By Sonya Elliot
I watched my fiancé disappear in my dream long before I knew he was really gone. In my dream we were playing basketball at an open gym and then he was swallowed by the fog. When I opened my eyes, I was in the Emergency Room at Deaconess Hospital in Spokane and my reality was far worse than the dream had been. I had just woken up from six hours of surgery after being thrown out the back window of a car. I had shattered my right arm–my shooting arm–and suffered a broken leg, punctured lung, lacerated spleen and kidney, bruised heart, separated sternum, cracked ribs, and chipped vertebrae and my fiancé was dead. To my family and friends, the fact that I survived was a miracle, but to me it was a death sentence–and had it not been for basketball, I may never have found my way back to living.
“[The court] was home to me. I ached to play, and with this deep yearning I was learning to live again.”
I had finished my college basketball career at Eastern Washington University three years earlier and moved to Seattle to work as a fashion model with the Seattle Models Guild. But I couldn’t stay away from basketball for long, and soon found myself coaching the girls’ basketball team at Blanchet High School and spending every spare moment chasing open gyms in the Seattle area. I planned my days around them, moving from gym to gym to gym. I was usually the only girl on the court, but back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was used to it and even enjoyed the challenge of working my way onto the court as the odd “man” out. Being on the court made me happy.
One night at Shoreline Community Center, I watched from the sideline as a young man flashed a smile then move around his defender with a hesitation dribble, and gently laid the ball against the backboard for two points. When he hustled back to play defense, his green eyes danced with an intensity that made my heart stop. Mark captured my heart that day with his looks and his game. We became inseparable and in three months we were engaged to be married. Then, when we were driving home from our last wedding shower, everything changed. A train that was estimated to be traveling 65 miles per hour hit our car, and life as I knew it was over. I spent a week in ICU and by the time my parents rolled me out of the hospital in a wheelchair, my broken body and mind had withered away. My parents moved me into a hospital bed in their dining room in Spokane. I couldn’t walk, let alone play basketball or strut down a runway. All I could do was cry and think about Mark and the home, the children, and the future we had lost.
My parents cared for me, fed me, and bathed me, and because I was bedridden, I worked through my grief with writing. I couldn’t deal with stress in my usual way, with exercise, so I wrote. Even as I struggled to hold a pen to write in my journal, I wrote the obvious, I wrote the unthinkable, and I wrote to save my life. My journal and my writing helped me vent my angers and my fears and later, much later, when I was starting to walk again it gave me a place to write down my goals. By the time I said goodbye to my wheel chair, and later the cane, I dreamed of playing basketball again and made a goal to do just that.
I began with dribbling. My right arm hung by my side, useless, as I moved around the court, but just dribbling a basketball with my left hand brought a feeling of accomplishment. Four months after the accident I returned to Seattle, where I went to rehab and I started working. Some of my modeling clients took me back since I didn’t have any scars on my face and I found a job managing an apartment complex. My friends and colleagues were surprised by how well I was coping, but inside I held pain and loneliness, so late at night, when no one was there, I went to the gym to be able to feel a ball in my hands, and simply dribble around the court. This was home to me. I ached to play, and with this deep yearning I was learning to live again.
It would be months before I could get on the court and really play. The running and bumping was too much for my shattered arm. The surgeons had fixed the break by placing a rod in the humerus bone but they’d had to disassemble and reconstruct much of my shoulder in the process. My body grew stronger every day, but it wasn’t as easy for my heart and soul. Eight months after my accident, I reached out to an old friend from college. Jason and I had both been athletes at Eastern and gotten to know one another while taping and icing injuries in the training room. I hadn’t seen him in years, but was reminded of him one day when I saw a kid who looked just like him. So I called Jason and we met for lunch. We rekindled our friendship and spent time searching for empty basketball courts where I could dribble a ball. As my arm healed, I began to pass and shoot the ball too, and with all the time on the court, with Jason and without, my body and mind continued to heal.
Thirteen months after my accident I went to the gym to play pick-up. There was a sign up list at the open gym so I wrote my name on the board and when my name came up, the guys tried to exclude me from the game. I didn’t let them. I felt right at home. I hit the court with a smile. I didn’t play well, but I didn’t care, because I was on the court doing the one thing I truly loved. And then day after day, with more time on the court, I found the strength to move forward with my life and to once again dream and believe that life was worth living.
I returned to coaching and during my time as a head coach our team won the Metro League title and placed 6th in State. I was named Seattle Times All Area Coach of the Year and twice voted Metro Coach of the Year, and most important, I had the opportunity to work with some amazing young women. Jason and I married in 1994 and now have two kids and two dogs, and though it’s been twenty-five years since my accident, there isn’t a day that I’m not thankful for the opportunity to still get back on the court to the game that ended up saving my life.
Sonya Elliott is an author, fashion model, mom and basketball fanatic. Learn more about her and her memoir Back on the Court: A Young Woman’s Triumphant Return to Life, Love & Basketball at sonyaelliott.com.