Ohio State redshirt senior guard Kianna Holland never caught a break.
The summer before her sophomore year of high school, the then-15-year-old suffered her first major injury – a torn ACL. She had no idea what was coming.
Over the next seven years, the redshirt senior guard tore her ACL a second time, underwent ACL hardware removal surgery, three meniscal reconstructions, labrum and capsule shoulder reconstruction and compartment release surgery in all five compartments of each leg.
Then, on June 12, Ohio State announced Holland’s playing career was over. She played just three games in three seasons for the Buckeyes.
For the 5-foot-9 shooting guard, her decision came down to whether she wanted to continue risking her body to play the game she loves. In March, Holland said she was feeling pain-free for the first time since she was 15 years old, before she suffered her first torn ACL.
“Was it really worth it to continue to go down that path knowing that she’s in a great place, she’s pain-free, and she should be able to move forward in life not dealing with a lot of pain where she is right now,” Ohio State women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff said.
McGuff understood and respected her decision, which he deemed smart and mature, but he felt mixed emotions as he wished he could coach her for her redshirt senior season.
“From a basketball standpoint, I wanted her out there, but also as someone who cares about her and wants the best for her, I completely understood and supported this decision,” McGuff said. “Like I said, I think she made the right decision.”
Long before injuries ended her career, her lack of skill threatened to end her playing days soon after it began.
Dan Holland, her father and a former basketball player for Southern Wesleyan University, pulled her out of the sport because he wasn’t seeing a return on investment in the sport. He told her he wanted to teach her a skill that could eventually earn her a free college education.
It didn’t go well, at first.
“I was awful, I mean like horrific. To the point that he almost gave up on me,” Holland said.
Two years of basketball came and went, and Holland saw little improvement in her performance.
However, she continued to practice, and slowly began to develop confidence in herself, and eventually the results she and her father had hoped for began to materialize.
Once everything began clicking, she improved rapidly, hitting her stride in middle school. In eighth grade, she played for her varsity team at Seneca High School in Seneca, South Carolina, and became the first eighth-grader in her school’s history to earn All-Mountain Lakes team honors.
Despite suffering a torn ACL prior to her sophomore year, a torn meniscus just months later and a torn labrum and capsule in her shoulder as a senior, Holland etched her name in the annals of her school’s record book. By the time her high school career was over, she held the Seneca High School record for total points (1,851), single-season points per game (35.1), single-season free throws (120), single-season total points (574) and points in a game (50).
Despite her record-setting play on the court, she found little happiness off it.
The only biracial student in her graduating class, Holland often felt as though she did not fit in with the rest of her classmates. She was told by classmates that they didn’t believe in mixing races. People she considered friends would ask her whether she would rather be black or white, and she would be called racist by students of both races.
“I just always felt like an outcast and I knew, like, one day if I just stay persistent, and my parents always encouraged me, if you just stay persistent, one day you’ll be able to find a group of people that can appreciate you as a person who don’t judge you, who don’t look at you crazy or like an outcast or anything and you’ll just be normal like everyone else,” Holland said.
She wanted to leave South Carolina and never come back.
Holland committed to Ohio State as a sophomore in high school, but decommitted after former Buckeyes coach Jim Foster was fired. She instead chose to attend Duke, located in Durham, North Carolina, a four-hour drive from her hometown. But Holland was dealt another blow shortly after arriving getting to her new college. She had developed compartment syndrome in both legs, requiring a grueling surgery. After just a semester and having yet to play in a game, she decided the fit wasn’t right and wanted to transfer.
When McGuff – who recruited Holland in high school when he was coaching at Xavier – heard he might have a second chance at landing her, he was excited. Since he originally saw her playing AAU basketball years prior, he thought she could be one of the best perimeter players in the nation.
“I knew that she could be instrumental in the locker room as a leader in helping move this program forward and also, certainly, could help us on the court raise the level of play and push this program toward one of the best in the country,” McGuff said.
She enrolled at Ohio State in January 2014 and spent the spring and summer rehabbing. Eligible to play in the fall, Holland thought she’d finally made it through the pain and mental anguish of injuries.
“I was so excited to finally be able to play,” Holland said. “I felt like the future was bright. I literally could not wait.”
But her body failed her. Again. On Oct. 31, 2014, just two weeks prior to the opening night of the season, she felt the pain and – having experienced the exact same injury as a 15-year-old – knew she had torn her ACL.
After coming so close to finally reaching her goal, she didn’t understand how this kept happening to her.
“That was a really, really dark time for me,” Holland said. “I really struggled that year because I was just like, what is the purpose of me being injured again. Mentally, I felt like I could not go through the process again.”
She was feeling depressed and wasn’t going to classes.
“That year, I think I had my eyes watered or I teared up on the bench every game for about six or seven games. Because, I’m like, this is awful. I’ve never been in this situation before, where I’m like there’s no chance of me subbing into the game,” Holland said.
She couldn’t see any light at the end of a tunnel that seemed never-ending. It took a while to come to grips with the situation, but with the encouragement of her teammates and coaches, she began making progress.
“What kind of turned it around was like, you know what, I’m always a really positive person,” Holland said. “I was like, just feeling bad for myself isn’t going to get me anywhere, and I’ve got to take things as they come and invest myself academically during this time that I cannot participate.”
While rehabbing, Holland became an intricate part of the bench unit. On multiple occasions, referees have given her warnings for being on the court and yelling too much. Even though she hadn’t played a single minute for the Buckeyes, Holland was voted a team captain ahead of her redshirt sophomore season.
“The day that the team made that decision, I balled my eyes out because I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t played and I’ve just tried to support people and try to work as hard as I can in rehab,’” Holland said.
Over the next couple years, she battled injuries just as she had all her life. Holland re-tore her meniscus and, early in the 2015-16 season, had a scope surgery. She managed to play in three games before hurting herself once again, necessitating an operation to remove the screws and hardware keeping her ACL in place. Holland would never play again.
“That’s like a lethal weapon that we can’t unleash and it kind of sucks,” then-senior forward Shayla Cooper said in February. “I know it’s hard on her and frustrating because she’ll get back and something happens and she’ll get back and something happens.”
But long before Holland made the decision to call her career quits in early June, she had come to peace. For someone who dealt with so much physical pain, it’s almost a necessity. She had to learn to accept what happened and move on with life, understanding she can’t change anything.
Holland is clear – she has no regrets. She doesn’t regret playing basketball instead of gymnastics or running track. She certainly doesn’t feel any unease about leaving Seneca, South Carolina, for the city atmosphere of Columbus (she’s only been back to her home state about four times since leaving after high school).
“I wouldn’t change it because looking at it in hindsight, I see so many other things that were able to take place and so many other blessings that have occurred for me that I wouldn’t have been able to experience had I been healthy,” Holland said.
In December 2016, she graduated from Ohio State with an undergraduate degree in sport industry and, in the fall, she’ll begin Ohio State’s sport management graduate program. And, though she won’t be playing, expect to see her on the sideline, living vicariously through her teammates, in a role similar to that of a student assistant coach, as she has for the past three seasons as a Buckeye.
“Whenever (senior guard) Kelsey (Mitchell) does something crazy, crosses someone up, I feel like it’s like me, personally, doing it,” Holland said. “I just really enjoy cheering these guys on.
“There’s never a dull moment at all, so I definitely enjoy being around (my teammates). I’ll definitely miss that whenever I leave here.”