Imagine spending 1,788 days or nearly 5 years away from the activity or sport that you cherished. That is what Jelani Williams went through during a free-fall of 3 consecutive ACL injuries during a 5-year span from 2016 to 2021. Jelani is currently a senior and the captain of the men's basketball team at the University of Pennsylvania, but his journey to playing this season (2021-22) on the court was nothing short of harrowing and at the same time inspirational. 

Jelani told his entire story and journey of coming back not once, not twice, but 3 times from consecutive ACL ruptures on The Basketball Strong Podcast last week in a riveting 2 part episode (HERE is part 1, and HERE is part 2). As Jelani told my co-host, Phil White, and me his story through highs, lows, tears, and laughter, I couldn't help but take notes and capture the lessons he provided for us by having the courage to share what he went through. Below are 6 lessons that I learned from Jelani Williams on leadership, resiliency, and even technical pro tips on how to manage your rehab from an ACL repair. Below are the inspiring lessons I learned from Jelani Williams: 
1. Mudita: Mudita is a Buddhist term that I was first introduced to by Coach Joe Mantegna at Blair Academy. Mudita describes the act of finding joy in the success of those around you. Jelani displayed Mudita at an elite level. By the time Jelani was a senior at Sidwell Friends School he had helped to build up his squad to be a powerhouse in the conference and division. Suddenly, mid-way through his senior season (2016), he tore his ACL for the first time. Instead of becoming bitter, he transitioned into a mindset of coaching, cheering, and finding joy in the success of his teammates from the bench. His teammates at Sidwell Friends School went on to win the state championship that season and as Jelani explained in his episode of the podcast with us, he cried tears of joy with his teammates on the court as the final buzzer sounded.

2. Reaching for Help: Jelani explained that after his 3rd ACL rupture and repair in 4 years, he finally reached for help in the form of a psychologist. He calls his story one of mental health and development. He credits his therapist for helping him to overcome the true hurdle of this story, the mental side of the comebacks. We can all learn from Jelani’s courage to seek help when he needed it.
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3. Making Your Misfortune Your Advantage: After rehabilitating from 3 consecutive ACL injuries over a 4-year span and finally getting cleared to play, COVID-19 struck and stripped another season from Jelani and his teammates at the University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League. When I asked Jelani if he was bitter at that moment, he explained that he wasn’t. I couldn't believe his answer! How could someone who had the first 3 seasons of his college basketball career stolen from him be anything but bitter and angry? I would have been! Instead, Jelani immediately shifted his mindset to seeing this as an advantage for himself and his teammates to have an extra year to get better and grow together as a team. That is exactly what they did. A year later, with Jelani as their captain in this 2021-22 campaign, Jelani and his squad are wrapping up their season on a winning streak with a chance to be the top team out of the Ivy League.

4. Why Rushing Back from ACL Surgery is Asking for Trouble: Jelani explained in part 2 of his episode on The Basketball Strong Podcast how he rushed his return after his second ACL repair. Admittedly, he was trying to make up for lost time and not respecting the physiologic baking time that research shows is necessary to reduce re-injury risk rates. Mick Hughes and the incredible ACL clinicians at Learn.Physio recently pointed out that a study by Bodkin et al (2021) reinforced the findings that Grindem et al (2016) had surfaced previously. These studies found that for every month after 8 months post-op ACL repair that return to sport is delayed, second ACL injury risk is reduced by nearly 30%. Translation: Rushing back to sport after an ACL repair in the 6-7 month period of rehab is risky business and often places athletes at a higher risk of re-injury. 
5. Why A Proper Return from ACL Repair Requires More Than a Calendar: I often see athletes that are cleared by doctors or physical therapists to start sports activities simply based on hitting certain generalized milestones on the rehab protocol timeline. Common examples include getting cleared to jog at 4 months, jump at 5 months, and play at 6 months. Although this is possible, this decision can NOT be made strictly on hitting those dates on a calendar. These clearance decisions must be made based on evidence as well as testing results. Testing should include strength scores for the quadriceps and hamstring muscles as well as hop test measurements. This is what we need to use to identify the readiness for return to play for each individual athlete and ACL repair case. Every athlete has a slightly different rehab response and timeline. These tests help us to have research-based markers that we can use to validate clearance given to athletes to resume running, jumping, and contact sport. 

6. What Makes a GREAT Physical Therapist for ACL Repair Rehab: By the time Jelani hit his 3rd ACL repair rehabilitation period, he was a veteran in the process and had worked with numerous physical therapists and rehab clinicians. This is when he connected with Bobby Esbrandt to be the physical therapist that would ultimately guide him back to the court. I have combined what I look for and what Jelani described as what makes Bobby elite on the list below as what you should look for in a physical therapist to guide you through your ACL repair rehab. Your ACL rehab physical therapist should... 
  • Provide you with clear evidence and research that they rely on in the space of ACL rehab.
  • Be able to give you a clear timeline of what to expect and what you will need to show them during milestones on this timeline to move to the next phase of rehab and get cleared. 
  • Show that they know when to back off of the protocol when your knee responds with excessive pain or swelling along the way. 
  • Use specific measures of strength and hop test results to dictate your readiness to return to running, jumping, or sport. 
  • Be great at listening to you as the athlete to understand how you are doing mentally and confidence-wise during the process despite what the doctors, tests, or protocol timelines are saying. 
  • Be known for and have a lengthy testimonial track record of working with athletes who have successfully returned to sport after an ACL repair surgery. 
  • Inspire and invigorate you as you go through your ACL rehab. In other words, it's important that you trust, respect, and connect with them as both a person and a clinician. 
Jelani taught me these valuable lessons of leadership and many more in his 2 part episode on The Basketball Strong Podcast. There are over 2 hours of conversation with Jelani in his 2 part episode, you won't want to miss what he has to share in such a detailed and raw format. Please be sure to subscribe, listen, rate, and review The Basketball Strong Podcast so we can help to share Jelani's story and the story of our other guests on what it takes to be Basketball Strong. The Basketball Strong Podcast is for anyone who wants to learn from the human stories and life lessons from legends in the game alongside the science of preparing your body to be basketball strong. 
If you subscribe, listen, rate, and write a review of The Basketball Strong Podcast, be sure to email me at and I will send you a free Basketball Strong t-shirt and enter you in our specialty prize giveaway contest. Specialty prizes include multiple basketball-themed books signed by authors, signed shoes or jerseys from NBA players, and more. 

Please listen to the full episode so you can learn from Jelani and his journey just as I have.

Stay Basketball Strong.


Timothy DiFrancesco

Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

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