April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year as well as featuring some of the trailblazers.
MARTINSVILLE, Ind. – The first time she tore her ACL, doctors tried to prepare local basketball phenom Rikki Harris. They tried to tell her: You might not play this season. She was going to be a freshman at North Central (Indianapolis, Ind.), and her surgery was in June. At best, her recovery would take six months, maybe eight. That’s February. Maybe next year…
That first time, Rikki Harris tried to prepare her doctors. She tried to tell them: I’m playing this season. And I’ll be there for the first game.
Rikki’s mom, Brittney Whitley, is telling me this story during the North/South Indiana All-Star Classic on Saturday at Martinsville, where her daughter played for the North, and Brittney’s laughing. Can you imagine? Rikki was telling the doctors their business.
In their defense, doctors didn’t know Rikki. Didn’t know how she attacks life. Didn’t know how she’d attack her rehab, doing everything they told her to do, then doing more. Six days a week at the rehab center, and more at home.
Homework time was rehab time as Rikki did her schoolwork while spread out on the floor, stretching or doing lifting exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee. Cooking dinner — and Rikki can grill a steak — was rehab time, too. While the steak was sizzling, she’d do 10 or 12 squats. Turn it, get the other side sizzling. Now another dozen squats.
“We had to tell her to slow down,” Brittney Whitley is telling me, and Brittney’s just like her daughter: So earnest. We’re sitting in the bleachers at Martinsville High, and Brittney has turned my way to tell me about her daughter, and she doesn’t see what is about to happen. Rikki moves fast, and she darts to the corner. Brittney has taken her eye off the court for just a moment to make eye contact with me, but in that moment Rikki curls into the corner, catches a pass and starts to rise.
I point to the court. Brittney sees it. We stop talking as the shot heads for the basket. Swish.
“Knock it down, Rikki!” her mom is shouting in triumph before turning back to me and finishing her story:
“We had to tell her: ‘Rikki, you’re allowed to take a break. Every moment doesn’t have to be about your rehab.’ We tried to slow her down.”
Good luck with that. Ever seen this girl on the basketball court? There is no slowing Rikki down.
Too fast … for the boys
The second time she tore her ACL, doctors didn’t tell Rikki Harris what she couldn’t do. Like she’d listen, you know?
By then she was approaching her final season at North Central, the state’s highest-rated senior according to ESPN. Harris is one of 13 IndyStar Indiana All-Stars, but before injuries got in the way, limiting her games and her production — after averaging 17.8 points and 5.3 rpg as a junior, she posted 12.2 ppg and 3.6 rpg as a senior — she’d been seen as a frontrunner for the 2019 IndyStar Miss Basketball award since middle school, maybe earlier.
How about since fifth grade? Back then she was playing on her AAU program’s boys team, and playing so well — fastest player on the court — that parents at an AAU tournament in Cincinnati banded together to make event organizers enforce a rule: Boys only.
The second time she tore her ACL, the surgery was in May 2018. That gave her five months to recover. She’d made it back as a freshman. No way was she missing her senior season.
“I knew how to push it,” Harris says. “Hardest time of my life, but I had to be on the court.”
She’s never played a full high school season, and never at full strength. Not after this litany of injuries: Two ACL tears in her right knee. Two shoulder dislocations. Surgery on her foot as a junior to free an entrapped nerve. As a sophomore she’d sprained her ankle so badly that she spent the season in a walking boot. She took off the boot to play in games.
North Central was loaded that sophomore season, undefeated entering the 2017 playoffs, where they lost in overtime in the Class 4A regional final to Pike. Rikki suffered her first dislocated shoulder late in regulation. She popped it back into place and kept playing.
Here’s what she told IndyStar in 2017.
“It was horrible,” she’d said. “I couldn’t lift (my right arm).”
So she played left-handed.
That was 2017. On the court Saturday, Rikki is playing ambidextrously, attacking the rim with either hand. She plays without a brace on her right knee, without a harness on her shoulder, without a dark thought on her mind. She plays hard and she plays fast, scoring nine points at the end of a whirlwind 48 hours that saw her spend Thursday and Friday in Minneapolis for the American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk and 3-point Contest, the only player from Indiana, boy or girl, in the event.
Rikki didn’t get home until late Friday night, didn’t get to sleep until 1:30 a.m., and had to be at the gym in Martinsville eight hours later. After the game, I’m asking her why.
“I love to play,” she says. “I like these girls, and I wasn’t going to miss this experience.”
Ohio State gets a good one
She’s going to Ohio State. The Buckeyes offered a scholarship two years ago, after her first torn ACL, and never wavered.
“It was a big relief,” says her father, Ricky Harris, watching Rikki at Martinsville in an Ohio State hoodie. “After the second (torn ACL), they could have pulled back. She was committed, not signed, but they said: ‘It’s OK, we’re family.’”
The Buckeyes know: They’re getting someone special, and as I was telling her mom, as I told Rikki in the video posted in this story, I don’t mean on the basketball court. Well, I don’t mean only on the basketball court, though she’s special there. She’s a 5-11 jet, the tallest guard in the North/South all-star game, and as fast as anyone. She doesn’t run so much as she hovers, gliding from point A to Point B, and getting there in a hurry.
Off the court, Rikki has a 3.7 GPA and a positive attitude and a passion for cooking and family. When she lost her grandmother, Theresa Whitley Jones, to lung cancer in February 2016, Rikki wrote a poem and had it tattooed on her arm. As we’re talking Saturday, I’m doing my best to read the tiny writing on her forearm, struck by the wordplay from a writer so young. She was a high school freshman when her grandmother died, and she started her poem like this:
A heart of God stopped beating
Two shiny eyes at rest
God broke my heart to prove to me
He only takes the best
Rikki catches me reading, and she’s smiling. We’ve been talking about all her injuries — two ACL surgeries, two shoulder dislocations, the foot surgery and the ankle sprain — and now she points me to another tattoo, which reads: “Live the life you love, love the life you live.” Then she tells me about her past, and her future.
“My body has been through a lot, and I know it gives sometimes,” she says. “All I can say is: I get hurt, it sucks, but I know I can get back. I have big plans for my future. I want to play for Ohio State, and then in the WNBA or overseas.”
She pauses, then finishes.
“To me,” she says, “injury is just a minor setback for a major comeback.”