Off the Bench

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Chelsea Gray, Guard / Los Angeles Sparks - The Players' Tribune

I was playing overseas last year in Turkey during the WNBA off-season, and looking forward to carrying the progress that I had made there into my second year with the Connecticut Sun. But one day after a practice I got a call from my agent.

“You’re about to be traded to Los Angeles,” she said.

L.A.

California. Home. I was going home.

I grew up in Manteca, a city about an hour away from the Bay Area, and I idolized the Sparks and the Sacramento Monarchs. I started out playing soccer and basketball, and even though I liked soccer a little bit more, when it came time to choose between the two sports, I chose basketball because I was better at it. I’d spend every day outside in my driveway playing against my brothers. When I’d play pick up, it was always against the guys — older ones at that.

I hadn’t lived there in a while. I went to college at Duke, played in Israel after my senior year and was now playing in Connecticut.

Now I was going back. Back to where, as a child, I used to write little poems to my mom. Back to where I used to ride around in the car with my brother singing along to every song that came on the radio — singing every word, including some I probably wasn’t supposed to know. Back home. Playing in front of my friends and my family.

Not only that, but I was going to a team with Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike. A team ready to compete for a title, right away.

When I got a text from Brian Agler, the coach of the Sparks, welcoming me to the team, I knew it was official.

I was a Spark. I couldn’t believe it, especially since, just a few years earlier, I had been pretty sure that I’d never play basketball again.

In 2013, my junior year at Duke, I went up for a rebound against Dearica Hamby of Wake Forest. Just a standard, everyday play. But when I came down my right leg buckled and I collapsed to the floor. Maybe you saw the injury, it’s up on YouTube. But fair warning: It’s pretty gruesome.

That amount of pain — the worst I’ve ever felt — all at once … I never want to feel that again.

I just remember rolling from side to side on the ground, grasping my knee. The moment it happened, I thought I’d torn my ACL. But the doctors who had rushed onto the court took one look at my knee and told me that I’d dislocated my kneecap — and that they needed to pop it back into place for it to heal correctly.

It was pretty clear that my season was over. I was devastated, but I wouldn’t let myself be defeated. I went through months and months of grueling rehab and physical therapy, working to get myself back on the court. When I saw that the season opener of my senior year was in Berkeley against Cal, I doubled down on my work. There was no way I was going to miss playing in front of my family and my friends.

I made it back in time for that opener, and I balled out. Twenty-two points, five assists and two steals to help take down the ninth-ranked team in the nation. More important, my knee felt totally fine. At least I thought it did.

Two months later, in a January home game against Boston College, I fell to the floor and heard a pop in that same knee. You never want to hear a pop. At the time, with my adrenaline pumping, I didn’t think it was that bad. I went to the bench, iced my knee, then went back into the game. I know, probably not the best idea, but I actually scored a few points before I started limping so bad I could barely move.

After the game, the doctors told me that I’d fractured my kneecap. I was out for the rest of the season.

I remember being back in my dorm room and crying uncontrollably.

I’ll never get to play with this team again.

I’ll never play in Cameron again.

I’ll never get to advance in the NCAA tournament.

Can I even play basketball anymore?

Even though I thought I my playing career was finished, there was one bright spot. As I was rehabbing back home in California, my old AAU coach, George Quintero, invited me to help coach his AAU team. I discovered that I really liked coaching. It was a way for me to stay connected to the game I loved. I honestly thought that I was going to pursue that as a career after school until, one day in the spring, I got a call from someone in the WNBA league office inviting me to attend the WNBA draft.

I was like, Wait, who? Me? Uh, are you sure you have the right person? The one who missed most of her junior and senior years of college?

When you’re invited to the draft, it means you’re probably going to be picked in the first round. But I hadn’t worked out for any teams or anything like that. I couldn’t — I was still rehabbing from my injury. On draft night, there I was with Chiney Ogwumike, and Kayla McBride. Women who had played all of their senior seasons and gone far in the NCAA tournament. I wasn’t sure I really belonged here.

The Connecticut Sun proved me wrong when they chose me with the 11th pick of the draft.

I was shocked. I remember thinking that the Sun took a chance on me, someone who probably wouldn’t be able to play her first year. I felt so overwhelmed and just … blessed. I felt blessed. That’s the only way I can put it.

But I still wasn’t healthy enough to suit up and play.

I spent what should have been my rookie season rehabbing my knee, and then I played pro ball in Israel during the off-season. When the 2015 WNBA season came around, I was ready to go. I came off the bench for the Sun and averaged almost seven points per game. More important, my knee felt great.

My rookie year wasn’t exactly smooth, though. For one, Connecticut just felt so different to me. I’d spent most of my life either in California or North Carolina, and Connecticut wasn’t either of those.

And then there was my changing role. When I wasn’t injured at Duke, I was one of the main players on the team. In Connecticut, I was coming off the bench, playing a lot less than I would like. It really took a toll on my confidence.

The biggest issue, to be honest, was my weight. See, in college, nearly your entire day is planned out, from sunrise to sunset. You don’t have a lot of free time, even in the off-season. But in the pros, you have so much time to yourself. That was new to me. I had to find ways to fill that time and, unfortunately for me, I filled it with food.

I gained weight. A lot of weight. Fast. By the time I realized it was a problem, it was basically too late and the season was almost over. I promised myself I’d never let that happen again. When I went overseas that summer, I worked tirelessly to get myself back into shape. That meant taking better care of my body and being careful about what I put into it. I still ate most things (you can’t just completely give up sweets — come on), but, you know, in moderation. By that next June, I was feeling pretty good about my body, and ready to get back to work in Connecticut.

That’s when my agent got the phone call. And that’s when I got to go to California. When I got to go home.

I like to say I have two homes, actually. My parents lived in Manteca, but I also had an aunt, my grandma and brothers in Oakland, so I spent a lot of time there, too, and consider it just as much of a home.

It didn’t matter that the Sparks were in L.A. It still felt like I was going back to where I belonged. It still felt like home.

The Sparks also made it feel like home from the very first day. Everyone welcomed me with open arms, from the players to the coaches. But open arms doesn’t mean they went easy on me. Coach Agler’s system was way different from Anne Donovan’s system in Connecticut. The plays were different, the terminology was different and their coaching styles were definitely different.

I’ll never forget one of my first practices with the team. We were scrimmaging through plays at full speed, and I turned the ball over with a bad pass. Coach Agler stopped the entire practice — like the entire gym fell silent — and he proceeded to tell me, emphatically, why that turnover shouldn’t have happened.

A few games into the 2016 season, we were breaking down film one day when Coach pointed out a defensive mistake I made in the last game. I told him I understood and wouldn’t let it happen again. Then he stopped the tape, rewound it, and broke down the sequence again. And again. And again.

I was like, I got it. I got it. I said, “I got it!”

But I understand why he did (and still does) all of that. He saw a lot in me, and so he expected a lot out of me. And it all paid off in last year’s finals. It was Game 5, and there was just no way we were going home without a title. We’d worked too hard to get there, put in too many hours in the mud to leave empty-handed. My team needed more from me, so I gave it to them. I scored 11 straight points in the third and fourth quarters, and we got our rings. I’m really glad it turned out that way, because before that little run, I’d made a few bad passes and committed a few turnovers. (Don’t worry, coach Agler definitely let me hear about them during the game.)

And while our season was over, I knew that I was only scratching the surface of what I could do.

Last year, I was coming off the bench with Jantel (she was the Sixth Woman of the Year last season, and I always used to joke that I was her plus-one), but this year, I’m starting. I’ve got more responsibilities, and as a result, I’m producing more. But I’ve got to give my teammates a lot of the credit for that. I mean, when I’m surrounded by players like Candace, Nneka, Jantel and Alana — waiting for a kick-out, forcing the defense’s hand — it’s definitely going to open up some lanes for me. I couldn’t ask for a better situation, or a better group of women to play with.

Through the first half of the season, my teammates and other players had been telling me I was playing at an All-Star level. I didn’t really pay attention. If anything, I thought they were kidding around. I mean, I knew I was playing well, but there are so many great players in this league that I wasn’t sure I’d made it.

Then, last Sunday, I got a call from Lisa Borders, the president of the WNBA. She congratulated me on being named to the All-Star team. I told her thank you, and I’m pretty sure I sounded calm, but in my head I was kind of freaking out.

I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was, how far I’d come since I thought my career was finished. I was an All-Star. Considered one of the best in the WNBA. My teammates were so happy for me, and they encouraged me to just enjoy this weekend.

And I’m going to, for sure. No way I’m taking this for granted. But once the All-Star break is over, it’s back to work, because we’re not satisfied with just one title. We’re a bit of a different team this year, but different doesn’t mean less talented. It doesn’t mean less hungry. We’re still going to attack every opportunity we get, we’ve still got the highest defensive intensity in the league.

And we’ve still got two former MVPs and five All-Stars.

Sorry. I mean six.

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