This column was originally published on February 29, 2004.
PINEVILLE -- For Kacy Stewart, the basketball court had always been more comfortable than an old pair of sweats.
Then came a life-altering medical procedure last November. And an attempt to jump-start her last season of high school hoops late this past December.She felt as out of place as if she had been dropped on Neptune.
Two, three trips running up and down the floor -- and the Bell County High standout would be gasping for air.
"I felt like an old woman," Kacy says. "I could not breathe. It was horrible."
A thrown elbow, a poking hand, any contact near her mid-section left Kacy doubled over as if Lennox Lewis had delivered a body punch.
As a junior last year, 5-foot-10 Kacy Stewart was Bell County's leading scorer (some 16 points) and rebounder (around 10).
Now, she was so weak, "little, bitty girls" would knock the ball from her hands with impunity.
"It was just awful," she says.
Turns out, the basketball court is about as comfortable as a Malaysian prison ...
... when you launch your senior high school season only five weeks after you give birth.
Denial was the first reaction.
It was a July day when Kacy, having gone two months without having a menstrual period, finally got worried enough to see a doctor.
Accompanied by one friend -- she didn't tell her parents -- she made the most anxious trip a high school girl can make.
It still seems like a blur.
At the doctor's office, they had her pee in a cup.
Next thing Kacy knew, a nurse came in.
I don't know how you're going to take this, but you're pregnant.
"I was scared to death," Kacy says.
It took her three more weeks to work up the courage to tell her parents.
Informing her mom, Elizabeth, was hard; telling her dad was hard to the billionth power.
Kacy had always been the proverbial apple in Leland Stewart's eye.
Her dad had coached her in youth basketball and he relished her success as a high school player.
"My dad had a lot of pride in me," Kacy says. "I was really hesitant to tell him. When I did, I think it broke his heart. And that broke mine, he was so disappointed in me."
For the duration of her pregnancy, "we were pretty much at each other's throats," Kacy says.
If you're wondering, the thought of an abortion crossed Kacy's mind -- but not for long. "I didn't think I could look at myself in the mirror."
Hard as it was to tell her parents, Kacy almost dreaded the inevitable "word getting out" at school even more.
She had seen what happened when other girls became pregnant. Had observed that it changed the way others looked at them.
"I'm fairly popular here," she says. "They never picked me (as likely) to have a child my senior year. (It's supposed to be) the girls that go out and sleep with anyone. That's the stereotype. Well, that's not necessarily true, anymore."
So she just didn't tell anyone.
She and her boyfriend, ex-Bell County football player Luke Akers, told a few close friends -- and then swore them to secrecy.
When school started last fall, Kacy changed her wardrobe. Out were jeans and "tight little T-shirts." In were figure-obscuring sweat pants and sweat shirts.
When she "quit" the basketball team, she told everyone it was because the new coach, Richard Gambrel, was making the players run too much.
Because she was tall and wasn't gaining a great amount of baby weight, her secret pretty well held.
Says friend and basketball teammate Ashley Boland: "Almost nobody in the whole school even suspected."
When complications in the seventh month of her pregnancy forced Kacy into the hospital for three days, she finally decided she should tell.
When she got back to school, people would tell her they heard she'd been sick.
"I'm pregnant," she would reply.
Funny thing was, many didn't believe her, even then.
On Nov. 8, little Luke Xavier entered the world and provided 6 pounds, three ounces of definitive proof.
One assumes that most reading this story can agree that the best situation in which to bring children into the world involves married adults.
It's just that real life does not always conform to "best situations."
Preliminary figures for 2003 show there were 6,444 babies born in Kentucky to parents between the ages of 15 and 19.
So, hopefully, most people also have the understanding to accept that good people make life mistakes.
And that the mark of a person's mettle comes not in never making a mistake -- who can do that? -- but rather in how you handle your life after it takes an unforeseen detour.
By the time her baby was born, Kacy Stewart's life had undergone a makeover.
Kacy and boyfriend Akers moved in together. He is working two jobs to help support his son; when she can, she works at the Lee's Famous Recipe that her parents own in Middlesboro.
They haven't gotten married, Kacy says, because they wouldn't have done so at this time had they not had a child. "I don't want to pile other mistakes on top of one mistake," she says. "If we're still together after college, then we'll see."
As for all those fears about losing respect at school?
Kacy's peers just voted her Basketball Homecoming Queen.
"I'd say a lot of our kids admire her, what she's done since it happened," says Bell County Principal Jeff Saylor. "In a sense, I do, too. She could have made several bad decisions, but she didn't let one mistake lead her into a series of bad decisions."
Fact is, sometimes "mistakes" start to look like miracles.
The birth of "little Luke" helped bridge whatever gap had opened between Kacy and her father.
"Her mom and I both came from conservative families," Leland Stewart says. "So it was hard. A very emotional time.
But "when you look at the little fella, it just melts your heart. And I'm proud of Kacy and how she's stepped up to this."
That rapprochement is important for a million different reasons.
One of the least significant being that her dad is the person who always gave Kacy Stewart a push when it came to basketball.
"I just thought she had the grit in her craw to do this," Leland Stewart says of playing this year.
In his first year coaching girls, Gambrel, too, was encouraging.
After she gave birth, she waited three weeks. Then, Kacy went back into the gym. Just to shoot.
"It felt weird having to walk around the gym all hobbled up," Kacy says. "But when you have a C-section, you're hurting."
Four weeks after giving birth, Kacy started running.
Five weeks after having a baby, she entered her first game. It was against Bullitt Central in Berea's Christmas Tournament.
Kacy was the human turnover.
"I was horrible," she says.
Her low point came in a game against Jackson County and its 6-foot-6 All-State player, Sarah Elliott. Kacy picked up two rapid fouls because she wasn't quick enough defensively to get around Elliott in the post.
A year ago, that act would have been no problem.
Sitting on the bench, Kacy stewed. Why am I here? I'm not capable of playing at this level anymore. I should be at home with my baby.
Afterward, she was on the verge of quitting.
Boland, her teammate, talked her into staying.
Her scoring and rebounding averages are about half what they were a year ago. But the last three games, "I feel like I'm back as good as I was last year," Kacy said Wednesday.
Which doesn't make her a Miss Basketball candidate, of course.
But this winter, you'll look a long time to find a more courageous story than Kacy Stewart anywhere in Kentucky basketball.