HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Basketball is more than just a game for Kirby Burkholder. It's a way of life.
Former James Madison University and Turner Ashby High School basketball standout Kirby Burkholder returned home to the Shenandoah Valley to recover from a major knee injury in hopes of continuing her professional career.
"It's pretty much just the root of everything I am involved in," said Burkholder. "It's just important to me, all around, because it adds so much to my life and the things that I love in my life."
Burkholder is a native of the Shenandoah Valley. She starred on the prep level at Turner Ashby High School before evolving into a collegiate standout at James Madison University. During her four seasons with the Dukes, Burholder averaged 12.5 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per contest.
As a senior at JMU, Burkholder poured in 18.6 ppg, made 110 three-pointers, and grabbed 8.7 rpg en route to earning Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year honors.
After her time with the Dukes was done, Burkholder decided to pursue a professional basketball career. She signed briefly with the Washington Mystics of the WNBA before heading overseas. Burkholder's pro career began with stops in Italy and Belgium before moving to Hungary.
It was during her fourth pro season, while playing with Aluinvent DVTK Miskolc, that Burkholder faced the toughest challenge of her basketball life. On January 31, 2018 she tore her the ACL in her right knee while playing in a game.
"It definitely hurt but I didn't think that I tore it," said Burkholder. "I didn't hear a pop. It was painful but it wasn't how I have seen some people go down."
A torn ACL is a serious, yet common injury in sports. Many athletes who suffer it have surgery, rehab, and return to the sport. However, Burkholder's journey back to the court was anything but easy.
"I was definitely pretty down," said Burkholder. "The most down I have felt through anything."
Burkholder had her surgery done overseas. Her mother, Jennifer, even flew over to be with her.
"We went to the hospital, which is very different than there," said Jennifer Burkholder. "(Kirby) had her surgery....I guess I was there for about a week and a half after the surgery and (she had a lot) of pain with it, of course."
After a few more weeks overseas, Burkholder eventually returned home to the Shenandoah Valley. However, her recovery did not go as planned.
"I think at some point during my rehab, I tore my meniscus in the pool," said Burkholder. "It's still kind of a mystery."
"But eventually I went to a doctor (in the U.S.) and he was like 'You need a manipulation surgery' and then they did an MRI and discovered the meniscus. So it was two months later that I had to go through a second surgery."
While the physical part of recovering from two surgeries is tough enough, the mental part made it even harder.
"It was a rough time," said Burkholder. "It was very tough for me. I was really down and depressed, just not in a good place."
During that time, Burkholder relied on her family, friends, and old coaches.
"She was going through it," said JMU head coach Sean O'Regan, who was an assistant on Kenny Brooks' staff when Burkholder was at JMU.
"One day I told her, 'You to come in (to the office) every day or every other day and just say 'Hi'."
Conversations like those with O'Regan helped and Burkholder was eventually cleared to the return to the court. She recently signed a contract to return overseas and play with ZTE Noi Kosarlabda Klub. Burkholder previously played for the team during the 2016-2017 season and averaged 17.5 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per contest.
"Hopefully, if I am enjoying it and I feel good, I can play many more years," said Burkholder.
Bukrholder's journey back to professional basketball had its twists and turns but she says it was her time in the Shenandoah Valley, over the past year and a half, that made it possible.
"I don't think I could've got through it somewhere else on on my own," said Burkholder. "It's very important to have a lot people around you through a tough time, a big injury."