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UIC Hoops Star Overcomes Gruesome Injury, Now Among Top Players in Nation

By Justin Breen | January 14, 2015 6:11am
 UIC's Ruvanna Campbell, a Crane graduate, is one of the nation's leading rebounders.
Ruvanna Campbell UIC
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UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — As the country's only Division I women's player currently averaging at least 17 points and 13 rebounds per game, UIC junior forward Ruvanna Campbell has impressive statistics.

But her back story is even more awe-inspiring.

Nearly five years ago, Campbell, 21, suffered a severe break of her right tibia and fibula in a game that left the bones protruding through the skin. But within only six months, she was back on the court, dominating the paint for Crane High School.

The fifth oldest of seven siblings currently between the ages of 18 and 26, Campbell at one point lived with them and 11 other people at the housing project home of her great aunt and legal guardian, Mary Eason.

 Ruvanna Campbell poses with her great aunt and uncle, Mary Eason and Robert Benson, after a UIC game.
Ruvanna Campbell poses with her great aunt and uncle, Mary Eason and Robert Benson, after a UIC game.
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Mary Eason

The Near West Side native, who said she never officially graduated from eighth grade, said she will be the first person in her family to earn a college degree — in criminal law and justice — when she finishes at UIC.

In the meantime, Campbell hopes to lead UIC to its first-ever NCAA tournament and become the Flames' first WNBA draft pick — both distinct possibilities.

"Even though my situation was probably crazy, I still found a way to make it out and make a path for myself," Campbell said. "I've learned you can take a negative out of any situation and make it positive to get whatever you want in life."

Justin Breen says she'll likely be drafted in the WNBA:

The Female Dennis Rodman

Mary Eason described her great niece as "the girl version of Dennis Rodman."

"Tenacious and aggressive, that's who she reminds you of," Eason said.

Eason said Campbell's mother gave custody of her seven children to Eason's mom, Ethel, all before they were 10 years old. When Ethel died, Eason assumed custody because she "didn't want them to get lost in the system."

The family members, as many as 18 at one time, lived in several different housing projects, including the Henry Horner Homes. The family now lives in a six-bedroom CHA home at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Washtenaw Avenue directly west of the United Center.

"Two queen beds in each room, and we made it work," Eason said.

Eason said Campbell always loved basketball but she never learned to dribble until seventh grade. Her first stint in organized hoops came at Dett Elementary in eighth grade, but Campbell said she left the school to go to Mississippi with her mother before she graduated.

Campbell returned to Chicago, and she said even though she hadn't officially finished eighth grade, she was allowed to enroll at Crane as a freshman.

Her coach at Crane, Keith Sanders, said Campbell was a force on both ends of the floor her first two prep seasons as she led the team in rebounds and blocked shots.

After her sophomore high school season concluded, Campbell joined the Illinois Hustle AAU squad, which competed in tournaments throughout the country, including the Boo Williams tourney in Virginia in mid-April 2009.

At that event, on April 17, 2009, Campbell attempted to block a layup attempt while running full-speed, and, as she fell back to the court, she was undercut by an opponent and landed awkwardly on her right leg.

Campbell said her ankle was immediately in pain; when a teammate looked at it she saw a bone in Campbell's leg poking through the skin. Campbell had fractured her tibia and fibula on the play, similar to the gruesome injury suffered by Louisville's Kevin Ware in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

"The trainers started freaking out, saying, 'Don't move, don't move, don't move!' " Campbell recalled. "I couldn't see anything because my vision was blurry, and I couldn't feel any pain because I was in shock."

Campbell was rushed to a Virginia hospital, where she had emergency surgery to insert an 18-inch titanium rod to stabilize the bones in her leg. She said doctors there told her she'd never play basketball again.

Sanders said he and Campbell refused to believe that. From May through September 2009, the pair held two-hour workouts starting at 6 a.m. on Crane's practice football field, with Campbell at first walking and then running through various circuits marked by tires and cones.

 An X-ray of Ruvanna Campbell's broken tibia and fibula in her right leg
An X-ray of Ruvanna Campbell's broken tibia and fibula in her right leg
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Mary Eason

"We'd start off slow," said Sanders, now the girls hoops head coach at Raby High School. "The hardest part was the mental part, just getting her off the ground, getting her running and jumping again. That took longer than the physical part."

Hopes of WNBA, Helping Chicago's Youth

In Campbell's first varsity game as a junior, she said she was scared to put too much pressure on her leg. At halftime, Sanders "cursed" her out in the locker room, and after that "I just started playing," she said.

She hasn't missed a beat since. As a Crane senior, Campbell was named second-team All-State and first-team All-City. UIC was the first school to offer her a scholarship, but she chose La Salle in Philadelphia instead because she "wanted to get out the city." But after a year, she was homesick and transferred to the Flames' program.

After sitting out a season for transferring, Campbell was the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year last year after averaging 17.1 points and 12.8 rebounds per game.

The 6-foot-3 forward has performed even better statistically this season, averaging 17.7 ppg and 13.3 rpg — she's the only Division i player who can say that. She's third in the nation in rebounding, and her 11 double-doubles this season is tied for fifth most.

She also has a team-high 28 blocked shots for the 11-4 Flames, who next play at Detroit on Thursday.

"She is by far one of the best point forwards I have ever had the privilege to coach," Flames head coach Regina Miller said of Campbell, the frontrunner for Horizon League Player of the Year, in an email. "Ruvanna is a tremendous rebounder on both sides of the ball, has the ability to push the ball in transition to initiate our fast break and makes solid decisions in distributing the ball to her teammates."

Campbell could become the first Flames player to reach the WNBA, and she plans to compete professionally here or overseas.

A long-term goal is serving as a probation officer in Chicago because Campbell wants to work with younger kids and use her story as an example.

"Hopefully I can influence their lives in a positive way," she said.

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