HARLAN, Ky. (WYMT) -- A starter for many seasons and an upperclassman for young Harlan Independent, Kelly Cox was widely considered the lifeblood of her Lady Dragons basketball team.
However, the senior guard recently inspired her team in a different way -- a battle she has won off of the basketball court.
"Well, experience," says Harlan head coach Derrick Akal about what Cox brings to the Lady Dragons. "Like I said, she's an excellent leader. The girls really love her so in practice she does a really good job of communicating with the other girls."
However, a heart condition she's carried with her since she was a child had re-emerged, and a simple check-up at the doctor's office turned into immediate open heart surgery.
"Well, her mother came and told me a little about it," said Akal. She went to the doctor and found out that she had that problem, so she came to practice one day, I think about two weeks after the season had started, and told us that she was going to have surgery."
"Well, actually my mom came in to practice and told coach before she told me that they had set a date," said Cox. "So I had to go home and have her tell me. And I, just kind of, like, melted. It didn't seem real."
Upon receiving the news, many believed Cox's high school basketball career was over.
"Absolutely. I did," says Akal. "I mean, we had already penciled her in as done for the year. I just couldn't believe that somone could come back from open heart surgery in six weeks, so yeah. I did."
"I was so upset. I thought we were going to wait until after the season but then they went ahead and set it for the 20th of Novermber, so I just had to get it done," said Cox.
However, on December 27th, in the opening round of the Candy Cane Classic at South Laurel High School, Cox did the unthinkable and made her return to the court. Cox checked in in the second quarter, guiding the Lady Dragons to a 53-44 victory over Upperman, TN. She finished the game with six points, just weeks after undergoing heart surgery.
"Right after the surgery, I thought there was no way I was going to be able to shoot a basketball. Almost two weeks ago, I could barely shoot a layup," said Cox. "But every day, it just keeps getting better and better."
"She was the leader of this team before she left. Most of the young girls followed her, so having her back is great," said Akal. "Once she gets her strength back, we'll see the true Kelly Cox.
When asked what her journey back to the basketball court taught her, Cox's answer was simple:
"Don't let anything stop you," she said. "Even if it's open heart surgery."