Nikol Allison walked into the doctor’s office that day expecting to finally learn the cause of her chronic lower back pain.
But who was she kidding? The Cal Poly women’s basketball player had dealt with near-crippling back spasms for years now, and none of the previous tests had revealed anything.
Still waiting to make her debut on the court during her sophomore year, Allison even had to defend her honor against those who wondered aloud if she was just being a wimp. What would this visit reveal?
Alone on the examination table, the diagnosis floored her.
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The doctor, almost ruthlessly casual, said she had a tumor. The floating appendage “likely benign” blurred into the wallpaper, and Allison immediately thought the worst.
“I went in just like a regular checkup thinking they were going to tell me what’s wrong with my back,” Allison said, “and they told me there was a tumor in there. So, I came straight to practice, and I was really upset.
“My mom drove down immediately. People were crying. I was crying. I thought my life was over.”
More than two years later, Allison is one of the key cogs in the Mustangs’ march to today’s semifinal round of the Big West Conference Tournament against UC Santa Barbara at 2:30 p.m.
The 6-foot-2 center from Davis High finally made her official debut this year, playing out her senior season as the sixth man for second-seeded Cal Poly and averaging 6.4 points and 5.1 rebounds.
As it turned out, the tumor idea was just another red herring — as inapplicable in this case as other common causes of lower back pain, things like disproportionate legs or a weak core.
But it did lead to the discovery of the real problem, a broken back worthy of a violent auto collision.
Before the injection of painkillers that would potentially allow Allison to play with the tumor during her sophomore season, a last-minute CT scan revealed it wasn’t a tumor at all.
The blurry spot on her spine from the previous image test was instead a doubly cracked vertebra of unknown origin.
Allison couldn’t trace the cause back to anywhere in her high school days when she first noted the symptoms. Teammate Kayla Griffin, Allison’s best friend since the two started rooming together freshman year in San Luis Obispo, hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary to worsen the condition.
“They were like, ‘Did you get in a car accident? Did you total your car?’ ” Griffin said, “And she was like, ‘No, I just play basketball.’ ”
Ever since Allison arrived on campus, Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh has identified her as a player to watch.
Each year, Mimnaugh was hoping to get the prized recruit in uniform. A freak broken foot, described to be about as severe as humanly possible, wiped out Allison’s freshman season just days before the opening tipoff.
Then came the series of back problems, culminating in spinal surgery after her sophomore season. The yearlong recovery spanned her entire junior year. Even then, no one was sure Allison would be able to play again.
It seemed like all that promise would go to waste.
“When I saw her playing in high school,” Mimnaugh said, “I thought, really I don’t know if I’ve seen a kid that really rebounds the ball as well as she does from an offensive standpoint. She’s got great instincts and quickness and tenacity, all the attributes you need to be an offensive rebounder.
“I knew what we’ve been missing all these years.”
Now, the rest of the conference is seeing it.
Allison has established herself as an effective offensive rebounder. With 72 offensive boards, she’s the only reserve in the Big West with enough to rank in the top 10 on the conference list.
Allison has also been an effective scorer when needed. She’s led Cal Poly in scoring four times, including a career-high 22 points in a 79-69 loss at UC Davis on Feb. 9.
And she’s done it all while wearing unlucky number 13.
“She’s not timid at all in the way that she plays,” Griffin said. “You would think, ‘Oh my God, her back. Don’t touch her,’ but no, she goes out there and she goes hard, and our whole team just respects her so much for doing what she does.”
Said Mimnaugh: “Nikol has no ability to go soft. She can’t dial it down, which is an awesome thing for a coach to see, probably incredibly frightening for her parents to see.”
Just returning to the team was a fearful decision that parents Craig and Helena were very concerned about.
One of Allison’s back specialists had no qualms about seeing his patient back banging on the court. A second, mindful of the risks of further damage, gave pause and said he wouldn’t make the gamble.
But Allison just needed one more year. She just wanted to taste what it was like to be the one in the game instead of the one fetching water and operating the scoreboard.
She persuaded her loved ones to give her one chance, and it led to Mimnaugh awarding her the inaugural Comeback Kid trophy at the team’s banquet following the regular-season finale this past Saturday.
Now, with one more season of eligibility left — and another if she should choose to petition the NCAA for a medical hardship — Allison could have to decide if another comeback is in the cards.
Whether Allison ever puts on a Cal Poly uniform again after the Mustangs’ run in the Big West Tournament will be determined by family, doctors and the postseason tests to gauge how well the surgery has held up.
No matter the outcome, she’ll always have dueling urges, her competitive fire clashing with the ever-present pain that has subsided but yet remains.
It’s there “all the time, every day,” Allison said. “I’m pretty sure it’s forever.”