Scared smile: Baylor’s Richards recovers from spinal injury

WACO, Texas (AP) — DiDi Richards kept smiling for everyone else so accustomed to her effervescent personality. It helped mask the uncertainty Baylor’s senior guard was feeling after a freak injury during preseason practice left her temporarily paralyzed.

“I didn’t really know when I was going to be OK,” Richards said. “I think everybody thought that I thought I was going to be OK … but I really was scared.”

Waking up the days after the Oct. 24 collision with a teammate Richards was unable to feel her legs. Over time, she needed a walker to move around while regaining control and strength in her legs — slow, deliberate steps in an impressive recovery to get back on the court in a game for the No. 8 Lady Bears only 38 days later. She missed only the season opener.

“It was like a sigh of relief,” said Richards, who made a layup 13 seconds after entering the Dec. 1 game at South Florida, and responded with an emphatic pump of her right arm. “It was fun, and exciting.”

A third-year starter already considered one of the nation’s best defenders, Richards is now the Big 12 leader with 6.5 assists and only two turnovers per game after transitioning to point guard. That process was disrupted because of the practice time missed after getting hurt, but she is also averageing 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds.

“It’s a blessing. Just seeing what she did go through, and seeing how she recovered, she’s a fighter,” teammate NaLyssa Smith said. “I knew she would bounce back because that’s just the type of person she is.”

Richards and senior guard Moon Ursin, who sustained a concussion, collided in midair when both were going for a ball while scrimmaging during practice. Richards was briefly unconscious after both players fell hard to the floor, and was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury without structural damage that caused temporary impairment.

While in the hospital, the 6-foot-1 Richards flashed a smile when tapping the wall after using a walker to move slowly from her bed across the room. Later came steps alongside trainer Alex Olson as Richards, without any aid, walked courtside in Baylor’s arena over the spot marking the Lady Bears’ three national championships — including the 2019 title she helped them win as a sophomore starter.

“I think the main thing DiDi would tell you is there are no guarantees in life. This game can be taken away from you in an instant, and she lived that,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “And I think that now that she’s back healthy, she’s not going to waste a moment of playing.”

Richards, already with a degree from Baylor, said getting hurt doing something she loved taught her to appreciate the little things in life. She is happy to be able to walk and play again.

Mulkey didn’t see the actual incident after looking down to write something, but heard it and then saw both players on the floor. Having watched the video several times, she describes it as a “terrible collision” with both players at the height of their jumps. Richards did a full turn in the air after getting hit in the right hip by Ursin’s head and shoulders.

The coach said the versatile and upbeat Richards is now back to playing “DiDi basketball,” which the player describes this way: “Fast, getting on the floor, diving for loose balls, taking charges, all the little things.”

With 43 assists to four turnovers in her last six home games, she looks like a natural point guard.

“For sure,” said Smith, the Lady Bears’ leading scorer and rebounder who is so often the beneficiary of Richards’ passes.

Richards sneaked into a couple of defensive drills but didn’t go through a full practice after the injury until three days before her first game. She was cleared by doctors to play the same day the team left for Florida.

Mulkey saw many moments during rehab when tears flowed for Richards because of the “scary, scary feeling ”of not being able to control her legs. But there were no signs of fear when the guard got back on the court with teammates.

“You see the mental part a lot with knee injuries. Kids who were coming back from ACL injuries, they have to mentally get over it,” Mulkey said. “I never really saw DiDi have that type of approach in practice. I continued to watch her take charges when she got back and just play the way she always played.”

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