“She Could Be Shoved to the Ground and Would Still Be Smiling” – Hannah Hand’s Comeback

It happened in what felt like slow motion. She grabbed the pass from her left, bent her knees—just barely outside of the three-point line— and released the ball. Though it suspended in the air for what felt like forever, you know it was going to go in. The trajectory might have worked from a purely mathematical standpoint, or maybe because the stars tend to align for these moments. Ball, meet net. Money. Time returned to its natural speed, and Hannah Hand ran back down the court with the biggest smile on her face. She was back.

In Marist’s second game of the season, it was Hand’s first three-pointer—not of the season, but since February of 2018. The look of pure focus flushed from her face when the shot was made, instantly replaced by an ecstatic ear-to-ear smile. “She could be shoved to the ground and would still be smiling,” said a fan.

That much is true. So it comes as no surprise that the first photo on her player profile is of her hugging former teammate, Allie Clement. It also comes as no surprise that Hannah is smiling and giggling the entire time she recaps her nearly three-year-long knee injury.

“Oh man! OK…it’s a long story,” she begins, adding a sigh of comic relief. A lateral meniscus tear leading to the cartilage grinding down in her knee forced Hand to undergo surgery at the end of her freshman year. Acknowledging the long story of it all, she isn’t shy in saying that her trainer could definitely explain it better and laughs about not being sure if she’s explaining it correctly. “Good thing you’re recording this because that was…a lot.”

Hand’s freshman year stat sheet appropriately portrays the meniscus tear as more of a footnote than a headline. She averaged 10.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in the 29 games she played in as a rookie. She shot 43 percent and capped it all off by making the MAAC All-Rookie Team.

But summer comes and goes, the leaves change color, everyone returns to school, and athletes to their sports: the natural order of things. In the unnatural order of things, Hannah’s sophomore season ended in February. After 16 games, 75 points, and 20 rebounds, she was shut down. February of 2018: the last time Hannah Hand had made a three.

“[I] was playing on it but it was the same swelling and sharp pain,” she said. A second surgery remedied things a touch, helping her move around in daily life. But that’s far simpler than moving in basketball. Unsurprisingly, she considered the inevitable a bit early; “should I hang up the sneakers?” she wondered. After the second surgery, Hand’s goal was to come back for conference play during her junior year. But a decision – to sit out the season – was made based on the status of her recovery, leaving Hand with a different set of options than she had been anticipating, “I was kind of prepared to sit out forever, just medically retire after that.”

But Hand had more left in her. While Hannah continued explaining her recovery, she maintained the glee in her candor. She is more focused, more direct, but undoubtedly cheerful. This seems to be the most gloom she’s capable of.

Head coach Brian Giorgis is not like Hannah Hand. Looking out onto the nearly empty court, he comes right out and says it: “After the first [surgery] and seeing what happened, you wondered if she was ever going to play again.” This notion wasn’t lost on Hannah; it seemed that she had come to terms with it.

Very few athletes handle such realizations well — their career being seemingly over. But likewise, very few college seniors respond well to, “So what’s next for you after graduation?” with “Oh! I love that question!” Very few people are Hannah Hand (her twin, Rebekah, is the closest you’ll get otherwise).

She quickly explains that after graduating with a degree in psychology and special education in May, she’s going back home to Argyle, Texas to apply for teaching jobs. She hopes for an opening in a first grade or kindergarten classroom, but will take any opportunity.

“I’ve just always loved working with kids,” says Hand. “I’m a people person so I needed to find something that’s going to be constantly working with people. I could never sit behind a desk and do stuff. I need to be social.”

Is it easier to come to terms with the end of basketball, when your next steps are so clear? Possibly. “I’ve never been the one—I take basketball serious—but I’ve never been the one to let it affect the rest of my day,” she said.

Coming to terms with it or not, there was no path in which Hannah would let herself be what she refers to as a “Debbie Downer.” Her pet peeve is “when people pout when they’re not playing. I just can’t do that,” she says. “The thought process was, ‘What’s a way I can stay supportive to my team and encourage them while I’m not playing?’”

In several photos of the women’s basketball bench during the 2018-2019 season, Hannah is in her warmups, smiling big, likely as her sister continued her record-breaking free throw streak. “It’s been really fun and really almost rewarding to see her do so well,” Hannah smiles.

Every bad high school, post-grad movie uses the same cliché: “one summer can change everything.” Saying it was the one summer that changed everything would discredit all of the work Hand put into her recovery over three years, but during her last summer being on campus with her team, she realized something. “I don’t think I’m done playing yet.”

Unlike the cliché films, there was no triumphant turning point. She didn’t hobble back on the court during overtime to make the game-winning free throw or anything like that. It happened the way most good things really do: in time. “It kind of came as a surprise to us all,” she says.

Playing for fun throughout the slower months on campus, she noticed her knee beginning to feel better. The decision to play again came gradually, and unexpectedly. When others noticed how she was playing, the idea of returning to basketball began to come to fruition. But Hand points out “[it] was kind of scary almost because I haven’t trusted my knee playing in a year. So, it was more like, one I crossed the ‘oh this isn’t just for fun anymore, this is actually trying to get back into it.’”

She kept up with conditioning during the time she was injured, hitting the elliptical nearly the whole time, despite not being able to do most on-court workouts. As Giorgis puts it, “it’s like riding a bicycle… her shot is still there, her court savvy is still there.”

She talks about having fun with her teammates. She beams in saying her knee is finally feeling better. She even credits how scary is was getting back out there. But in the simplest form, Hannah left the game on the court in February of 2018 and wasn’t going to leave it there forever: “It was just a fun last summer and I realized I couldn’t end my career on that sophomore season.

So there we all were on November 13, 2019, about 640 days since Hannah Hand made her last three. She grabbed the pass from her left, bent her knees—just barely outside of the three-point line—and released the ball. It suspended through the air and swooshed through the net. She ran back down the court with the biggest smile on her face. Hannah Hand was back.

“She’s been wonderful,” said Giorgis. “You know someone said, ‘she plays the whole game with a smile on her face… And that’s extremely rare… it’s just so wonderful to have her back.”

She says that her parents used to call her “Happy Hannah,” and that she has just always been this way. I tell her about someone saying she would still be smiling even after getting pushed to the ground, “That’s funny!” she gleams. She talks about her playing, getting back into it after injury, working with finding a good guard rotation on the team, not like a college student but like a Gatorade commercial.

“Honestly, whenever I get called I just try to go and have fun and just give [the] best effort. I can’t really think harder than that.”

It almost sounds cliché. Does anybody really truly think and play like that? Happy Hannah does. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, with a smile on her face and making sure to find a second to cheer for her teammates. Really, she would probably still be smiling if she got shoved to the ground.

Edited by Will Bjarnar and Craig Conway

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