Kennedy Meeks has never gone this long without playing basketball.

Since tearing his Achilles tendon last summer, the former UNC star has spent the year recovering at home near Charlotte and reflecting on his gradual return to leaping for rebounds and blocks once again.

Meeks earned a place in UNC basketball lore for the final seconds of his 144th and final game with the Tar Heels, in 2017. His block against Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss won the NCAA tournament and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Meeks has since played professional ball, mostly overseas. In August 2022, just minutes into his first game with the Dominican Republic league, Meeks felt something smack the back of his leg, like a kick — a dull, show-stopping blow. He had ruptured the largest tendon in the body, and that was it. No basketball for months.

What made things worse was that Meeks knew he’d had it coming. He had been playing through a previous injury to his calf, the part of the leg where the Achilles starts. But this time, grabbing a rebound had cost Meeks. He would require eight months of recovery with zero basketball and endless patience.

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“I’ve always been the jolly, happy person and good teammate,” said Meeks, 28, who resumed working out in April. “But I’ve been through this injury for almost an entire year and it’s been really tough.”

Achilles tears happen more often to the most active people among us: pro athletes and military members. The sudden strain and force of pushing off the ground can rupture the tendon as the calf muscle contracts. And it almost always happens to people of a certain age.

Dr. John Marcel

“Thirty years old seems to be the magic number for incidents like this to spike,” said Dr. John Marcel Jr., the orthopedic surgeon who operated on Meeks at Novant Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine - Cotswold in Charlotte.

The solution: minimally invasive surgery

Meeks was a perfect candidate for surgery because he is so active, Marcel said. That may seem obvious, but someone in top condition can’t afford to go without the procedure.

Believe it or not, some people who tear their Achilles tendons do not require surgery. These people are often in poor physical shape, including seniors, smokers and those with diabetes.

How can they be OK while people in top form require the procedure? Orthopedic surgeons fix tendons to restore tension, Marcel said, and active people who tear their Achilles benefit from the strength preservation that surgery offers. There’s little benefit for sedentary people.

Meeks said he appreciated Marcel’s approach from the start. "That has always been good, since the first day I met him,” he said. “He told me the risks, he told me the rewards of getting the surgery. And how to help get me back on the court in the fastest, most efficient, but also the safest way.”

Meeks was under anesthesia for only about 30 minutes, with Marcel repairing the tear using a mini-open (minimally invasive) approach. This minimizes the incision size and promises a faster recovery. It also enables young, active patients like Meeks to regain as much of their strength as possible and avoid a rare re-rupture, Marcel said.

The time would come to play basketball again, Marcel told Meeks. But workouts from now on must include exercises such as lunges and arm circles. Neglecting those warmups is exactly what puts an active person at risk of tearing a tendon. “We used to think that stretching was all that you needed,” Marcel said. “But it turns out that the dynamic warmups are just as, if not more, important before playing.”

Marcel estimates that he repairs two or three Achilles tendons a week. Sure enough, since Meeks’ own procedure, three of his friends have also torn theirs.

The recovery and the return

Photo by UNC Athletics.

Meeks has always worn No. 3 to honor the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He said his faith has only grown since he picked up his first basketball at age 5 and joined a church league.

“When I stepped on the court,” Meeks remembered of that day, “I just felt like I was supposed to be there.”

But Meeks’ confidence was shaken when none of the 30 NBA teams drafted him after his championship with the Tar Heels. In time, however, that void became an opportunity: to travel around the world to do what he does best. So when Japan came calling, Meeks hopped the plane and didn’t look back. There, he played for two teams before heading to leagues in South Korea and France.

But it was Japan where Meeks shifted his diet and his thinking, where his Christian faith and expanding worldview began to align. “That’s my favorite place to live,” he said of the experience. “Japan gave me a chance to learn about myself.”

It was there, Meeks said, that he also came to terms with having been passed over back home. “You know that’s where you belong,” Meeks said of the NBA. “But it might not be the right time. You never know what God has in store for you.”

That faith has steered Meeks during his recovery, more so than ever. Meeks had never before gone without both basketball and income, and it was tough. But being off the court allowed him to spend precious time with his young daughter and put everything inside him into the writing and recording of a rap album.

“I did have some hardship with mental health,” Meeks said. “But it wasn’t something I didn’t feel like I could overcome. Just ask me how I’m really doing. I always ask my friends how they’re really doing, because it isn’t easy out here for us.”

“It feels great to restore function in any patient,” Marcel said. “But especially one who relies on a high level of physical function to earn a living. Kennedy has inspired so many other athletes to achieve great things and will continue to do so as he heals.”

Now back on his feet and ready to play again, Meeks is scheduled in August to return to Japan, where his international career started and everything became clear.

“I think He guided my steps throughout this whole process,” Meeks said. “I’m blessed to have a traumatic injury like this and still see the light on the other side, and be able to smile through it all.”