When Bellefonte’s Abbey Bruni dives for a loose basketball during a game, colliding with an opponent or hitting the floor hard, teammate Maddie Steiner can’t help but wince on behalf of her friend.
“We’ll just lock eyes and I can tell — that one hurt,” Steiner said. “Then she’ll get up, sprint back down the court and get back on ‘D’ or help us score.”
Bruni, a senior, plays through pain every game, every practice, but she doesn’t give up. Two years ago a doctor told her she would have to give up the sport, but she hasn’t missed a Lady Red Raider game since.
“I can tell when she’s in pain and when she’s pushing through it,” Steiner said. “She doesn’t show any pain or weakness, but she pushes through it and I don’t know if I know anyone else who could do that.”
The Bellefonte senior — the only senior on the Lady Raider roster — is likely to have surgery once the basketball season ends, but she still doesn’t think her basketball days will end.
Bruni’s femur — the upper bone in the leg — doesn’t line up properly with her hip and lower leg bones. She’s had discomfort most of her life, but it didn’t become a major hindrance until her sophomore year. A dislocated kneecap prompted surgery, which brought the discovery of the issues.
That surgery was in March of 2016, and at that time she was told basketball — a sport she has been playing since third grade and the only one for which she competes on a Bellefonte varsity team — would have to leave her life.
“I looked at her,” Bruni said, referring to the doctor, “and told her, ‘I’ll prove you wrong.’”
Part of the plan in the surgery was to break her hip to help realign everything, but Bruni and her mother turned down that idea because it would have ended her hoop dreams. However, she now has two rods and about a dozen screws holding her leg together.
She also uses a special tape on her leg to help support her knee. The trainers showed her how to put on the tape before each game to be most effective.
The comeback from the operation was a trial.
“It was really hard,” Bruni said. “It took me a couple months just to learn to walk again, and I’m still in rehab today, ever since the surgery. That’s frustrating.”
She said her range of motion in her hip isn’t bad, but it is limited in her knee.
Not that it keeps her off the court, either with Bellefonte or her AAU travel team.
“When it hurts, I just kind of play through it,” she said. “I didn’t want to give up the sport — no way.”
Bellefonte coach Adam Gearhart has known Bruni since she was in sixth grade and served as the student manager for the junior high teams. Last season, her first post-surgery, he made a point of getting her rest time during game, usually having her be the first starter pulled each game. He also used to worry every time there was some hard contact.
“Last year I held my breath a lot,” he said. “I would see her go for something or get on the floor or somebody would fall into her, and I would gasp a little, just tighten up. Not so much this year.”
Gearhart doesn’t have her run through some drills in practice, trying to save her for games. She hates it, but can see the bigger picture.
While she may be tough and hides the pain well, she can’t do it every day. Gearhart has had her sit down sometimes when he sees tears streaming down her cheeks.
“She would say, ‘I’m good, Coach,’” Gearhart said. “‘Abbey, you’re crying.’ ‘Just sweating out of my eyes, Coach,’ was always her line. You can tell when she’s having good days; you can tell when she’s having bad days.”
Another surgery is likely coming once this season ends, Bruni said, but she has talked to a few college coaches and hopes she can keep playing.
“I’m not ready to give it up yet,” she said.
She is 5-foot-6 and only averages about four points and three rebounds a game, but doesn’t back down when defending bigger opponents in the post.
Gearhart said to one coach: “I told them, ‘Absolutely I’d recruit her. She’s not a huge scorer, she’s not the best ball-handler, she’s not the biggest girl you’re ever going to run into, but she’s going to fight for you. She’s going to give you everything she’s got for as long as you’ll let her.’ You can’t ask for anything more as a coach.”
Gearhart said there were plenty of opportunities for Bruni to walk away from the game — there were a lot more girls from her class who were playing in earlier years — but she stuck with the program.
Some teammates like Steiner know better than others the pain Bruni goes through, but they all can tell when she’s not having a good day, and they all give her encouragement.
She also provides an example that’s hard to find on most teams.
“I’ll go down a dark alley with Abbey Bruni,” Gearhart said. “We’re coming out the other side one way or another. She’s not going to quit. I’ll take her with me anywhere I go because I know I’m coming back.”