hand was incapable of controlling the ball.
"I was terrible," Avant said.
ESPN HoopGurlz, for one, agreed. The performance in Hampton continued a tumble in the rankings from a perch as high as No. 4 in the country a year ago. Avant still is considered an elite prospect at No. 25, but her supporters have loudly disputed what they consider to be an unjustified free fall. Andre Pruitt, Avant's club coach, said he informed the media of his step-daughter's accident, but reporters and evaluators who staffed the Boo Williams tournament for ESPN HoopGurlz said Pruitt was not clear about the severity of Avant's injury.
Avant's basketball has exacted a physical toll. Her early commitment to Tennessee has made her a target in high-school and club ball and she is a slashing, penetrating guard who does not shy away from contact. Physical distress is such a constant companion, Avant can recite her litany of maladies as if it were a playlist on her iPod:
Broken right foot (three times);
Torn medial-collateral ligament (MCL), right knee;
Tendinitis, both knees;
Mononucleosis, last spring and summer;
Ligament damage, both thumbs;
Numerous rolled ankles,
And now the recurrent dislocation, right shoulder.
Rehabilitation is expected to begin in three weeks, but Avant already has had to drop out of Nike's National Skills Academy, participation being a goal of hers for two years. She will miss her last summer with Memphis Elite, the defending national AAU champions, and she could miss her senior season at Lausanne. In fact, she has been warned that she may not be able to resume playing basketball until next summer.
"My motto has been, 'It can't get any worse,'" Avant said. "But it's all just taking a toll on me."
The lining in a cloudy short-term future has been clarity in a career path. Avant's mother, Dana, is a registered nurse and clinical director and Avant liked her honors course in biology at Lausanne, so medicine already was a consideration. Now she believes she'd like to be an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in the knee and shoulder, her own two main trouble spots.
After all the rehabbing and need to understand what she's getting into, Avant figures she's already an expert on ankles, hips, knees and shoulders.
"You never realize how valuable a body part is," Avant said, "until you hurt it."
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.