By JEFF HUTH
CHAMPAIGN — It might have been the most unsurprising sight of the entire Big Ten women’s basketball tournament. There was Kersten Magrum, sitting on the Illinois bench earlier this month, her left arm snuggly bound in a sling.
Imagine that. The redshirt junior healing from an injury.
If it seems that Magrum has done nothing but for the past three seasons, well, it’s because it’s so. From her feet to her head — with a shoulder dislocation in between that recently was repaired by surgery — the Illini forward has endured more than her share of physical trauma in her chosen sport.
“She certainly has had one (injury) kind of piled up on another,” Illini coach Matt Bollant said.
That sling provides a visual reminder, but it’s the ailment others can’t see that has had the most impact on Magrum. When she suffered her fourth concussion in less than a year in December, it marked the beginning of the end of her playing career.
“Your stomach sinks,” said Magrum, recalling a fateful meeting in January with Dr. Jerrad Zimmerman, when the UI team physician medically disqualified her. “It was hard to accept ... because I always kind of had that mentality that all my injuries were going to lead to something bigger and greater, because nobody’s suffered through the adversity I have.
“So I was going to fight and come back, fight and come back.”
It’s a fight Magrum seemingly has been waging since the summer of 2010 — before her sophomore year — when she suffered a stress fracture in her right foot. When one surgery didn’t fix the problem, a second was required, and Magrum ended up missing all but three games in what turned out to be a medical redshirt season.
When Magrum returned to the court last season, the foot ailment became a distant memory. Fully healed, the former consensus first-team All-Stater from Lincoln-Way East was a fixture in the Illini lineup, producing career-best scoring and rebounding numbers.
Then, on Jan. 8, 2012, Magrum suffered a concussion during a game against Wisconsin. After she was medically cleared later that month, it happened again, this time in practice.
In all, Magrum sat out nine of the last 13 games that season.
The ever-positive Magrum viewed these setbacks as just one more hurdle to clear. One more challenge to meet head-on with resolve and mental toughness. “I’m going to come back stronger” became her mantra.
Come back she did this season. But two weeks into preseason practice, she suffered another concussion. Magrum was cleared in time for the season opener, only to leave the court in Game 2 with a shoulder separation. The athlete who seemingly couldn’t catch a break missed three more games.
The most life-changing injury was yet to come. Before the Dec. 21 game against Illinois State, Magrum sensed that something wasn’t quite right. And her performance reflected it. She went 0 for 8 from the field, missed both of her free throw attempts and committed three turnovers, although to Magrum it felt like “six or eight.”
“Just completely disoriented,” she said. “Playing hard but just not having any, pretty much, control. I couldn’t catch the ball. ... I wasn’t able to focus. It was honestly the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. At that point I knew something was wrong, but I just wanted to play through it.”
Magrum figured she had time to regain her bearings as team members headed home for a Christmas break, the next game seven days out.
Instead of clearing her head, however, the time away from the court revealed some previously unfamiliar symptoms. On a trip to a grocery store, the cacophony was hardly music to her ears.
“In really loud places, I got really dizzy and just kind of like wanted to faint,” she said.
By the time Magrum returned to campus, the symptoms had subsided, and when she was checked out medically, no apparent reason could be found for what had ailed her.
Her role with the team changed. When senior guard Adrienne GodBold regained her academic eligibility for the second semester, Magrum became a top reserve. Even playing reduced minutes, however, it became apparent to Magrum that a certain fogginess simply wasn’t lifting.
“There were a lot of things where I literally had to focus — like catch the ball, look at the basket,” she said. “It wasn’t fluid.”
Following the Jan. 6 game at Ohio State, the UI medical staff determined that Magrum again was exhibiting concussion symptoms and ordered her to stop practicing or playing.
She apparently had suffered a fourth concussion during a practice preceding the Illinois State game.
“That’s when we kind of connected the dots,” Magrum said.
With another appointment with Zimmerman approaching, she was hopeful of being cleared. Then, shortly before that meeting, the symptoms reappeared while Magrum was pedaling on a stationary bike.
Zimmerman medically disqualified the fourth-year Illini, telling Magrum it was unsafe for her to ever play again.
“It was really kind of a numb feeling,” she said.
Not for long, however. The enormity of the decision struck the patient hard.
“There was a lot of crying for the first week,” Magrum said. “Definitely girl. Definitely very emotional. I would drop my bowl (while eating) and like I’d just start bawling.”
The development came as a relief to family members, who knew the basketball-loving Magrum would never stop playing unless forced to do so. Older sister Shawn Feilmann, a former Creighton soccer player who holds a master’s degree in anatomy and physiology, was troubled that Magrum had trouble carrying her part of the conversation whenever they spoke. Magrum’s mother was blunt about where she stood on her daughter’s future in the sport:
“I know you’re going to hate me,” Kari Magrum told Kersten, “but I’m actually really excited that you’re done.”
Magrum continues to stay connected to the team, attending practices, helping with drills and offering basketball advice to the younger Illini forwards.
But she rarely travels with the team and tries to avoid loud environments — both can make Magrum nauseous.
Doctors anticipate her symptoms will subside or go away completely with time, but they can’t guarantee it.
“Hopefully one day,” Magrum said. “But everybody’s different.”
Magrum has made peace with the forced end to her career. That’s what her teammates and Bollant see.
“It’s definitely been tough on her, but I think she’s been pretty positive about it,” senior Karisma Penn said.
The 6-foot-1 Magrum has left a tough-to-fill void.
“The physical (aspect) was really the big thing,” Bollant said. “She was able to defend and rebound. She could be a 5 (center) for us and spell KP. Or (with) those two together, just physically we were bigger and stronger. And then her willingness to take charges, too. She was really good at that.”
Such compliments are bittersweet for Magrum, whose emotional pain is amplified by the fact that she’s unable to directly contribute to and share in the program’s best season in years.
“The No. 1 reason I came here is because I wanted to be a part of making Illinois a national powerhouse,” Magrum said. “That’s what drew me here. And now that we’re turning the program around, it’s hard being on the outside. ... Big things are going to happen here, but you want to have your stamp on it.”
Magrum admits she has her “Why me?” moments while reflecting on a career so disrupted by injuries.
“It’s hard sometimes to not get envious because you see other players being able to play,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to have a chance ... to show what I could do. I never really got the chance to play (without injuries).”
It’s in those moments, Magrum says, when she leans on her faith.
“I just try to look at the bigger picture,” she said. “This obviously all happened for a reason. There’s a different calling for me.”
It’s obvious, too, Magrum has maintained her sense of humor. Until concussions ended her playing career, she’d always planned on playing professional basketball overseas.
Now, this is the future Magrum jokingly says she avoided:
“If this didn’t happen, I’d be like 40 years old, still playing basketball. And living with a bunch of cats.”