Feb. 27, 2012
NUsports.com special contributor Skip Myslenski on Brittany Orban...
The thought accompanied her all last week and when she remembers how it just sat there in her chest and gnawed at her heart, she calls those seven days nothing less than "awful." On Sunday morning, with her parents now in town and congratulatory messages pouring in, her mood is a bit improved. But still, as the last home game of her estimable career nears, it is not easy for Brittany Orban as she prepares to make her way to Welsh-Ryan Arena. "It was tough, thinking I wouldn't be able to play my last game on Senior Night," she will recall. "The support's been phenomenal. But it's been a tough pill to swallow today, that's for sure."
It was late in the first half of the sixth game of her team's season and Brittany Orban, the `Cats senior co-captain, collected a tipped ball and began her drive up the court. She was their leading scorer, their leading rebounder, their rugged forward and all-important glue, and now she was alone and untouched as she planted her right foot to rise for a layup. It was then, she recalls, "The whole knee just caved sideways."
The name of the place is Hattie Larlham and it is located in Mantua, Ohio, a city near Brittany Orban's
childhood home in North Canton. Its purpose is to serve the disabled and it was here that Matthew Orban, who suffered from extreme cerebral palsy, spent the last years of his life.
In their locker room on Sunday, before the Wildcats go out to warm up for their game with Michigan State, scrap books are passed out to Brittany Orban and Allison Mocchi and Tailor Jones, the three seniors soon to be honored. "But I haven't read mine yet," Orban will soon say. "I figure I'll save that for another day when I'm a little more stable, mentally stable."
And how does she think she will react during the ceremony honoring the seniors?
She chuckles. "My parents have given me the idea that they'll be sobbing," she then says. "So I have a feeling that's going to be the position I'm in. I think I'll be OK until they announce my name. Then it will be harsh reality."
That night of November 30, that moment her right knee caved in, pain shot through Brittany Orban, who was finally helped to the locker room. "But throughout my career," she remembers, "I've had certain ailments that would come about and I'd think, `I can make it through this, I can fight through this.' So I guess the whole time I expected and hoped that would be the result of that injury."
She had her MRI the next day and then, before getting the results, she left and took an exam in Mechanical Engineering 340. Only now, after she completed her test, would she get the results. She had a torn ACL and her senior season was over. "That," she will recall, "was really, really tough. It was so sudden. I didn't expect it. It hit really hard. The last year's been tough. I also lost someone I love. So I lost someone I love and something I love. So it's been a brutal year to deal with."
She lost 25-year-old Matthew Orban, her older brother, when he died on March 1, 2011. "I take it into consideration, this poor boy went through so much, and I think of how small my injury is on that scale," she will say, discussing how she handled her brutal year. "I was fortunate enough that I was able to play basketball for so long. Someone like him puts it into perspective. He was never able to get out of the wheelchair his entire life, and he couldn't talk to you, he couldn't do any of that. I don't know. It places the harsh reality of my life into perspective a little more. It makes me realize it isn't as bad as it could be."
It is 1:42 when point Karly Roser dribbles onto the court and behind her are the rest of the Wildcats, now ready for their final warmups before their two o'clock tip with Michigan State. Brittany Orban, dressed in sweats and limping ever so slightly, is the last in this line, and quickly she settles herself under the basket, hard by the cheerleaders.
Four minutes later she and Mocchi, the team's other co-captain, meet and greet the officials and the Spartan tri-captains at half court, and at 1:51 she heads toward the bench, hugs associate head coach Ali Jaques and then sets herself at the mouth of the tunnel the `Cats use to reach the court from their locker room. A minute later the ceremonies start and, last out, here comes Brittany Orban, her father on her right, her mother on her left, their arms intertwined, and now the mother is patting her daughter's hand, and the daughter is swiping at her eyes, and at 1:57 she swipes her eyes one last time and it is time to get on with the game. "Yeah. Yeah. It was tough," she will later say, thinking back on the ceremony. "Walking on the court, I had the realization this could be the last time I walked on this floor. So that was tough to choke back."
She took up the game in the second grade and, from that moment on, it was her constant companion. She was a doer, a participant, an ardent competitor, always active, always in motion, always part of the eddy that swirls through life. At Hoover High, from which she graduated in 2008, she not only averaged a double-double and shone so brightly that she was later voted the Stark County Girls Basketball Player of the Decade. She also ran cross-country in the fall and, in the spring, both threw the shot put and led off the 4x800 relay for the track team. ("It was kind of funny," she will say when asked about that unusual combination. "Every single meet, I'd be throwing the shot put and I'd have to tell the referees, `I have to go run the 4x8.` They'd look at me and say, `Do you mean go watch it?` I'd say, `No. I'm the lead leg. I have to go over there.'")
That was the ardent approach that accompanied her to Evanston and here, as a `Cat, she started all but three games as a freshman, all 33 as both a sophomore and junior, all six until she went down against North Carolina State on the last night in November. She was strong willed, obviously, and had her brother for perspective. But, still, psychologists tell us a person is most prone to depression when she is ill or loses something they love, and here she was both ill (injured) and without the game she loved. "Her whole world was aligned," her coach, Joe McKeown, says with a look back. "She had a job when she graduated (with Marathon Petroleum). She had bought into what we were doing. Her teammates had bought into her. So I think there was a natural time, after her surgery, when she's doing rehab, it's hard not to be depressed. But she showed up everyday. It was incredible. Everyday she was in the locker room, encouraging people. Everyday, she was at practice."
"I think everyone has moments of breakdown, of feeling sad, of that sense of anxiety about not being out there. I always have high expectation for myself and that kind of gets shattered and everything seems to go down the drain for awhile," Orban herself will say with her own look back. "But it's one of those things, basketball has been in my life for 14 years now and I'm done and I guess I just have to look back on everything positive it brought to me. It got me an excellent education at Northwestern. It got me to be active and healthy my entire life. I have such a supportive family and I think it's made us closer. But I don't know. Looking back, it is kind of bittersweet to see how it all ended."
She sits, at game's start, in the fifth seat from the end, guard La'Terria Taylor on her right, forward Kate Popovec on her left. Her legs are slightly spread. Her hands are folded as if in prayer. Her body is tilted slightly forward, looking coiled and ready to join the fray. But she won't, she can't, do that on this day, and so she can merely watch as her team goes cold and the Spartans break open this game early in the second half. "A lot of it is just wanting to be out there," she will later say when asked what goes through her mind as she is observing. "When I see that we're going into a drought, or that we need a little energy boost, I want to get out there so bad. Being able to walk out there on Senior Night was great. But I would have loved to be able to compete with my team."
"She's a young lady who just brought a toughness to this program," McKeown will later say of her. "She dove on the floor all day, everyday, worked, her practice habits were incredible, got better every day, tried to get better. She was an undersized power forward in the Big Ten for most of her career. But she battled everybody, blood everywhere, mouthpieces flying out. Just making unbelievable plays. Offensive rebounds nobody else could get. Diving on the floor. Tipping the ball. It's the kind of kid every player on the team wants to play with. That's the greatest tribute I could give her. Everybody wanted to be on the floor with you because you brought a toughness and a comfort zone. She had their back. Brittany's on the court, she had everybody's back."
The buzzer sounds at straight up 4 o'clock and the `Cats have lost by 19 and now they are lined up near half court, facing the school band. To Brittany Orban's left is Dannielle Diamant and to her right is Meghan McKeown and her arms are wrapped around each of their waists as they listen to the alma mater. Then, that song completed, she turns and starts her last walk to the locker room and now, just before she enters the tunnel, she takes one last look around Welsh-Ryan. "To kind of gain the atmosphere and aura," Brittany Orban will finally say. "We had a great crowd tonight. It's been what my four years were all about. To finally put a close to that, it's kind of surreal. It's not easy, that's for sure.
"But I've always been able to place things in perspective and I do have the rest of my life. This (the injury) was a huge setback for me. But there will be bigger and better things after basketball is done."