Appel still climbing back from April
Injuries have slowed start to Stanford star's rookie season in San Antonio
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Jayne Appel gathered the entry pass with her back to the basket, the forearm pressing on the small of her back a redundant reminder that a sizable obstacle otherwise known as Tina Charles still stood between her and two points. A glance over her left shoulder provided all the reconnaissance required -- no double-team coming, Charles playing her straight up. Appel pivoted, turned into the lane and slid a shot around her foe's long arms.
The ball hit the back of the cylinder, traversed the ridgeline of the rim for a second and finally spun over the edge, falling harmlessly away.
We've been here before.
But this play wasn't something out of a nightmare everyone remembers and Appel would rather forget. This one didn't come with the vice president of the United States in the stands. It didn't come in San Antonio with Appel's team, supposedly a bigger underdog than the occupants of the nearby Alamo were, seemingly on the verge of a stunning win.
It instead came during the U.S. national team's practice Friday at the Mohegan Sun Casino, a short drive from the University of Connecticut campus and a long way from the Alamodome in San Antonio. And a little more than three months to the day after Appel missed all 12 of her field goal attempts during Stanford's 53-47 loss to Connecticut in the national championship game, the brief moment of déjà vu stood in stark contrast to just how much Appel's world has changed in less than 100 days.
There's not much time to heal physically from the injuries that left Appel playing on basically one leg by the end of the college season, but there's even less time to dwell on what happened. Life goes on. And Charles is always going to be out there -- thankfully only metaphorically most of the time, given the fits Appel's longtime friend gives people in the post.
What's done is done, no matter how many times ESPNU wants to show the replay.
"I still can't watch the final game," Appel said. "I won't watch it."
That she has the opportunity to relive that championship game at the insistence of fans in advance of Saturday's game between Team USA and the WNBA All-Stars is not without its own story. Fans voted her onto the WNBA roster (a part of USA Basketball's extended player pool, she also was one of a handful of non-roster players who practiced with Geno Auriemma's national team), despite a rookie season that is short of All-Star standards by any objective measure.
Slowed by injuries after the Silver Stars selected her fifth in the first round of the WNBA draft, Appel is averaging just 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11 appearances. She had her most prolific game as a professional just before the break, scoring 10 points in 19 minutes against Minnesota, but she owes this appearance to her jersey more than stats.
"A little surprising," Appel said of her place alongside three other Silver Stars in Saturday's game, the grin on her face an acknowledgement that didn't require a Berlitz guide to translate.
And no, it doesn't make it right, but there is something nonetheless poetic about fortune smiling on the former Stanford star thanks to fans in San Antonio stuffing the ballot box. The Silver Stars don't play in the Alamodome, site of the title game, and Appel contended it was a stranger sensation going to Connecticut for a USA Basketball camp a few days after the NCAA championship game than it was going back to San Antonio to begin her professional career a few weeks later. But if only in terms of karma, the city owed her something after that night in April.
Appel was a physical mess by the time the Cardinal reached the title game. The semifinal against Oklahoma was the first game in the tournament she didn't get an injection beforehand to numb the pain related to a stress fracture in her foot and a long-standing ankle sprain. After she reinjured the ankle against the Sooners, she again had to face the needle, in addition to other pain medication, before taking the court against Charles and the Huskies.
"Not only was I kind of physically a little scared, but mentally, my mind was kind of foggy," Appel said. "It was definitely a painful thing, but like I said, there was no way I wasn't going to play through it."
The Cardinal led the unbeaten Huskies at the half behind production from Kayla Pedersen and Nnemkadi Ogwumike, but they didn't have their familiar broad-shouldered, pink-fingernailed answer when Maya Moore and Charles took control in the second half.
"It was frustrating, to go scoreless my first game ever -- [for it] to be the national championship game my senior year," Appel said. "All I can say is I left every bit of emotion, heart, effort on the floor for my teammates, trying not to let them down."
Less than 48 hours later, she was a professional. As she put it, in the span of about a week, she went from living with more than 50 women in a sorority house at Stanford to living by herself and cooking for herself in a new city. It was a tornado of activity -- unlike the real tornado, or at least tornado warning, she experienced on a road trip to Tulsa -- but she was in the decidedly uncomfortable nothingness in the eye of the storm, no longer a part of the world most of her teammates returned to as students but not able to wholely immerse herself in her new life because of the injuries that prevented her from participating fully in training camp or the preseason.
The slowest month of her life finally passed, and she is getting back to something resembling full health, even if she's not there yet. And if Appel didn't earn her place on the All-Star roster, there still is a very real chance she could earn a place with Team USA, given its needs in the post.
One of the first things Appel did after being drafted was ask Team USA guard Kara Lawson for tips on how to handle the demands of a professional basketball lifestyle. Lawson doesn't give any quarter on the court, but she will always offer counsel to a teammate or opponent off the court, starting with the day-to-day recovery process needed to make it through a season and a career.
"We're a league and we're a sport that's still trying to fight for notoriety and fight for respect," Lawson said. "So we need every player in our league to be putting their best foot forward every night that they play."
If Appel gets her best foot back, she can help do that. And neither one bad night in San Antonio nor the city's ballot-happy fans will define her.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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