A torn ACL is a jarring injury for anybody, but it was life-changing for a promising athlete in Salem's Ayanna Mitchell. Mitchell tore her ACL during freshman year in the semifinals of the region championships. For Mitchell, she had two choices, work hard and get better or be content with where she's at. Mitchell chose the former.
"It was so devastating. It was an eye-opener for me. At the beginning I felt like basketball could get me far, but I really wasn't working at it. It came natural so that's what I was gonna go with, but after I tore my ACL and I sat there. I saw people play the sport I couldn't play. I actually felt like I loved it more and I appreciated it," Mitchell said. "So, I started working hard. I had rehab the day after my surgery, the day after, still swollen and all. [I] couldn't do anything, I couldn't even ride a bike, just lift it up and down, up and down. It made me appreciate it a lot more. I guess, that's what really built my work habit."
"With me, it's just like either I gotta put in the extra work to catch up with them (her teammates) or I can chill out and be satisfied. And I was like, no. That's how it was," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said watching other people play the game she loved was something she needed to see. She felt like everybody else was moving and she was at a standstill. Mitchell knew she had some catching up to do. Mitchell went from having a torn ACL to now, entering her senior season, reaching a verbal commitment on a full-ride to attend LSU.
"I chose LSU because when I first got there I felt a connection with them," Mitchell said. "It was a family environment. When I was there on my visit, we went to coach Nikki's (Caldwell) house, and they do that on the norm. That's what they do. Everybody is close...It's like a big family, and that was a big thing that I was looking for when I was making my decision on where I wanted to go."
Mitchell turned bad fortune into a way of life. She works hard at everything she does now, as you cans see from her 3.6 GPA. Mitchell is a workhorse on the boards. She averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds, four steals and one block in her junior season. Her work ethic is the reason she's such a good basketball player, just ask her new coach at LSU.
"She (Caldwell) said that she liked that I was a versatile player. She said that she likes the way I just go after it," Mitchell said.
"I feel like if I take any time off, my skill level is gonna drop. I don't wanna just sign a paper to say I signed. I wanna say that I signed somewhere and I actually played somewhere," Mitchell said.
Despite having verbally committed to a top-tier SEC school, Mitchell still isn't satisfied with her game. She says she's looking to add to it this season.
"I plan on working out with my trainer/therapist. I do that with him, maybe three times a week. I still do my rehab on my torn ACL. I still do my weights. I still do my ball handling and my shooting. I still do all of that even in the off-season," Mitchell said.
"This year I'm hoping to add another part to my game, which is shooting mid-range shots, shooting perimeter shots, three-range shots and stuff like that. That's what I'm working on right now to add to my game," Mitchell added. "As you can see, when you watch my tapes and when you look at my stats you see I don't take as many three pointers. And I'm open a lot of times, so I'm gonna start trying to add that in. It's still going to be the rebounding, it's still gonna be the putbacks, it's still gonna be the free throw line. I just gotta add that perimeter play this year."
Mitchell remains humble throughout the process. She said that when she sees girls at AAU she's wowed. That's when it sets in that she can actually play.
"I don't even think it hit me yet. I don't look at myself as one of the top players. I look at it as I've been blessed with the opportunity to play at the next level, but I feel like it's a lot of stuff I still need to work on. It's a lot of stuff I still need to improve on to make me the best," Mitchell said passionately.
Mitchell says she wouldn't be where she is now if it weren't for her family, friends and coaches. In fact, it was Mitchell's mom who got her involved in basketball at eight years old. Mitchell laughed and said her mom told she and her sister that they had anger issues, so she wanted Mitchell to focus them constructively.
Mitchell started playing at Gresham Park. She said she was the biggest thing on the court, but she couldn't make free throws and it frustrated her because she would get fouled a lot. The rebounding came natural to her, and obviously, it still does.
Mitchell worked at her free throws in the off-season, and when she came back and played at the age of nine she finally had ‘it.' Mitchell said her coaches have told her throughout the years that they see her doing something special with the sport.
As for her future, Mitchell says she's thinking beyond basketball, but if the opportunity is there, she'll take it.
"I feel like I had the opportunity to play in the league, I would take it, but that's not what I'm banking on," Mitchell said. "I feel like it's more to me than just basketball. I feel like once I do get my education and the tools that I need that it's gonna help me affect people's lives more than just athletically."
Next year around this time, Mitchell will be along way from Gresham Park.