Strong Like Mom

Tennessee announced Saturday afternoon what had been building all season: Cait McMahan's oft-operated-on right knee can't withstand the daily rigors of basketball, and she will change roles on the team from point guard to student assistant coach.

The Maryville, Tenn., native has experienced chronic pain, swelling and dysfunction in her right knee following a number of surgeries and procedures, the most recent on Sept. 3, 2008.

On Saturday Cait McMahan consulted with orthopedic physicians, Dr. Greg Mathien and Dr. Russ Betcher, Coach Pat Summitt, and Jenny Moshak, the associate athletics director for sports medicine, and arrived at the decision that it was time for her to stop playing basketball and begin her quest to be a coach.

"Cait had been experiencing discomfort in the knee and conservative treatments did not address the problems," Moshak said. "Her last scope eliminated some loose bodies, smoothed out joint surface irregularities and addressed a small lateral meniscus tear. Her knee is not able to withstand the rigors of Division I basketball on a day-to-day basis."

McMahan played in the 2006-07 season despite needing knee surgery so that her mother, Teresa McMahan, could see her play. Teresa McMahan died in late May of 2007. On June 2007, McMahan had surgery to repair a lesion on the articular cartilage in her right knee. She had originally torn the anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee on Nov. 29, 2005, while playing at Heritage High School. McMahan sat out the 2007-08 season to recover. She returned this season but has practiced and played sparingly because of chronic issues in the same knee.

"I have to face reality and accept the fact that my knee can't take the day-to-day pounding to play for this team," McMahan said. "I'll try to continue to be a leader for my team from the sidelines."

As a Lady Vol rookie in the 2006-07 NCAA championship season, she played in 35 games and earned one starting assignment. She averaged 2.4 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while logging almost 14 minutes per contest.

McMahan earned a spot in the starting lineup at point guard to begin the season. She played in nine games and started six while averaging 4.4 ppg, 1.3 rpg and 1.5 apg in 14.4 minutes of play.

"I know how disappointed Cait is," Summitt said. "The last thing she wanted to do was step away from her position on the floor because she is such a great competitor. I welcome Cait's addition in her new role as a student assistant coach bringing that same leadership and determination to the bench."

On Friday Moshak said, "She's the judge of that knee. She is a very good communicator. She and I have a great relationship. You've got a person who has a heck of a good heart, heck of a great work ethic and a raw deal on the knee. Very sad."

The words were prophetic on Saturday.

Pat Summitt and Cait McMahan talk during a December practice while McMahan watched from the sideline. McMahan will now take a coaching role with the team. (Photo by MMC/Rocky Top News.)

The following story about McMahan was just published in Rocky Top News magazine from an interview that took place in early December. It is reprinted below:

Strong Like Mom

Those words are written on the side of Cait McMahan's basketball shoes as both a tribute to her mother and a reminder to be tough as McMahan plays the sport on a surgically repaired knee.

It's also a way to keep the memory of her mother alive. McMahan wants people to notice the writing on her shoes and ask her about Teresa McMahan.

"I want to carry my mom wherever I go because she's a huge part of my life still," the 21-year-old Cait McMahan said. "I want to carry my story. I want people to ask, ‘Why does she have that on her shoes?' It's a story. It's like a tattoo. It tells a story, and it's a positive story. It gets the message out there about God."

Teresa McMahan died in May 2007 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Cait spoke at the funeral about faith and seeing her mother again. On her back Cait has a tattoo of praying hands and her mother's initials. Cait also has the word "Faith" tattooed on her right wrist.

A few days after burying her mother, Cait had surgery and missed the 2007-08 season to rehab her right knee. The 2007 surgery fixed the femoral condyle, a round protruding part at the end of bone that forms part of the knee joint. It was her second major surgery on the right knee – in November 2005 she tore the ACL while at Heritage High School in Maryville, Tennessee.

McMahan had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee this past September because she was experiencing some discomfort. That procedure eliminated some loose bodies, smoothed out joint surface irregularities and fixed a small lateral meniscus tear.

It's a series of events that could stagger someone's faith, but McMahan has the reminder on her shoes to keep going. Her knee is chronically sore and the Lady Vol medical staff, led by Jenny Moshak, have to limit McMahan's court time in practice to save her some wear and tear.

"I think it has a lot of room for improvement but I think each day it gets better and I get more comfortable with it, but then there're days I get up and it's hard to walk," McMahan said. "I've got to take it day by day and just overcome the obstacles."

McMahan had a scare in practice in early December when she collided with a teammate and went down clutching her right knee. The knee took a shot – she missed the rest of the session – but stayed structurally intact. Ironically, Kelley Cain had tweaked her knee that same day earlier in practice and also had to leave the court for the day. After McMahan went down, Cain left the sideline to go check on her teammate in the training room. Cain and McMahan spent the past season together on the sideline. Cain had to have her right kneecap realigned to correct a congenital condition. They became close through that shared experience of knee rehabilitation.

"Kelley is my Pepa," McMahan said. "We had this thing called ‘Salt-n-Pepa.' "

Salt-n-Pepa is a hip hop group that hit the music scene in 1985 before either player was even born. Their best-known single was "Push It " – they went on to sell millions of records – and the song still gets occasional airplay now.

"We're great friends," McMahan said. "The bench started a lot of that. We sat there every day in practice. We rehabbed together. We developed a great friendship that will last a long time."

Cain is now a redshirt freshman, and McMahan a redshirt sophomore.

"We were both redshirted and the same knee," Cain said. "She helped me get through that process because I was not expecting to have that surgery and be out for eight months. She helped me through it because she's been through it, and she knows how it's supposed to go.

"I call her my Salt and I'm her Pepa. We're there for each other. We couldn't play, so every game, every practice on the bench just gritting our teeth because we can't be out there. We just had to take it slowly and get back so we can."

Both are back this season and key pieces of a team gutted by graduation but still with the goal of making it back to the Final Four. Cain, a 6'6 center, gives the Lady Vols a traditional back-to-the-basket center and an anchor on the low block. McMahan, despite missing last season, was the most-experienced returning player at point guard since she played there as a true freshman behind Shannon Bobbitt.

McMahan has taken under her wing, Briana Bass, a 5'2 guard from Indianapolis with a floor game similar to Bobbitt's. McMahan, a 5'4 guard, knows two things: her knee limits how much she can be on the court, and she wants to win.

"Bree respects me and in return I respect Bree," McMahan said, referring to Bass by her nickname. "I'm trying to win and I'm not going to hold back information. I know when I came here as a freshman I had no clue. I think all the help Bree can get will better help her future.

"The better you are on the court, to me, is how you're going to love college life. If you're doing good on the court, then college is great. If you're not, then college is terrible. I just want everyone to be happy, and I think the more information she gets that will lead to her happiness here."

Cain and the coaches have noticed that the two guards exchange information on the court.

"Especially from the point guard position she told her what Pat's looking for and what Pat means when she says certain things so Bree takes it and learns from it," Cain said.

"Cait's been a great leader for us," said Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, a Lady Vol point guard from 1976 to 1980. "She's had to be a leader when things haven't gone well for her and do what she thinks is best for the team. That's what I really love about Cait. I see that carry over to Bree. I think she's there to help her. I think Cait realizes she can't do it all by herself because of health reasons. I think she wants to make sure Bree is ready."

Pat Summitt applauds McMahan's level of self-awareness and her unselfish attitude when it comes to helping a teammate.

"Cait knows she can't be a 40-minute player," Summitt said. "She wants to win. She knows if she helps Bree come along and learn all of our sets and learn our defensive system as well, that that's going to take some pressure off Cait and hopefully benefit our team."

Bass also is recovering from knee surgery. She had the ACL in her left knee repaired last March and the ACL in her right knee fixed in her sophomore year of high school. The system of using the dual pint-sized point guards – with 6'2 Shekinna Stricklen and 6'1 Alicia Manning filling in on occasion – has worked well.

"Oh definitely, especially with my knee and her knees, too," McMahan said. "That's awesome when you can sub somebody and then here comes the same thing. There's no drop-off. And when she subs out I'm right back in there."

McMahan's teammates are happy to have her on the court. She played as a freshman during the 2006-07 season on a knee that needed surgery so that her mother could see her in a Lady Vol uniform. Teresa McMahan, who played basketball in high school in Maryville, was a lifelong Lady Vol fan.

"She's such a good person," Cain said. "She's been through a lot and you just hope for the best for her."

"I think everyone is excited she's playing right now," sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund said. "She's playing well and her knee is holding up. She deserves it. I have the utmost respect for Cait for what she's been through. We've gotten to know each other pretty well. Her attitude is amazing. She's always positive. She's always the one that's building people up. I just have the utmost respect for how strong she is."

McMahan is a redshirt sophomore in terms of basketball eligibility but a junior in terms of academics. That makes her and redshirt senior Alex Fuller the only upperclassmen on the team. Fuller, the lone senior, can lean on McMahan if need be.

"Definitely," McMahan said. "Me and Alex have grown through basketball friendship-wise and I lean on Alex when things are going bad, and she comes to me and we just come together because she's the only senior on the team and there's no way she can do it all by herself. I try to be a leader just like she is. I learn from her."

Fuller and McMahan have started several games this season – along with freshman Glory Johnson, who played at Webb School of Knoxville – in a lineup that features natives of the state. McMahan is from nearby Maryville, a few miles as the crow flies from the Tennessee campus. Fuller is from Shelbyville, a high school basketball powerhouse in the middle of the state.

"I didn't even realize that," McMahan said of a starting lineup that sometimes includes three players from the state of Tennessee. "That's awesome. I think Tennessee girls' basketball in high school is one of strongest. That's awesome. I love it. I'm a big Tennessee girl, and I'll rep it until I die."

Those three players share another trait, too – they are polite off the court and take a mean streak onto it.

"I think it's our pride inside of us and the competitive part of us coming out," McMahan said. "And we have to be that. You can't be nice and win a championship."

The Lady Vols won back-to-back national titles in 2007 and 2008. Despite the fact five starters have since departed – with four playing significant roles in the WNBA – the current team listed as a preseason goal a berth at the Final Four in St. Louis, Missouri. For McMahan the sense of urgency arrived last summer when she was finally cleared to play basketball after a season of rehab.

"When I got released in the summer I was like, ‘I'm ready to play," and it's June and I had a long way to go," McMahan said. "Now that it's here I'm thanking God every day and hopefully things will turn out how I want it to – St. Louie with a ring."

McMahan missed most of her senior year in high school to the ACL tear. She played a year at Tennessee on an aching knee and then sat out a year to recover from surgery. The coaching staff admires McMahan for how she has handled a series of events that could have crushed her spirit.

"She started off hurting her knee in high school," Warlick said. "And then she lost her mom to cancer and then had to have another knee surgery. She's been dealt some pretty tough cards. To that point she is like her mom. She's very strong in handling things. She's a tough-minded kid and a sweet kid who's had to deal with a lot and she's handled it."

Warlick and Summitt are both Tennessee natives who are old enough to take a maternal role with McMahan, although they both know they could never replace Teresa McMahan.

"I really try to do that for all of them when they come here," Summitt said of being a surrogate mother. "Obviously what Cait has gone through I can't imagine going through what she's gone through. I knew Cait's mom really well.

"I've got a place in my heart for Cait. I want to be here for her if there is anything that she needs."

"I just want to make sure – and I know Pat does, too – that Cait knows that we're there for her obviously on the basketball court and outside," Warlick said. "She's part of our family and that's how she'll be treated. She knows if she needs any help she can turn to us and her teammates. Her teammates have been great with her.

"I don't think she's had to go at it alone, but I think at times she probably felt like she has because she's been dealt some pretty tough things. She's persevered. It takes a strong-willed kid to be able to keep going with some of the things that have happened to her."

McMahan has overcome a lot in her young life already. She also had to overcome doubters. She heard remarks in her hometown that she wouldn't get a scholarship to play Division I ball. When the offers started to come in from SEC schools she heard Tennessee wouldn't sign her. When Pat Summitt offered her a scholarship, McMahan heard that she wouldn't play.

Her attitude has become one of keep doubting her and she'll keep showing you.

"That's definitely what it is," McMahan said. "I love it when people doubt me because I love proving people wrong. I'm blessed, I'm getting a free education, I play for the best program in women's college basketball, I'm surrounded by great teammates, great supporting staff. I'm home.

"I'm a very blessed kid right now."

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