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Thursday, February 25, 2010
Updated: March 2, 9:35 PM ET
Postponed dreams

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

"Believe me, I've had some weird thoughts through all of this. Weird thoughts, like so weird you wonder if any human being ever thought those thoughts before.

"I'm a grocery store clerk, so I don't know about the science of these things. But one night I was thinking that maybe because I'm 6-foot-5 with long legs and kind of a short torso, and my wife is 5-5 with a long torso and kind of short legs, that maybe mechanically speaking as far as the body goes, maybe the long legs and the short legs made for bad knees?

"That's weird, right? But when something like this happens you run through every scenario in your mind.''

-- Steve Gemelos

She'd already fallen down the stairs once, hopping on one leg, a heavy backpack throwing off her center of gravity, her crutches in the way more than helpful.

After that, she'd wait a couple minutes to see if anyone came by and could help her.

The elevator the landlord had promised would be fixed four months ago still wasn't working. At the time it hadn't seemed like a big deal. But three weeks after knee surgery, when everything on the inside felt like a throbbing bowl of warm Jell-O and everything on the outside was stiff and swollen, it's all that mattered.

If no one came by, there was only one humiliating way down. On her butt. Sliding down backward, trying to keep her leg up so it didn't bump into anything. Stair, thump. Stair, thump.

Until someone came by to help her or her knee started feeling better, this was Jacki Gemelos' reality.

Jackie Jemelos
USC's Jacki Gemelos suffered her first ACL tear in March 2006 during a playoff game for St. Mary's High in Stockton, Calif.

This is what she'd been reduced to, and every second of it sucked.

The first time down the stairs was the worst, but there had been no other good choice. She'd cried all the way down, wondering if maybe her dad might have been right and she should think about retiring from basketball.

Nothing about what had happened to her the past three years felt right or just. The first knee injury was one thing. Maybe she was due after never even jamming a finger or spraining an ankle the first 17 years of her life? The second knee injury was heartbreaking, coming so close to the season after she'd worked so hard to come back.

This one? The third knee injury? The one that was making people start to wonder if she should just walk away? This was just wrong.

But nothing about giving up and saying goodbye to the sport she'd loved since she was 5 years old felt right, either.

The only thing that did feel good was to go to practice every day and try to shoot off one leg. She could hardly walk and really shouldn't have even tried. But the ball still felt good in her hands, sounded good bouncing up off the Galen Center court.

And if she closed her eyes, she didn't see her swollen, throbbing knee or the long road ahead, but a game sometime in the future, with lights and fans and referees, when she might be in uniform again.

"I could not have quit without playing in at least one game,'' she said. "I had to make it back, for one game at least.

"Just to see.''

'Not everybody gets to feel so passionate about something'

Three years ago, she'd been the best player in the country.

Not top-10. Not top-five. The best.

So good that nobody laughed when she committed to Connecticut at 15. Or thought twice about comparing her to UConn's greatest star, Diana Taurasi.

But being the girl she had been three years earlier made being the girl on her butt at the top of the staircase that much harder.

USC came into the picture late, in the fall of her senior year, when she realized she wanted her parents to be in the stands at every home game, not just watch her on TV. It was the right choice -- it still is -- but everything that came afterward had gone so horribly wrong that it made her ask some weird questions.

Questions about fate. What did she ever do to deserve one so cruel?

Questions about destiny. Why does this keep happening to her?

Questions about persistence. Why should she come back after everything?

Questions about ability. Could she?

At first those answers seemed important, knowable, if she just reasoned hard enough. Everyone who cared about her -- parents, friends, coaches -- did the same thing, trying to think it out, to justify this.

After a while, though, it became counterproductive, like driving around the same roundabout 2,000 times, trying to read street signs in a foreign language.

This isn't about how much it hurt when she tore her right anterior cruciate ligament twice and her left ACL once. Or the pain of five knee surgeries in four years.

Forget that. Anyone can tear a knee ligament, or can grade the pain on a scale of one to 10 for an ER nurse.

This isn't even about the frustration of being the best player in the country but having to wait four years to play your first collegiate game.

Forget that, too. Anyone can have setbacks and challenges that postpone their dreams.

The only thing that mattered was what went through her head every day at the top of the staircase: Did she still love the game enough to put her body through what it would take to play again?

Gemelos never wavered.

"I guess I just think that not everybody gets to feel so passionate about something in life,'' she said simply. "I'm fortunate for that.

"It's something I want to pursue as long as it takes, no matter what it takes, because I only get one shot at this and I want to see what I can do. ''

'We knew how special Jacki was'

The target date had been set -- in pencil, or maybe even just verbally with everyone in the room knocking on wood as soon as the words were uttered so as not to jinx anything. Feb. 4, in Berkeley, against California. Shh ...

She'd been close to a comeback before. Not this close, but close enough to set a date, and then things had gone horribly wrong. So this time no one was taking any chances.

USC even worried about including Gemelos' return in the advance game notes for that week.

Every time she jumped up for a rebound that week in practice, her teammates held their breath. A few even admitted to trying not to make too much contact with her in drills.

It felt like if she could just make it on to the court for the Trojans game against Cal that everything would be OK. No matter what happened after that, she had to make it on to the court that first time.

This hadn't been just her struggle. It was all of theirs. As a team, as friends, as a program that had hopes of recapturing its past glory when the No. 1 recruit in the nation de-committed from Connecticut and chose to go to USC in fall 2005.

"We were just coming off a second-round tournament appearance when Jacki decided to sign with us,'' former coach Mark Trakh said. "And I just thought with her charisma and her ability, it was going to be a great way to open the Galen Center the next year. We knew how special Jacki was."

They were going to have future WNBA player Eshaya Murphy back, future All-Pacific 10 Conference point guard Camille LeNoir, Brynn Cameron, who ended her career as the school's top three-point shooter, and Gemelos. Said Trakh: "That year we would've made a big, big mark in college basketball."

Jemelos/Cooper
Gemelos, talking with USC women's coach Michael Cooper, would often limp into the Galen Center to shoot baskets off one foot while her knee injuries healed.

Then came her first knee injury. Gemelos remembers every detail. Dates, seconds left of the game clock, everything.

"It was the last game of my senior year in high school [at St. Mary's High in Stockton, Calif.] and we were playing El Camino in the second round of the playoffs,'' she said coolly, without any detectable emotion. "March 9, 2006.

"I remember it was still in the first quarter, there were eight seconds left and I got the ball. I dribbled up the left-hand side of the court with my left hand, and in about three seconds, one of the girls from El Camino pushed me from behind. I wouldn't say it was intentional or anything, just to foul. I used my right leg to stop my momentum from falling and I hyperextended it.

"I just remember kind of hopping on my left leg thinking I was OK, then this instant rush of pain just shot to my knee and I fell to the ground in tears. I didn't know that I tore my ACL, but I knew something was definitely wrong, something that had never happened to me before.''

There were a few hours that first night when everyone allowed themselves to believe it might not be that bad. Maybe a sprain or a torn meniscus or something that would keep her out a month or two. By early the next day, the verdict was in and it was not good.

Not only would Gemelos miss the rest of her senior season in high school and another chance at winning a state title, she could potentially miss her freshman season at USC, too.

"It was really devastating for me,'' she said. "I had such a good senior year and I thought that would be perfect momentum to lead me into my freshman year at USC. It was just something I'd never ever had to experience in my life and the thought of having to redshirt my freshman year was devastating.''

'I knew something had gone wrong'

The second injury, in fall 2007, might've been even worse. But looking back on it, Gemelos finds it pointless to rank her knee injuries in terms of devastation.

"The second time, when I reinjured the same knee, that was very, very hard for me because I felt like after the first time I was playing the best basketball of my life,'' she said.

The third knee injury happened in fall 2008, and everyone started to wonder whether she was cursed.

"I mean, there were 10 seconds left in practice and I was just trying to take that last shot when my left knee completely gave out on me,'' she said. "I remember thinking to myself, 'This could be something that might end my career.'''

That thought lingered a while, uncomfortably. How could it not?

But eventually it faded under the always-bright image of what it'd be like to put that cardinal-and-gold jersey on for the first time and hear her name called by a PA announcer again.

By now, she knew the steps of the rehabilitation process well. The time frame, the awful one-legged squats they made her do to build the strength in her leg back up, the pity-filled looks from people when they saw her back on the scooter, knee elevated, driving to class again because she couldn't walk.

"I feel like I know a lot of physical therapy terms,'' she jokes. "I could honestly, legitimately hold a conversation with a physical therapist because I've been around it for four years.''

As terrible as the process was, the familiarity was oddly comforting.

But this time was different. Six-and-a-half months in, after she'd already been running again and shooting a basketball, her doctors noticed something was off and scheduled an exploratory surgery to figure out what it was.

The procedure was supposed to start around noon and take about half an hour. When Gemelos woke up, though, the clock said everything.

"It was like 4:30 [p.m.],'' she said, this time shuddering at the thought. "It was too long. I knew something had gone wrong. When the doctor came in and told me what happened, I started hyperventilating.''

Her body had rejected the ligament that doctors had grafted from a cadaver on to her left knee 6½ months earlier. It was completely gone. Dissolved. And everything had to start over again.

'I didn't want her to be crippled when she gets older'

As a father, it killed him to see his youngest daughter suffer. Those nights when she'd call at 1 a.m. -- knowing he was just starting his job at the Food 4 Less supermarket in Lodi, Calif., where he'd worked graveyard shifts for the past 26 years -- and just cry into the phone. It killed him not to be able to hop in his car and drive down Interstate 5 as fast as he could and make it all go away.

Usually she was just down and needed to talk. Except the one night early on in her freshman year, when she called screaming and crying so loud he could hardly tell what she was saying, upset that she couldn't get into the Galen Center to go shoot baskets off one foot.

"I think she was supposed to meet a custodian who'd give her the keys and he didn't show up,'' Steve Gemelos said. "That about broke my heart.''

But it's also what he always reminded himself of in the low moments later on, when he questioned if he should step in and tell her to stop playing.

He'd coached her since she was 5. Taught her everything he knew about the game. Holding a broom up in front of her face so she'd learn to shoot over people. Running though shooting drills whenever she wanted, even if he'd just come home from a graveyard shift and gotten no sleep. At first he pushed her to outwork everyone and toughen up by playing in boys' leagues, but after a while that came from within and she kept getting better and better.

"It got to the point, as much as I hate to admit it, that I didn't want her to be crippled when she gets older,'' he said. "When my doctor told me that my knees were better than hers, and I'm a 56-year-old man, that was tough.

"But you know ... I was just a better-than-average player growing up. I played two years at Weber State before coming home. Then I played professionally in Greece for a while. But I was never as good as she was. I mean, she never got outplayed. Not in high school or AAU ball or at USA Basketball camps. She always kept up with everyone, no matter who she played.

I have no idea how it feels to be as good as she was. I know how hard she worked to get to that level. But I have no idea what it's like to be the best and then not to get to prove it.

-- Steve Gemelos, father of USC guard Jacki Gemelos

"I have no idea how it feels to be as good as she was. I know how hard she worked to get to that level. But I have no idea what it's like to be the best and then not to get to prove it.''

At one point, he did crack. All those weird thoughts getting the best of him. Had he pushed her too hard growing up? Maybe they shouldn't have played so many games on blacktop courts? Maybe playing with the boys was too physical? Maybe it was his genes? Or the combination of his long legs and his wife's short legs?

His head was spinning as fast as his heart was sinking. He went to his daughter and told her she should quit.

"After the third one I told her if she got hurt again, I wasn't gonna let her play anymore,'' he said. "I'd never said that to her before.

"She just said, 'That's not your decision' and put me in my place.''

Though Jacki's mother, Linda, doesn't come from a sports background, she understood better than anyone what she was going through.

Ten years ago, Linda Gemelos beat back, breast and ovarian cancer. Five surgeries in four years, each of them for her life.

"That was pretty scary because the girls were so little then. It was just scary, but you're just not ready to give up so you do what you have to do,'' Linda Gemelos said. "So when people would say [about Jacki] 'You're her mom, why don't you make her stop?' I knew I could never do that.

"There's just no way you can make your child unhappy like that. I would never do that. I'd never tell her that. You can't tell your child to stop doing something they love. She'd get down sometimes, but she'd never stop fighting.''

'I knew she'd never quit'

Amber Garcia doesn't play basketball or get basketball. She just knows Jacki Gemelos as her roommate and best friend. And she remembers those days at the apartment building when the elevator didn't work, when Gemelos would have to go up and down the stairs on her butt if Garcia wasn't there to help her hop on one leg.

At a petite 5-1 Garcia wasn't much help, but it was better than the alternative, and they always laughed about it afterward.

"You kind of have to keep it light,'' Garcia said. "People would ask her about whether she was going to retire and she'd start crying. So I figured it was better not to bring it up or talk too much about it.''

Jemelos
Jacki Gemelos made her USC debut Feb. 4 against California. She has at least two years of eligibility left.

No, the best thing to do was just ask if she wanted to go shoot late at night at the Galen Center.

A game of H-O-R-S-E between a 5-1 novice and the former No. 1 recruit in the country shooting off one leg.

"We'd go like three times a week,'' Garcia said. "I had no idea what she was doing. I think there were drills or something. She just kept shooting and it'd go in. Then we'd play H-O-R-S-E.''

Trakh was never there for any of this, but he knew how hard Gemelos was working.

"You can tell how much a kid loves to play by what they do when nobody is watching,'' he said. "Jacki was always working on her game, no matter who was watching. That's what made her so good, that's what made her so skilled. While she was hurt, she never missed a practice. She was always there, off to the side, shooting and doing whatever she could do.

"All kids like to play in games, in front of the crowd and hear their name called. But she goes to practice when nobody is there because she loves the game so much. She goes in the gym by herself and stays there for hours.''

As heartbreaking as each knee injury was, Trakh said he never doubted Gemelos would make it back someday.

"She just loves the game so much,'' he said. "I knew she'd never quit.''

When he resigned last spring, his biggest regret was never getting to coach Gemelos. Still, he kept track of her progress.

As the target date got closer, everyone's anticipation and apprehension grew.

Teammates tried to act normally, but it felt like the seventh inning of a no-hitter.

"We were all holding our breaths,'' said Stefanie Gilbreath, who has also struggled with a series of knee injuries. "But for some reason, this time just felt different.

"Just the vibe around both of us and our rehab, we stayed positive like the whole time. We tried not to take any steps back, and just keep saying this is the date it's going to happen. Just know that and don't worry about it.''

Gemelos herself was remarkably calm. Excited, but calm. She'd done this enough times to know the consequences of another injury, but figured her chances of getting hurt were actually higher if she played tense or cautious.

"It's basketball and I only know how to play basketball one way and that's the way I've been playing it since I was a little kid,'' she said, defiantly.

Each day closer to Feb. 4 felt like a victory.

Then all of a sudden she was on a plane with the team, heading up to the Bay Area. Shootaround in the morning, then a game at Cal at night.

It was going to happen.

'I always knew I'd get to that day, that I'd get back'

She was the best. Not top-10, not top-five. The best high school basketball player in the county. So it's hard to put yourself in Jacki Gemelos' shoes. Or even come close to feeling what she felt the night she finally took the court. Four years delayed, the dream still as sweet.

Those who were there that night use words like "beaming'' and "miracle.''

Gemelos' smile when she talked about that night said it all.

Joy.

The box score is irrelevant: eight points, five assists and five rebounds in 28 minutes. She'd made it through. And she'd made it back.

"You could tell she was scared and nervous,'' her mother said. "She didn't even know all the plays. But it was so fun to see her smile like that again.''

In the seven games she's played this season, she's averaged 9.4 points in 22.4 minutes. Officially she's a redshirt junior, but because of her unusual circumstances, she has at least two years of athletic eligibility left after this year. She plans to use as much as she can.

Because now that she's got her game, now that she's seen what it's like and gotten this taste back in her mouth, she wants more.

That fire never died; it just smoldered for a long time. Even while she was at the top of the stairs, humbled and nearly broken, deciding whether to slide down on her butt. Even when she woke up at 4:30 p.m. after that fourth surgery and knew she had to start over once again.

"I always knew I'd get to that day, that I'd get back,'' she said. "Now that I'm back and I've played and I've seen where I'm at, I want to be one of the best players in the country again. I want to play professionally and in Europe. That's been my goal since I was 7 years old, and it's never changed.''

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.