When UL junior forward Kendall Bess looks in the mirror these days, she sometimes doesn’t recognize what she sees or where she’s viewing it from.
So much of her life has been a roller-coaster ride filled with obstacles.
But right now, Bess is in a place she loves … in a frame of mind she’s been needing for a long time … and with a support system she never imagined was even possible.
Sure, Bess would love for the Ragin’ Cajuns women’s basketball team to have more victories during this rugged transition season for coach Garry Brodhead’s staff filled with injuries and newcomers.
But good luck trying to convince her this 2018-19 team is a losing proposition. It’s afforded her far too many heart-warming memories and victories in life to reach such a conclusion based on losses on the hardwood.
UL women’s basketball coach Garry Brodhead can’t wait until Saturday.
In fact, there are many days Bess has to pinch herself to make sure it’s real.
“Oh, all the time,” said Bess, whose Cajuns will be taking on Texas State at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Cajundome. “It’s crazy. I wake up some days and think, ‘Wow Ken, you’re really here.’ It definitely took a lot to get there. There was a lot of adversity to face and a lot of people to deal with and get through. But I got here and it’s definitely a dream come true. It’s amazing.”
When the 6-foot-1 forward left her hometown of Richmond, Texas in 2016, flourishing in Lafayette three years later seemed unlikely.
She signed with Morehead State in Kentucky after three All-District seasons.
“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, Kentucky. Ooh, let’s get away from home,’ ” Bess said. “As I got older, I realized it’s not about where you are. It’s about who you’re with.”
While it was a basketball opportunity in a true-blue basketball state, Bess felt like a stranger.
She definitely didn’t like what she saw in the mirror.
“I was really isolated,” Bess said. “I felt out of place. It didn’t feel like home. It felt like it was painted to be this great place on my visit and when I got there, reality kind of it. I was like, ‘OK, maybe this wasn’t as great as it looked.’ I met a lot of great people. I had a lot of great experiences, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t feel like it was the place I needed to be.
“I just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t happy there.”
So she didn’t stay.
Bess first went back to her home state of Texas to play for Tyler Junior College.
Before very long, that look in the mirror again wasn’t the same. She injured her knee in November. She stayed out of action for two weeks and it didn’t improve.
“My kneecap kept popping in and out,” Bess explained. “They let me take the Christmas break to rehab the whole break.”
By mid-January, Bess tried to play again.
“I just pushed through it,” she said. “It was just like a jammed finger at that point. I just kept going. It got pretty bad, because it was happening like daily. Then I had a really bad incident before a game. I played in that game and then the doctor finally came and he said, ‘Yes, it’s definitely torn.’ ”
In February, she has ACL surgery.
That process involved informing UL assistant coach Valerie Huizar of her knee surgery. But the Cajuns’ offer stood and Bess committed.
At that point, Bess saw a frustrated athlete on a painful rehabilitation path.
UL-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux calls it "The Invisible Climb."
“It was torture,” Bess said of her rehab. “It really was.”
But somehow through that process, Bess began to see herself in a different light.
Forced to sit and watch the game instead of playing it allowed Bess to see it from a different perspective.
And what she saw was eye-opening.
“It was a good learning experience,” Bess said. “It gave me time to sit back and learn the game. I finally understood when a coach says, ‘Hey do this, because this is open.’ I could see it for the first time because I wasn’t actually in the game. It really sparked my coaching passion. Now, I want to coach after college. I never really realized that I wanted to until I got a chance to sit back and watch the game full on and be like a student all over again.”
Now back on the court these days, she really kicks herself when she messes up.
“Everything’s going so fast when you’re on the court,” Bess said. “Sometimes I forget to slow myself down offensively and defensively. That leads to a lot of mistakes. I just try to play hard. They’ll tell me, ‘Kendall, you knew that. You knew better.’ And I’ll get frustrated with myself, because I already knew that. They shouldn’t have to tell me that.”
But Bess knows any rebuking or exhortation comes with love.
“I got up here and it immediately felt like home — from the professors to just the people on the street to everybody I met,” Bess said of her experience so far in Lafayette. “It felt amazing.”
Now in her third college town since leaving Richmond, Texas, Bess has grown … while continuing the process of healing.
Before she left Tyler JC for South Louisiana, Bess was forced to endure another major change.
Suddenly, she saw a grieving sister in that mirror due to the sudden death of her brother, Brian.
“He was training to be a police officer and the day of their test, he finished his test with flying colors … even went back to help a girl finish her mile run,” Bess told. “Then they just said he turned around and started talking incoherently. He went into a heat stroke and was in the ER for two or three days. Then he ended up getting (flown to) a bigger hospital in Houston. And he passed that next morning.”
Incredibly, this young lady was forced to endure unthinkable pain both in her knee and in her heart.
Quitting basketball, though, and forfeiting her dream was never an option for Bess.
“He was definitely someone who pushed me to be the best I could be … whether it was finger-painting or making a sandwich or playing ball, he wanted me to be the best,” Bess said. “He was my rock. He still is.”
That tragedy almost forced Bess into seeing a different force inside her once she moved to UL.
“I’m blessed,” Bess said with a smile even when discussing the hardships. “I am actually better dealing with my faith this past couple months. I started going to our ABS, which is our athlete’s Bible study, and the community here is amazing. Not just basketball family, but football family, track family, volleyball family. It’s amazing how much support you really have behind you.
"I’ve been really deep in my faith lately. You just have to remember to be thankful, even when nothing’s going right, because it could also be worse.”
She’s learned to ask for help.
During so many of her lonely days at Morehead State and painful heartache in Tyler, Bess tried to deal with it all herself.
“No, I struggled a lot,” Bess said. “I’ve always been pretty tough emotionally. I’ve never been one to go to people. That’s one of my problems here. Coaches are like, ‘Ken, it’s OK to come talk to us. You can let it out, it’s OK. We’re here for you.’
“I’d always said, ‘No, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ I used to handle things like that and that would lead to a lot of gloomy days for me, but I’ve gotten better at being more open about what’s going on in my life and how I’m feeling about things.”
And the Kendall Bess she now sees — the one dependent on the generosity of others — has a bigger smile than normal.
It likely began long before UL-Lafayette senior softball utility standout Lexie Comeaux ever realized it.
“That’s really help, along with my faith,” Bess said. “Before that, I can do it, I can do it. But I can’t do it by myself — the team, God and my family, I need all of them to get by.”
The funny thing about Bess, however, is you would never know the heartache she’s endured by just watching her play or even practice.
She’s typically the one diving on the floor after a loose ball, even with the big bulky brace on her knee.
She’s the one laughing and smiling and supporting her teammates more than anyone else on the squad.
“She’s a firecracker,” coach Huizar said of Bess. “She’s high energy and high excitement. She’s a good teammate. She drives the energy of our team.”
Her knee injury didn’t allow her to actually play for the Cajuns until December, but that didn’t dampen her spirit.
“You can’t do much in practice, so she was on the sidelines, but she was still vocal,” Huizar said. “She just wasn’t in the drills being vocal.”
Because of her unique journey, Bess is an automatic team leader. It also helps that she’s the only junior on the squad.
“She’s mature because this is her third program in three years, so she’s experienced a lot more than the freshmen have or the kids who have been here since high school,” Huizar said. “She’s experienced a lot more about the world. She’s playing in Kentucky. She’s played in junior college. All those different experiences, playing at different levels and in different conferences, have helped her know how to deal with all kinds of adversities.”
In 17 games so far, Bess has averaged 4.6 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.
“She’s not even close to being as good as she could be,” Huizar said. “I tell her that a lot. She takes that as a challenge, not a bad thing. Having a full healthy summer to do basketball instead of rehab, she’s going to be really good for us.
“She’s very skilled. What helps us is she can stretch it out and shoot the 10 to 15 (footer), but if someone smaller is on her, she can bang them down low. If taller and slower, she can go around them and use some crafty moves. So she’s got a lot of tools in her toolbox.”
Actually more, and in different areas, than she ever thought possible.
So sure, Bess looks forward to next season, like many others, when a more seasoned UL women’s squad can be a bigger push in the Sun Belt standings. But her travels have made her more equipped for life — during and after basketball.
So with each day comes a great appreciation for the opportunity she's now relishing.
"For sure, I’m definitely more confident," Bess said. "I feel I’m more open to learning new things. I’m more observant. I’m more appreciative of a lot of things because like I said, it can always be worse.
"And there’s always someone whose praying for your worst days. I try to keep more of a positive mindset now and stay up."
Never has looking at herself in the mirror felt so good.
Texas State at UL women's basketball
Game: 2 p.m. Saturday, Cajundome.
Radio: KROF 960 AM.
Records: TxSt 12-14, 7-7; UL 7-17, 5-8.
Last year: TxSt won 56-53 in Lafayette; 62-56 in SBC tourney; UL won 65-58 in Texas.
Series: TxSt leads 9-8.