Still Shooting

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I remember feeling the blade slice across my hand, the blood starting to slowly stream through the tear in my disposable glove. I was working in the prepared foods department at Whole Foods in Los Angeles.

Why? I wanted to learn how to cook. I had also been working shifts at a 24 Hour Fitness, so whenever I needed a gym, being an employee meant I could go for free.

But back to my hand. I probably needed stitches, but the only thing I could think was, I’m glad it’s not my shooting hand.

How I survived that summer is beyond me. Grace, perhaps. At first, I was rehabbing a torn ACL and working minimal hours. Eventually, I was beginning the day at one job and finishing it at the other. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. before starting a five-hour shift at the gym, then drive through traffic — L.A. traffic, no less — to do a couple of hours of rehab. Then I’d jump back in my car and drive over to Whole Foods, where I’d work until midnight before heading back to the gym to get in a couple of hours of cardio, lifting and shooting. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

To me, there was no excuses. Why would someone do all this? Because since I was two, I have had a ball in my hand.

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There was no conversation, no “big moment,” no parent or big brother taking me to the court. My love for basketball was just natural, from Day One. A playground love that’s never quit. For other kids, their milestones are learning to ride a bike, or swim — for me, they were dribbling with either hand, going between the legs or behind the back.

Remember that Nike freestyle commercial? You all know the one I’m talking about, with Jason (White Chocolate) Williams, Vince Carter and all these other streetball legends. The reason I can dribble is that commercial. Point blank. Period. As soon as I saw it for the first time, I grabbed my ball and went outside. I used to love dribbling in indoor parking lots with the slick floors because you could really hear your sneakers squeak. I would dribble for hours. Whenever we were going somewhere, I would always bring my ball because I never knew how long my mom was going to be inside running errands.

My mom was actually the one who kept me humble about my game. Because I was good. Like, really good. “Don’t believe the hype,” she’d always say. “You don’t make it ’til you actually make it.”

So even though I was filling out questionnaires for teams like Tennessee at 12, I didn’t seriously think about college ball until my junior year, when you start getting those real letters. And I finally signed one to become a Cal Bear.

By the end of my college career, I knew what I had accomplished. I had been a four-year starter. I had been honorable mention All–Pac-10 as a sophomore. I was the third player in school history to reach 1,000 rebounds. I also joined the 1,000-point-1,000-rebound club. I went into my senior year leading the Pac-12 in boards among active players. We had Final Four appearance my senior year.

So I thought I would get drafted into the WNBA. I didn’t know how, where, or when but I just knew I was going to go pro. The four different agents I spoke with all agreed I had a 50-50 chance of going in the third round. Draft night comes, and I decide to get dinner with a friend at an Italian restaurant. I don’t want to be sitting around, watching names getting called, waiting to hear mine. I figure if I get drafted, I’ll find out through a text or a call from my agent or my mom.

A giant plate of pasta. But no texts. No calls. No offers.

Not having my name called didn’t shatter my world. My dream was still intact. But yeah, I was pissed. I’m competitive and it was hard to see people drafted in front of me who played the same position. I wanted to call them up and say, “Let’s go.” I believed there was no one, who, if we went into training camp together, could play over me. It wasn’t going to happen.

My dream was still intact. But yeah, I was pissed.

But it doesn’t work like that. There’s no battle royal for a spot on a team. And that was the hardest part, that everything was out of my control. All I could hope for was a training camp contract to come through in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, I went to play in China with the NetScouts Basketball Women’s USA All-Star team. Basically, it was a group of unsigned players, or players who had been drafted and released. Imagine a group of rejected ballplayers with something to prove. We were bitter and we balled out. During the 18–20 days we were there, we played about 17 games and we just took everything out on our competition. Seriously, the court was like a war zone, with every one of us believing we deserved to be in the WNBA. We went undefeated. If anything, that experience might’ve given me more confidence than getting drafted and sitting on the bench.

I returned to Los Angeles in July, spoke to a few teams, but nothing panned out. I kept feeling my dream was at the tips of my fingers, right in front of me, only to keep slipping out of my grasp.

A month later, I left for Poland and became a professional basketball player. Sure, it wasn’t the WNBA, but it meant I could play. Why Poland? Long season, competitive league and most importantly, the best exposure. There were also lot of WNBA players in the league and I had one goal: to show I could compete with them. Forget money, forget ease of life, I just wanted to ball.

Eight games into the season we were playing against CCC Polkowice. My coach kept telling me to roll faster as I set the high ball-screen. If you’re a threat on the roll, defenses send weak side help to tag the roller. So the next play, I rolled faster and caught the ball but couldn’t see anything behind me. It’s like when a QB leads his wide receiver into a pass across the middle where he gets clocked by Ray Lewis. The trap came and two players ran into my right knee. I felt it hyperextend and heard a popping sound. After I got taped up, I tried going back out, but I could tell something wasn’t right.

I remember exactly how the trainer looked when he walked in with the results that Thursday morning — like someone just died.

What followed was nothing like what would happen in the U.S. An eight- to nine-hour bus ride back home — with no Internet or cell service to call my mom and tell her about what happened. The game was on a Sunday, but I couldn’t get an MRI appointment until Tuesday, and the results didn’t arrive until that Thursday. Imagine that happening to any professional athlete here.

We assumed it was just a sprain. Everything around my knee was so strong and the team was already making arrangements to get me a brace. I remember exactly how the trainer looked when he walked in with the results that Thursday morning — like someone just died.

“ACL.”

I couldn’t believe it. I could squat, I could jump, I could jog.

Breaking down and sobbing, I fell into my coach’s arms and held onto him as if he were my father. I couldn’t call my mom. I just couldn’t. She had wanted a win for me so badly. I just wanted a win, too. But I knew the two of us had to get down to the logistics. I needed to get home as soon as possible. So at 3 a.m. Los Angeles time, she got a call from me.

Leaving Poland felt like a defeat. I had been there for almost three months and I hadn’t accomplish anything. All of the hard work, for what? My mom was the one to get me back on track. She was like, “Focus! You only got one body and we’re going to take care of this.” So we reached out to Dr. Neal ElAttrache. I knew he was a big deal, but I didn’t realize just how good he was — I mean, he’s like Tom Brady good. Russell Wilson good. Kobe good. He helped all those guys return, and here he was, trying to get me back on the court.

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Dr. ElAttrache also showed me that the time I spent in Poland wasn’t for nothing. My ACL was torn, but because I had been playing and in good shape, my meniscus was perfect. I was ready for surgery right away. Finally, a silver lining.

Post-surgery, I woke up and and immediately started doing exercises. And from December to March, I just focused on my rehab, working to get ready for the summer and another shot at a team camp. In March, I got a call in the middle of my shift at Whole Foods from my agent asking if I was in shape and had I slimmed down, how my frame was looking.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m killin’ it right now!”

I got invited to a training camp that started on April 27 — five months to the day after my surgery. Days of grinding between two jobs, rehab and workouts and here it was, my chance. I went straight to Dr. ElAttrache, hoping to get cleared.

“I would never do that to you. I have a daughter. I’m not having you come here next year and cry again, and ask, Why didn’t you stop me?

Up until that point, I had been operating on automatic. And just like 100 routine days before, following my appointment with Dr. ElAttrache it was time to drive to rehab.

But I couldn’t. I was done. I was exhausted. I was drained. Emotionally. Mentally. I sat in the car in silence. I hadn’t slept, I’d been working two jobs, and there I was, a month away from being able to fulfill my dream that was, once again, out my reach, out of my control.

I got out of the car and threw the gallon of water I had against some building and just screamed.

It’s not fair. I’ve done everything.

I wasn’t just rehabbing my knee to get healthy, I was rehabbing to be great. I could have stopped right then and there. Packed it in and called it a day.

It’s embarrassing, but before my own injury I was quick to give up on people who had torn their ACL. I just thought, They’re done. Can we move on please? And here I was now just hoping — doing anything — to be given a shot.

I got back in the car and drove to rehab.

I could be doing so much. I would love to do a podcast, or a blog or so many things. I love academics and miss being in school. During my graduation from Cal’s Haas School of Business, in the middle of convocation, our dean recognized me in front of my parents, the other guests and the Ph.D. and master’s candidates. Me, for my work as a student-athlete. So I know I’m putting a lot on hold for basketball.

But that’s how you know it’s love.

I finished out the summer and my stints at Whole Foods and the 24 Hour Fitness. Eventually I was cleared to play again and I went back to Europe. This time, Greece. Poland still had too much emotion and trauma for me. But honestly, I would’ve played for free anywhere. I would have paid to play. I just wanted to be back on the court.

I was putting up big numbers and soon GMs and coaches were calling my agent asking for tape. But there was hesitation: How will her game translate to the league? How will she score? Is she quick? Is she actually that fast? After her injury, can she do it again?

Even more frustrating, despite their good intentions, were the unsolicited texts I’d get from friends in the W.

I finished the season in Greece and came back to L.A. for a summer job at my friend’s independent retail mortgage bank. I’m back playing in Spain now. I have a different mindset after everything that’s happened. Let’s just compete. The more I play, I feel my game get more pure. I’m the little kid who loves the game again. I forget the b.s. that comes with playing abroad — the lack of women coaches, the crappy Wi-Fi and, not going to lie, the Chipotle and In-N-Out cravings.

All of this — the surgery, the rehab, the jobs, the time abroad — it’s for the W. Playing in the W is not a matter of if, but when. What my body has done in the past few years is amazing. I’m like in my prime. I feel bionic. I can work out for like eight days in a row and be fine. I gotta keep doing this because I know one day I won’t be able to.

I know I’m a delusional dreamer in most people’s eyes. I’ll keep playing until the wheels fall off, because when it’s your dream, you can’t have an expiration date.

Plus, my shooting hand’s still good.

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