Alexa Kellner was done being stoic.
She had been holding her emotions in check for nearly five days but walking in to Kuczo Gym and seeing her teammates practicing without her Monday afternoon, she broke down and cried.
Practice stopped, the team embraced her in a circle of tears and Kellner broke the news they had all feared was coming but had been hoping was not true.
Kellner’s career playing basketball for Stamford High School was finished.
After four years on the varsity, the UMass-bound, All-State forward was told by a doctor Monday that she had a torn anterior cruciate ligament and would require surgery, abruptly ending her senior season.
She is due to have surgery in a month and faces a six-month recovery after that.
The fact she was in the gym at all was astounding considering the blow she had just been dealt, but for Kellner, there was no place in the world she could imagine being.
“I really didn’t want to be anywhere else,” Kellner said. “I found out and I just had to come here, I didn’t know what else to do. I am not an emotional person. If I get hurt I don’t cry and in front of people I never cry. But when I came here and walked in the gym, I immediately lost it.”
BLINK OF AN EYE
Five days earlier, Kellner entered the Black Knights’ game at Ridgefield 12 points away from 1,000 for her career.
Early in the first quarter, Kellner drove left to the basket, jump-stopping to avoid the defender in front of her. The defender knocked the ball out of Kellner’s hands while she was in the air.
Coming down with all her weight on her left leg, Kellner felt it give and she crumpled to the floor in pain, clutching her knee.
After Kellner was helped to the bench, Stamford coach Diane Burns gathered the five players going back on the court only to find them all in tears.
“They were devastated and when I came over to the huddle they were all crying,” Burns said. “All the girls kind of knew, especially Brooke (Kelly). Brooke tore her ACL in eighth grade and when she heard the pop she knew she was done. But for all the girls, that’s their best friend, their leader and their person that keeps them calm.”
Fellow senior Kelly, one of Kellner’s best friends, wiped her tears away and nailed a 3-pointer immediately after the teams returned to the court.
Kelly was not done, going 7-for-7 from beyond the arc, leading Stamford to a win in a game she barely remembers playing after Kellner went down.
“I really wasn’t even thinking. I had to focus extra hard just to not think about Alexa,” Kelly said. “It was hard because every time we would step off the court, we would start crying. I had to just go play and not think about her. This was the worst thing that could have happened to our team because everyone knows she is our star player but she is also our friend.”
The Black Knights were among the favorites to compete for a FCIAC and CIAC Class LL championships with Kellner anchoring an experienced roster.
Every time there was a break in the action, the tears would return from all the players. At halftime, Burns couldn’t get them to stop crying.
But when the whistle blew and the game was back on, they were as locked in as they have ever been, beating Ridgefield 56-48 in honor of their injured teammate.
Kellner was blown away by the emotional response from her teammates.
After the game, Kellner addressed her teary-eyed teammates in the locker room.
“That was an emotional game for them and they showed me something else,” Kellner said. “That was the best game I have ever seen them play. It was incredible because they played for me. They knew how much it hurt me and how devastated I was. Everything they did, they did it for me and that is something I have never experienced and I didn’t expect that.”
Kellner, who does not often give speeches, told her teammates how proud she was of them and that they were going to be OK, leaving every player and coach in the locker room choked up.
RISE AND GRIND
Kellner is All-State for a reason.
She is a 6-foot-1-inch athletically inclined forward. She can drain 3-pointers, drive to the hoop either scoring or distributing with incredible smoothness to her game. She works for rebounds and is a long defender able to take on both post and wing opponents.
However, her ascension on the basketball court is born out of arduous work as much as it is from her talent.
Beginning her freshman season, Kellner started coming in at 6 a.m. prior to school to work on her game in the gym.
Burns would open the gym for anyone but often Kellner was alone working on her game before most students were even awake.
Every day after school, she was always the first one on the court and the last one to leave, often staying on with the boys team until she gets kicked out of their practice.
“She is always the first one in the gym. We are always like ‘don’t you have a class? How are you here all the time?’” Kelly said. “She usually wears her basketball stuff under her clothes and has her sneakers in her backpack so she can come in here and start playing right away. Every time I am over at her house she is outside shooting and after an hour I tell her I’m going in and she always says, ‘I’m going to just stay out here.’ For her it is not even work, it is just what she loves to do.”
Burns said on top of a tireless work ethic, Kellner is also a student of the game and constantly asking questions.
“She is the kind of kid who always wants to know more. If she gets one move down, she wants to know how to make it better or how to read the feet of defenders. She always asks higher questions. She has always been like that, even as a freshman,” Burns said. “It is fun to coach someone who just wants to know how to advance their game. Then she is the first one in the gym, last to leave and she is working on those things we talked about until she gets them and then it is ‘what’s next?’”
Kellner was a softball prodigy growing up, just playing basketball for fun but in eighth grade that changed as she realized her true passion lay on the court and not the diamond.
And she was, by all accounts, one of the best young softball pitchers in Stamford before turning to hoops full-time.
“I fell out of love with the game of softball and fell in love with basketball,” Kellner said. “It was like pulling teeth for my dad trying to get me to go work on softball. He was begging me but it was something I had to want to do on my own and basketball was that for me.”
“I was like, ‘I don’t care what time you wake me up, I’ll play.’ My freshman year I was in here every day at 6 a.m. with Burns and she was teaching me how to shoot the 3,” Kellner said. “Sophomore year it was the same thing, junior year same thing and this year, same thing. After school, after practice, mornings, it is just fun for me. Sometimes it’s work and it’s tough but those moments make playing games more fun.”
TEXT FROM A FRIEND
Playing with Tiana England helped Kellner’s development as a player as much as anything.
How could it not? England is arguably the best girls player to ever come out of Stamford and a gym rat just like Kellner.
Kellner learned from England’s work ethic to keep improving no matter how good people are telling you, you are.
“When I came here I looked up to Tiana, obviously, as I’m sure a lot of people did,” Kellner said. “I try to be what Tiana was for me, to other people. I remember as a freshman watching her and being like ‘I want to do that.’ In practice, the little things she did to get better, she always challenged herself and I want to do that and do the same things she did.”
England graduated after winning the FCIAC and CIAC Class LL championships during Kellner’s sophomore season.
During her freshman season at St. John’s, England went down with an ACL injury of her own, missing the rest of the year.
She is now back on the floor, leading the Red Storm.
Monday night, Kellner got a text message from England encouraging her to keep her head up and stay focused on her dreams of playing D-1 basketball at UMass.
In the flood of texts, she received since the injury, few have meant more than one from the player she admires so much.
STILL THE FIRST ONE IN
Kellner’s season may be over but that has not stopped her habit of arriving in the gym before everyone else. All week after her injury was revealed, she has been sitting at center court, crutches by her side, waiting for her teammates to begin practice.
There she is cheering, encouraging and chastising when necessary as the rest of the team runs through drills.
“She is a special kid,” Burns said. “She should be worried about herself and her career but she is more focused on what’s going on with them. Look, she’s going to be OK. It just sucks that her senior year is cut short like this. Now, she is going to learn the game from a different angle and continue to ask questions but now they might be about coaching decisions.”
When the tears stopped and practice ended Monday, Kellner had another message for her teammates.
“I told them I would do anything to be out there and finish the season with you guys,” Kellner said. “I would do anything to be on the court one more time. Don’t take it for granted because you never know. You don’t get these moments back and they are so special.”
Kellner will not get to 1,000 points, will not play in a third FCIAC championship game and will not win another state title. But make no mistake, she will still be the first one in that gym every day.