Tracy MacLeod hates the word handicapped. She might use it when she's making jokes about herself to her teammates at Canada's Brandon University, but beyond the jocularity of the locker room, the word does not apply to her. After all, what person with a real handicap would have returned to play basketball only three months after having half of her lower right leg amputated? What person with a real handicap could score 20 points and grab 10 rebounds in 20 minutes, as the 21-year-old MacLeod did last month against the University of Regina?
"Tracy was unbelievable in that game," says Brandon coach Shawnee Harle. "Sometimes I wonder if she's not playing better now than she was last season."
Last season, her first in Brandon, a farming community in the southwest corner of Manitoba, MacLeod, a 6'1" center, was averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds on two healthy legs. But that was before one misstep under the basket launched her into a Kafkaesque medical nightmare that will never completely fade. While attempting a layup in a home game against Winnipeg in January 1993, MacLeod landed awkwardly on her right leg. The crack of her tibia and fibula was so loud that several players covered their ears and turned away.
The leg was set and cast shortly afterward at Brandon General Hospital. Within 24 hours circulation problems began, necessitating the first of nine operations that MacLeod would endure over the next five months in an effort to save her leg. The last one, in May, was a 10-hour ordeal that required the work of orthopedic, plastic and vascular surgeons and involved the relocation of the main artery from her left leg, a piece of bone from her left hip, a layer of latissimus dorsi muscle from her back and, finally, layers of skin from both thighs. After more than a week of lying immobilized, with 135 staples holding her various incisions together, MacLeod learned that the muscle transfer didn't take and that she faced either a lifetime of corrective surgery on a horribly misshapen and virtually unusable leg, or amputation.
February 21, 1994
"I was freaked out," says MacLeod. "A broken leg—holy cow! Everybody breaks a bone, but never does it end in amputation unless it's some traumatic experience."
In June her leg was amputated eight inches below the knee. "I had my cry, but I felt good about the decision because I knew I had no choice," says MacLeod, who says she is considering suing Brandon General Hospital and the doctor who set her leg for malpractice. "I still have my cries. I feel like I've dealt with it well, but I still get down at times. It's really hard when people stare and point. I don't think I'll ever get over that."
Before the amputation took place, Coach Harle called MacLeod to say that she was saving uniform number 10 for her. MacLeod joked to her father, John, that she could now be "a 6'1" post and a 5'6" guard" at the same time. But even though MacLeod was walking nearly limp-free on a prosthesis at her home in Abbotsford, B.C., 2½ weeks later, no one expected her to show up for the first day of practice in Brandon six weeks after that. MacLeod's doctors had told her that a return to her former level of play—at any time—was an unrealistic expectation.
"I took what the doctors said and just kind of laughed," says MacLeod. "I wasn't about to let anyone put limitations on me. I just wanted to get back to my normal life, and basketball was a big part of that life. I didn't know if I could play, but I had to try."
She arrived at practice nervous and scared. "I told the coach that I hadn't taught myself how to run yet," says MacLeod. "I was kind of hoping she'd say, 'Oh, you don't have to practice; come when you're ready.' But she didn't say that. We scrimmaged, and I was the first sub in there. I was running, and it was really a new experience. It hurt, but it wasn't excruciating."
Since then MacLeod has suffered a broken finger, a bout of bronchitis, many tumbles from bed when she has forgotten she's missing part of a leg—"your brain tells you your leg is still there," she says—and frequent bruising and irritation from the two prostheses she has had so far. But she has averaged five points, three rebounds and 11 minutes in 17 games for the Bobcats, who were 6-25 through Sunday. She is a step slower and can't jump as high as before, but she moves remarkably well in the paint and still has the best shooting touch on the team.
"Her comeback is amazing," says teammate Andrea Brown. "It is a real motivator to see her out there. It makes you think about what you take for granted and how much stronger you could be. Her courage can't be exaggerated."
At her insistence, the only slack MacLeod gets from the coaching staff is two extra seconds to run sprints in practice. "At the beginning of the year, I said, 'No way, I don't want that,' " says MacLeod. "But I need it. When I'm tired, I take it."
Opponents also give her more respect than sympathy. "We play Tracy as tough as we always did," says Winnipeg coach Tom Kendall. "If we don't, she scores."
"If they play slack-ass defense, they're going to pay," says MacLeod. "He who hits first, wins. Usually, that's me."