Chidom, Belton on comeback trail for Duke women's basketball
Oderah Chidom was playing her best basketball of the season. Inserted into the starting lineup by head coach Joanne P. McCallie in late January, the 6-foot-4 forward responded with a double-double against Pittsburgh and 14 points against then-No. 8 Louisville—one of Duke's best wins of the year.
But then, less than four minutes into a road game at Wake Forest Feb. 5, Chidom walked off the court and did not return. She had dislocated her shoulder—again—and soon found herself riding to the emergency room.
“I went to the ER, and when I was in the ambulance, I knew I was done—you don’t get in an ambulance and then come back,” Chidom said.
Chidom is well on her way back to full strength thanks to rehab work this summer. But she has not been alone.
The Blue Devils will boast five newcomers when the season tips off in November, but McCallie's squad will also get a shot in the arm with the return of two players whose 2014-15 seasons were cut short by injuries. Chidom and redshirt freshman Lynee Belton—who tore her ACL in December—will get back on the floor after watching much of the season from the sideline.
“Their rehab is pretty much on schedule or ahead, and they’re working hard,” McCallie said in late May. “They understand how healthy it is to get back healthy and to get back lifting weights, training and everything, so so far, so good.”
Belton began her freshman season as a reserve in the post and saw her minutes increase steadily as the nonconference slate wore on. On Nov. 30, the Clinton, Md., native grabbed seven rebounds in 17 minutes against then-No. 7 Texas A&M—a game Duke played without All-American center Elizabeth Williams.
Two and a half weeks later, the 2014 McDonald’s All-American notched a career-high 10 points in a home game against Oklahoma Dec. 17. With 20 seconds left in the game, Belton knocked knees with a Sooners player and fell to the ground in pain—an ACL tear in her left knee had ended her season.
The 6-foot-3 forward had played just 66 minutes across eight games when her season came to a screeching halt.
“I’ve always been injured at some point in my life, but I’ve never had such a serious injury,” Belton said. “I always was the person to not get it, and the person next to me would get it. It finally came across to me, and it was a shocker.”
Belton was granted a medical redshirt for the early injury and will return in the fall as a redshirt freshman. Her story is similar to that of redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell, but with a slightly different timeline. Greenwell’s ACL tear—the second of her career—came in April 2013 at the McDonald’s All-America event, and the Owensboro, Ky., native opted for a medical redshirt during her first year in Durham before hitting the hardwood this season to the tune of 14.0 points per game.
Graduate student Amber Henson—the team’s eldest member—also has experience with knee injuries, missing nearly two years and undergoing six surgeries on her path to regain her form as a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school.
"[We] sat down, had a talk about it," Belton said of how her teammates have helped her through the ACL recovery process. "Amber has given me great advice. Even Oderah and me have different injuries, but we’re rooming together now and we both are happy that we’re not going through this alone.”
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Belton was not alone in the training room down the stretch of last season. Chidom missed two games in late January due to a dislocated shoulder sustained against Virginia Tech Jan. 15. It was a sign of things to come, and a big change for the Oakland, Calif., native.
“I’ve never been injured. I’ve never missed a game—I missed a game when I was in third grade for a Girl Scout meeting—that’s it,” Chidom said. “The season for me had been a little inconsistent, and I would take plays off…. During that time [sitting out], something clicked with me, and I was like, ‘Your time is limited.’”
She returned to the court 10 days later to face then-No. 12 North Carolina, tallying four points and five rebounds in Duke's overtime victory. But in her next game, Chidom took off—a double-double against the Panthers, followed by and the 14 points against the Cardinals—her second-best scoring night of the season.
“It just clicked—I was more comfortable, I was more confident," Chidom said. "Basketball was coming to me, and it wasn’t becoming an inconsistent thing, and it started flourishing—and then I got hurt again.”
McCallie had inserted Chidom into the starting lineup starting in the Pittsburgh game, but Feb. 5 at Wake Forest, the forward was forced to leave the court early after her shoulder came out of its socket once again.
The junior scored just one bucket in her brief outing against the Demon Deacons, but left the court and walked straight to the locker room with 16:14 to play in the first half and did not return.
“It was the same pain as the Virginia Tech game, and I thought I was going to be okay,” Chidom said. “I was like, ‘Okay...I’m going to have to sit out another 10 days, and I’ll do the same thing over, but it’s okay.’ And then I went back to the locker room, and it just wouldn’t go back in—my shoulder—and it was literally the worst pain of my life. It was out for three and a half hours.”
With a significantly smaller roster—just seven players at the time averaged more than eight minutes per game—and the bulk of ACC competition remaining, Duke began to struggle. The Blue Devils lost three straight games in late February, two of them to unranked opponents. Chidom’s contribution of 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game were moved off the court and onto the bench next to Belton, deepening the hole in the post.
"We’re losing to these teams that we shouldn’t have lost to, and it was just frustrating, sitting at the end of the bench knowing there was nothing you could physically do,” Chidom said.
The 6-foot-4 forward originally planned to have an operation on her shoulder at the end of the season, but her season-ending injury moved the date considerably closer—Chidom underwent surgery Feb. 19—and then the rehab process began.
“The first worst part was having to sit around and do nothing,” Chidom said. “I was like, ‘At least I can run—it’s my shoulder, there’s nothing wrong with my legs.’ You can’t run, can’t open a door, can’t dress yourself, can’t do your hair.”
Despite suffering different injuries, Belton and Chidom benefitted from having someone going through rehab at the same time, helping them stay focused and optimistic.
“I hate saying it, but having someone else in your situation is really helpful, because it’s easy for you to be forgotten about,” Chidom said. “It was just nice to have someone else going through with you, having someone else push you [and] being able to vent."
Both post players can set their sights on the upcoming season with the majority of their rehab work behind them. After going down so early in the season, Belton will help to fill the void in the middle left by the departure of Williams and look to build on the promise she showed in the games leading up to her injury.
Chidom is one of just three players with more than a year of experience playing for the Blue Devils and must step into a leadership role on the young, inexperienced squad.
“I want to be able to start where I left off and be able to participate with them and not have to sit out and watch,” Chidom said. “I’m kind of the annoying kid pushing my trainers like, ‘Alright, I can do it, I swear—let me try....’ [I’m] just trying to better myself as a leader and switch my role and outlook completely and hopefully have other people understand my mentality and how I see basketball—without getting hurt.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.