LAKE GEORGE — What Graceann Bennett had thought were growing pains in her left knee turned into surgery and a months-long recovery process.
The Lake George junior, one of the area’s premier basketball players and a Division I prospect, needed a lot of patience and hard work to return to action this season.
“I learned that I’m not as patient of a person as I thought I was before,” Bennett said with a laugh following Tuesday night’s game against North Warren.
She also gained a greater appreciation for being able to play basketball.
“You know you love it when you’re playing, but when it gets taken away from you, that’s another level,” Bennett said. “That was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and if it weren’t for the people around me, that’s what got me through it. I’m so grateful just to be on the court.”
Today, neither her knee nor her game shows any ill effects. Bennett’s game is the same as it has been for years: A dominant 6-foot-2 center for Lake George, she uses her height and long arms to snag rebounds, put back shots and find teammates with sharp outlet passes.
She’s always around the basket, as she was Tuesday night when she collected 22 points and a school single-game record 31 rebounds in a 67-39 victory over North Warren. Bennett became Lake George’s all-time leading rebounder, and is 11 points from tying the school’s all-time girls basketball scoring record of 1,308 points, set by 2005 graduate Heather Merino.
“She’s earned everything that she’s accomplished so far, and she’s got a lot more to do,” Warriors head coach Rob Tefft said of Bennett, who is averaging 23.4 points and 19 rebounds per game.
Last season, Bennett thought she was just dealing with growing pains and continued to play through it, but the knee pain worsened at the end of the season.
“It seemed to progressively be bothering her, so we said, ‘We’re going to have it checked,’” said her mother, Michelle Bennett, also the Lake George JV girls coach.
They were not expecting a diagnosis of osteonchondritis dissecans.
According to the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ OrthoInfo website, osteochondritis dissecans is a condition that develops in joints, where a small piece of bone can begin to crack and separate from the surrounding bone because of a lack of blood supply.
This causes pain and swelling, and surgery is sometimes necessary to correct the problem.
“In my case it was my femur — the tip of it started to die and break off, and it was hinged,” Graceann Bennett said. “I had surgery three weeks later — that was April 12 — and I got the piece of bone screwed back on, because luckily it hadn’t fallen off and they were able to find it, and they reinstated the blood flow, and I was good to go.”
After her surgery at Albany Bone and Joint, the recovery process meant staying off her leg for a month, and then 2 1/2 months of physical therapy at Sports Physical Therapy New York in Malta and Saratoga Springs. The total recovery process was to take 6-8 months.
“I had the most incredible group of people to support me during it, I owe them the world,” Graceann Bennett said, crediting her surgeon, Dr. Max Alley, and her physical therapist, Alison Synakowski, for helping her through the entire healing and recovery process.
“I think she learned that a lot of people step up in your life when times get a little challenging,” Michelle Bennett said. “They were just phenomenal. Dr. Alley kept her spirits up.”
While working her way back to playing basketball, Bennett said she found ways to focus on improving aspects of her game — from upper-body strength to shooting form.
“The physical therapy was what kept me sane because it was an outlet for me to see progress and improvement,” she said.
“That’s why we take care of business in the classroom and just be grateful for every day that you have in the game,” Michelle Bennett said. “That’s the approach we took, and just heal and work hard, and she did. … We don’t take any day in the gym for granted, and we never will.”
The recovery process cost Bennett her AAU travel basketball season in the spring and early summer, and she also had to miss volleyball, her other sport.
“That was very difficult,” she said of missing volleyball. “Obviously I’m a competitor and just playing any game is important, but knowing that basketball was the light at the end of the tunnel (helped). But no matter what, that was really hard, as well, because I love playing volleyball, too. I’m excited for next year for that.”
She was cleared to start basketball practice on time in early November, and has led Lake George to a 4-1 start this season season.
Through the physical therapy process, Graceann Bennett said she learned to be more mentally tough. That included shaking off a subpar foul-shooting night on Tuesday, she added.
“That’s the sort of mental toughness where you don’t focus on those things, you focus on the big picture,” she said.
“It was a challenge because she’s so passionate about the game,” Michelle Bennett said, “but you have to listen and do what you’re supposed to do — and to her credit she did everything and more than the doctors and her physical therapist asked her to do.”
Missing AAU basketball set her back a little in college recruiting, but Bennett already has Division I offers from the University at Albany, Fordham, Binghamton and Lafayette. More schools are beginning to recruit her now that she’s back on the court.
“I’m really excited with the new schools I was able to meet just in the past few weeks, and then for what’s coming this AAU season on the circuit,” Graceann Bennett said.
“It’s looking like right now as long as she keeps moving forward and taking care of it,” Tefft said, “great things are in her future, without a doubt.”