Penn guard Jelani Williams’ first college basketball home game was 1,795 days in the making
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The “college basketball today” is a story about how Penn guard Jelani Williams’ first college basketball home game was 1,795 days in the making. The article talks about how Williams has been waiting for this moment his entire life.
Penn’s Jelani Williams, a fifth-year senior, finally played in his first college home game on Tuesday night, an 85-57 triumph against Lafayette at the Palestra in Philadelphia, after suffering three straight ACL tears and having his season canceled last year.
He’d been waiting 1,795 days for this chance.
Williams, 23, tore his ACL for the first time as a senior in high school at Washington’s Sidwell Friends School. He wouldn’t have another opportunity to play in a meaningful basketball game for over five years.
Williams couldn’t hold back his tears as he reflected on the difficulties he’d faced.
“I’m going to weep,” Williams said after scoring seven points in his team’s triumph on Tuesday night, according to ESPN.
On Tuesday night, when he gazed into the audience at the Palestra, one of college basketball’s storied sites, Williams said he thought on his career. After a series of setbacks almost destroyed him his career, his family went from Washington to witness him play.
Williams, who had already committed to Penn, was a high school senior participating in a holiday tournament when he tore his ACL in his left knee on Dec. 18, 2016.
He enrolled to Penn the next year, but sat out his rookie season in 2017-18 to heal and prepare for his sophomore season. During an overseas trip to Italy following his freshman year, he stated he felt at ease. Williams tore his ACL in his right knee during a pick-up game on a summer vacation to Martha’s Vineyard with friends in July 2018, months before the start of his second season. He’d soon begin the rehabilitation procedure for his injuries, something he was well acquainted with. However, he claims that the difficulties were not just physical.
“I don’t want you to forget about the mental aspect of recovering from injuries,” Williams stated. “That, I believe, is crucial. I believe I continued being injured because I never addressed the emotional side of what I was going through…. When I tore my ACL for the second time, I was in a poor mental place. However, because of how I was wired, I attempted to project what I thought other people wanted to see from me. I wasn’t being completely truthful to myself. That, I believe, is the most important element of my story: finally being able to see myself in the mirror and deal with the mental and emotional issues I had been suffering with for so long.”
Because of the trauma he had undergone and the challenges he knew he’d face, Penn coach Steve Donahue said there were times when he wished Williams would abandon his NCAA career.
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“I kept expecting him to stroll in and say, ‘You know what?’ I tried my hardest. I’m going to move on,’ simply because I knew how difficult it would be in the end “Donahue said.
Williams remained motivated to play, but acknowledges that he felt he was pushing himself too far as he attempted to recover from the second ACL injury. Williams said that he couldn’t help himself, that he was suffering mentally and physically without basketball, and that he felt compelled to return to the game.
Nearly a year after his second ACL injury, he was allowed to participate.
It occurred again in May of this year.
He was working out in preparation for his 2019-20 season debut when he felt a pop in his right knee. He was aware of the situation.
He responded, “I fell down and I got straight up.” “I didn’t scream. I didn’t yell at all. I didn’t do anything at all. I removed my brace and tossed it across the gym, where I sat for a while.”
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Williams was on the verge of breaking his right knee after suffering his third ACL rupture. For the first semester of the 2019-20 season, he dropped out of school and returned home, where he worked part-time for a charity organization and saw a therapist. He claims he discovered in treatment that his injuries had caused him to suffer from sadness and anxiety.
Williams’ therapist warned him he hadn’t gone into past rehabs with an open mind.
Williams said he had the correct mindset and perspective when he reenrolled at Penn during the second semester of the 2019-20 season and continued to work toward his ambition of playing collegiate basketball, thanks to counseling, time with his family, and what he refers to as a spiritual regrouping.
Jelani Williams has been unable to play significant basketball at The Palestra since his debut in 2017, due to several knee injuries and the Ivy League’s cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Icon Sportswire/David Allio photo
“In those two months, I developed a lot of appreciation,” Williams added. “I became really grateful for my support system and all of the love that was around. I didn’t feel as though I was going through it alone any more. When I returned to school, I felt better than I had in a long time in every way: physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. I simply felt like I was in another world. And that was lovely.”
Williams was allowed to play in July 2020 after a more cautious recovery — he didn’t play pickup basketball for two months after being authorized to play in July 2020. The Ivy League, on the other hand, was not. Because to worries regarding COVID-19, the conference has canceled the full 2020-21 period.
Williams would have to wait until Nov. 10 to make his college debut, when Penn played at Florida State, a full 1,789 days after his final official basketball game as a senior in high school. He played in his first home game six days later, on Tuesday night.
“To me, what he went through and how he dealt with it was a lesson in persistence that everyone should learn from,” Donahue said.
Williams will graduate from Penn in May and will be eligible for two more years. He’ll have to find a new home since Ivy League rules prohibits graduate students from participating in intercollegiate sports. Williams, predictably, wants to keep playing.
When others hear his experience, they frequently ask him, “Why didn’t he quit?” he remarked. His reaction is the same every time.
“That is a question that a lot of people ask me,” Williams stated. “I gained a lot of knowledge. One of the most important things I took away from this was to ignore other people’s limitations. That is the extent of their abilities. I felt like I understood where I went wrong in those [first two ACL injuries], and I wanted to make amends. And I wanted to see whether I could do it correctly the first time. And if it worked, great; if it didn’t, I’d be happy with it as well. But I knew I was capable of more.”
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