By Mark Janssen
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Life after basketball? Shalin Spani laughs as she says, "There is life, but it's hard."
Asked if she will ever lace up Nike sneakers and play hoops again, she says, "Ahhhh," as if seriously thinking about it, but finally a dose of reality kicks in completing the thought. "No, I won't (play again). I really want to, my heart says I want to, but there's no way. (Pause) But I'm going to fight it until the end."
Spani is a 6-foot-0 senior on K-State's women's basketball team. Her court time this season, however, will be limited to being introduced Wednesday in Bramlage Coliseum on "Senior Night" before the 7 p.m., tipoff against Texas A&M.
The Lee's Summit, Mo., product is the daughter of former K-State all-American linebacker Gary Spani, but it's Shalin who has been on the operating table far more times than her father, who went on to have a career with the Kansas City Chiefs and is a member of the Collegiate and K-State Sports Halls of Fame.
You see, Spani has had not one, not two, not three or four, not even five, but six ... yes, a half-dozen ... operations on her left knee.
After being a spectator at a recent K-State practice, Spani said of her knee, "It's there. It's trying to hang in there. The doctor always said I had a chicken leg and nothing has changed after six surgeries."
What Spani can do is "very limited." A slow jog, if very slow, "but no running, and certainly nothing lateral," she said.
Watching K-State practice, she says, "They're so hard to watch. You almost want to get away from them. I know with the first practice and that first game, I went to the locker room and bawled. I wanted to be a part of it, but knew I couldn't. There's nothing anyone can say. I've heard, 'I'm so sorry,' a million times."
Let's go back and take it from the top.
SURGREY I: Playing her high school ball at Metro Academy where she was coached by her father, Spani led her team to the National Championship, but then blew out her knee. It was a total destruction of her anterior cruciate, medial collateral and meniscus.
Spani could not play in her senior season, and only started workouts in June prior to her arrival at K-State four years ago. "That was terrifying to have such a short amount of time to get ready for college ball," she reflected.
SURGERY II: Spani tore her meniscus early in her freshman year, but played through it as a reserve on the Big 12 title winning Wildcat team. Surgery followed the season.
SURGERY III: Going into her sophomore season, a screw broke that was used for repair in one of the earlier surgeries resulting in another operation.
SURGERY IV: Spani played in 25 games as a sophomore when she averaged nearly four points per game, but late in the season, she says, "I couldn't sleep and it felt like I had the flu all the time."
It wasn't the flu, but it was an infection from the earlier surgery: "They said had they not caught it, it might have taken over my whole body."
After surgery, Spani went through a two-month period where she had to hobble into the hospital on crutches for two hours in the morning and two more hours in the evening to be treated for the infection. "I was a regular," she quipped. "I had my own chair at the hospital."
SURGERY V-VI: Spani had never felt better than in her junior season when she again averaged 4.0 points per game. But then late in the year, "I was doing a basic defensive drill in practice and I heard it pop. I knew it was gone. I heard it, and felt that pain.
"Chad (Perkins, the team's athletic trainer) came over and I remember saying, 'I tore it again. It's gone.' He said, 'Don't you dare say that.' But I knew. I was bawling; I had felt that pain before."
The pain? What's it like?
"It's a fire ... a burning fire," said Spani. "It's like an intense heat is being blown into your knee, then your body goes limp ... (laughing) ... and then you scream bloody murder."
This time, the injury required an April surgery, and another, the sixth, this past September.
While Spani says she feels like "... an old lady at times with aches and pains when she climbs stairs, or when the weather gets winterish-cold, she bravely adds, "They say it's as good as new, and they say it's good for life. (Pausing as if to ponder) Sitting here now, it feels somewhat normal."
For certain, no one could have a better attitude toward life than Spani.
"I've come to the conclusion it just wasn't meant to be," she said. "I worked as hard as I could have every time, and I was always ultra-conservative in my rehab in terms of never coming back sooner than I should."
With a reflective gaze into the open spaces of Bramlage Coliseum, she simply added, "I had great support from my teammates and the training staff, but it just wasn't meant to be. I put my whole heart into playing and I have no regrets."
Spani, a three-time Academic All-Big 12 recipient, will complete her degree in public relations with a summer internship. And then?
"I don't know," she answered. "I've fallen in love with Manhattan. I may start graduate school and try to be a part of Coach P's (Patterson) program."
Giving a soft laugh, "I haven't taken time to think about the realities of life after K-State. I just know I love it here."