Hofstra's KVonn Cramer (above), a Wilmington (Del.) native, sat out three consecutive seasons due to injury. (Photo courtesy Hofstra Athletics)
One thousand, three hundred and sixty-six days separate March 5, 2017 and Nov. 29, 2020. Three years, eight months, three weeks and a couple extra days for good measure.
That’s how long KVonn Cramer went without playing a meaningful basketball game.
Along the way were two major reconstructive knee surgeries, a life-threatening infection, plenty of emotional nights, and doubts about his ability to play basketball again. There were tears and prayers, progress and setbacks, too much waiting, and plenty of wondering.
So on Nov. 29, when Cramer put on his golden No. 23 uniform with Hofstra on the front and his name on the back and stepped out onto the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center, there was a lot to take in. He hadn’t been on the hardwood outside of a workout or practice since the end of his sophomore year at Mt. Pleasant (Del.) High School, when he was 16 years old. He’s now 20, a redshirt freshman at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Any player’s Division I debut is a special moment. Cramer’s was literally a dream come true.
“When I went to the scorer’s table, I was like ‘Wow, this is actually happening,’ I was about to play in my first college basketball game,’” he said. “I was in shock.
“I never thought that I would be here,” he added. “I’m just blessed.”
“That kid lived an athlete’s nightmare.”
- Team Final director Rob Brown
As a sophomore at Mount Pleasant, located in Wilmington, Cramer averaged 18 points, eight rebounds, and four assists a game, garnering second-team all-state honors. He looked poised to become one of the best players to come out of Delaware since Villanova star guard Donte DiVincenzo, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, graduated from the Salesianum School in 2015.
Watching Cramer play that spring and summer with Team Final, the area’s Nike-backed travel program, it was hard not to see college coaches fawning over his potential. At north of 6-foot-5, he sported a seven-foot wingspan which made him a defensive terror, capable of guarding wings and bigs, and an above-the-rim athleticism that led to some impressive blocks and dunks.
Rutgers, Virginia Commonwealth, Seton Hall and St. Joe’s all offered during that 2017 offseason, and many other high-major programs were keeping a close eye.
Then disaster struck, for the first time.
Six weeks before his junior season was set to tip-off, in a fall league game at Mt. Pleasant against A.I. duPont, Cramer came up with a steal, the open court ahead of him. Gathering steam towards the basket, Cramer went to split a pair of duPont defenders and rise up for a slam, but his left knee buckled.
“When he said he heard it pop, I mean, you know, you’re devastated,” Mt. Pleasant coach Lisa Sullivan said. “So even without getting the official diagnosis, I think we all knew.”
An MRI revealed it was a torn ACL. A junior season that was a crucial stretch in his development towards a high-major project was gone. And Cramer needed all the time on the court he could get—something of a late-comer to serious basketball, he was a baseball-first athlete who also played football through eighth grade, switching his focus after a middle school growth spurt.
For the first time, Cramer was facing a serious setback in his athletics career. Sullivan said the first game of Cramer’s junior season against William Penn, was especially difficult.
“I mean, [he] just completely fell apart in the locker room after the game,” she said. “And you know, you could see all that pain coming out of him.”
“I was just devastated,” Cramer said. “I didn’t know what could happen next, as far as basketball wise, I didn’t think any schools would want me anymore, I thought basketball maybe would be done with.”
One ACL tear is bad, but plenty of high school athletes have suffered similar injuries and still fulfilled their potential. Cramer looked on that path come springtime, and by June, he was getting ready to retake the court with Team Final for the all-important July live recruiting periods. A couple big games in front of a few hundred coaches at the Peach Jam, and his recruiting would be right back to where it was.
Then one day, he got sick. Really sick.
At the hospital, doctors delivered the bad news: Cramer had gotten strep throat and hadn’t realized it, and the infection had taken hold. Worse than that, it had traveled down to his surgically repaired knee, and required emergency surgery, immediately. While performing the surgery, the doctors found the streptococcus bacteria had eaten away at “about sixty percent” of the ACL, according to Cramer and his mother, Gwendolyn Brown.
Those doctors, she said, worried it might spell the end of his competitive career.
“It was hard. It was something I didn’t want to believe,” she said. “I told the doctor that told him that, ‘no, this isn’t true, this isn’t happening.’ KVonn started crying and I said, ‘Baby, you’re going to play basketball again.’”
Once he healed from that surgery, Cramer’s knee was in a tricky state. Doctors and physical therapists told him that he could try playing on the knee his senior year, but risked even further injury. The other option was another full ACL replacement, another nine-to-12 months of rehab, and an unknown amount of lost opportunity.
Cramer and his parents chose to have the surgery.
In a span of a little under two years, Cramer went from a sure-fire high-major target to a major question mark in the eyes of all the schools recruiting him. Would he be able to recover fully? How much would his missed time hamper his skill development?
One school, however, was all he needed.
Hofstra’s Mike Farrelly was one of many coaches Rob Brown reached out to as the summer of 2018 approached, the typical job of a high-level summer league program director trying to get his kids as much exposure as possible. Farrelly, a St. Joe’s grad and the associate head coach under Joe Mihalich, was certainly intrigued by Cramer’s upside and his story, but also knew that if someone with Cramer’s athleticism took to the courts at Peach Jam with Team Final that July, a bevy of high-major offers would take him out of the running.
Then the infection happened. All the high-major schools eager for Cramer’s return suddenly vanished, their attention focused on players they could evaluate, players whose health and basketball future wasn’t suddenly a major issue.
Mike Farrelly (above) has been on the Hofstra bench since 2013, rising to associate head coach last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Farrelly, however, stayed on. Rob Brown and Team Final’s assistant director, Aaron Burt, assured the Pride’s associate head coach that Cramer would be good enough to play in the Colonial Athletic Association, that he was worth taking the shot on. He also got a good report from former Drexel assistant Bobby Jordan, now at Wagner, but then spending the summer coaching with Final.
“Bobby was like ‘Mike, you really want this kid,’” said Farrelly, who’s currently serving as Hofstra’s interim head coach with Mihalich out since August for an undisclosed health issue. “Bobby knew from when he was at Drexel how we played, what our system was like, the type of guys we had...Bobby kind of sealed the deal to say he’s a no-brainer, you have to take him.”
For Cramer, who was dealing with all the disappointments and frustrations of his situation, having at least one school stay hot on his tail was a much-needed pick-me-up. He appreciated that Hofstra was staying honest about his situation, pitching him on a five-year plan, that he’d be able to take it slow and redshirt his first season, get acclimated to the college game and not feel like he’d need to rush back.
“It helped a lot,” Cramer said. “It still meant that they cared, that they knew what I could do on the court, that they still would take a chance on a kid that hasn’t played in three years.”
Hofstra wasn’t the only school still in touch with Cramer; St. Joe’s and Seton Hall both were hoping to see Cramer play at some point during his senior year, but he wasn’t going to rush back and risk further injury just to make that happen. Once he made the decision to have the second ACL surgery, it was about figuring out which program made the most sense for him long-term.
In September, he took a visit to Hofstra’s Long Island campus. It didn’t take him much longer than that to realize he had a clear best option.
On Nov. 14, 2018, despite the trials and tribulations, Cramer inked his name on the dotted line by signing his National Letter of Intent, committing to Hofstra’s men's basketball program. He decided to study physical therapy, inspired by the PTs at the University of Delaware’s Physical Therapy Clinic, where he spent so much time after his surgeries.
The Pride staff still had no idea what they were getting.
“It was hard because we’d never seen him play live, he hadn’t played in forever. It was like, ‘how good is he? Is he going to fit in our system? Is he skilled enough?’”
- Hofstra associate head coach Mike Farrelly
Cramer got cleared for full-court action right before arriving on Hofstra’s campus for its fall semester last year. He had already been up to Long Island for the summer session, but was limited to drills and running, not really able to fully test his knee.
He spent the time working on his shooting, his ball-handling, all the skills he’d need to play the ‘3’ and ‘4’ in the Pride’s four-out system. When he was finally cleared, he made quite the impact.
“The guys hated it when he started because he had the biggest, heaviest metal knee brace, and any time they made contact with them, they were out for like 10 minutes,” Farrelly said, adding with a laugh: “He was finally was able to lose the knee brace after a couple months, and everybody else was just relieved.”
Cramer saw scout team work with the Pride last year, getting his legs back under him after sitting on the sidelines for two straight years. (Photo courtesy Hofstra Athletics)
The Pride utilized Cramer on their scout team all year, giving him the opportunity to play through mistakes and rust, reintroducing himself to competition and getting his endurance built back up.
“Coach Farrelly, he always tells me to bring the energy, never slow down,” Cramer said. “Just be who you are, and that’s just what I do.”
Meanwhile, he began showing flashes of his previous athleticism to the public, just enough to serve as a tease.
“Our fans because they would see him in warmups and he’s putting dunks in between his legs and reverses and everybody’s like ‘Who is this guy?’” Farrelly recalled with a laugh. “I always said, he’s a long-term stock. He’s going to take some time.”
Then, of course, came COVID. Instead of spending the 2020 summer on campus getting in workouts and training with the Hofstra staff and his teammates, Cramer was stuck back in Delaware, trying to get into gyms when he could.
“It was a really big concern,” Farrelly said, “and I was wondering how much that would hinder his development this year.”
It’s not like the program Cramer had joined was one desperate for bodies. The Pride won 27 games two years ago (15-3 CAA) and went 26-8 (14-4) last year, winning the league championship and securing a spot in the eventually-cancelled NCAA Tournament. Their top two scorers had graduated, but the next seven minute-getters were all back, and that was enough for Hofstra to land atop the CAA’s preseason poll.
Despite that, Cramer made enough of an impression over the course of October and November practices that Farrelly realized he was playing his way right up into the rotation. Before long, it was undeniable.
“When we had a meeting as staff right before we started practice, none of us guaranteed him any minutes: I don’t know if he’s in the rotation, is he going to play?” Farrelly said. “But after a couple weeks of practice, we all realized that he’s gotta be out there for a lot of minutes.”
COVID made Cramer wait one more time, forcing the postponement of their Nov. 25 season opener with Monmouth, the Rutgers matchup waiting four days later.
“I was pretty upset, being our first game, but I was like, it’s 2020, so you’ve got to be ready for anything and take on any challenge,” Cramer said. “I wasn’t really too worried about missing a couple more days.”
On its own, the dunk is eye-opening.
Cramer catches the pass just outside the arc on the left wing, the defender a step too slow. He takes one dribble, gathers himself near the CAA logo in the lane and elevates, another FDU player watching helplessly as Cramer jams it home with his left hand.
It was a clear sign: he was back.
“Boy, I missed that!” was Sullivan’s first thought.
“Relieving” was the word that came to Rob Brown’s mind.
“It was just joy,” Cramer said. “Joy of being able to be back out there, knowing I can still do what I do.”
Cramer’s presence on the court is impressive enough, given what he’s been through. But in the Pride’s first two games of the season, he’s been much more than just another body on the floor.
In his first game back, against the No. 24 Scarlet Knights, he played 23 minutes, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds with four steals.
As if that wasn’t enough of a statement, his second game resulted in a double-double: 12 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes against Fairleigh-Dickinson, with another four steals, a block and an assist, without a turnover.
They’re notable debut showings for any freshman, redshirt or not. For someone who’s missed three years of development? There isn’t a single person outside of Cramer himself who could have predicted it. You don’t just miss literally hundreds of games’ worth of competition and come back like you didn’t miss a beat.
But KVonn Cramer, somehow, did.
“For him to be out there playing basketball right now,” Gwendolyn Brown said, “I am so happy and so joyful to see that he’s happy and he’s able to do something that he’s always wanted to do.”
“I thought he looked great,” Sullivan said. “I just told him to take a minute before the game and just appreciate all the hard work and effort that he’s put into it, to get back to where he is, and he should be very, very proud of himself.”
With Cramer way ahead of any planned schedule in his ability to make an impact on the court, Farrelly is raising the bar for what goals the wing should aim for. Quickly.
The interim head coach brought up the CAA’s Sixth Man of the Year award as a realistic goal for Cramer this season, and shows his budding star tape of former Archbishop Carroll standout Derrick Jones as inspiration for how Cramer can use his athleticism to the greatest effect.
“I just want to show everybody that I am back, I am better than ever,” Cramer said. “I want to make a statement for myself.”
For Cramer, just being on the court is statement enough.