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From Dime 72: Jacki Gemelos’ Last Shot

This feature was originally printed in Dime 72. Check your local newsstands now to see the piece in its entirety…

There was a time when Jacki Gemelos was thought to be the first high school player who could potentially go straight to the WNBA. But after enduring five devastating ACL reconstructions in the last six years, Jacki Gemelos improbably still has one last shot at making her WNBA dreams come true.

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Jacki Gemelos sat in her apartment by herself, hands clasped on her lap in front of the T.V., hearing the faint clack of her shoe nervously tapping the ground as she watched the first and second rounds of the 2012 WNBA draft go by last April.

Selected were women who as girls Jacki remembered lighting up in high school games. Some were the recipients of her spectacular no-look passes and some could never catch them. Others were part of triple teams that Jacki effortlessly split. Over 20 names were called of girls who were ranked behind Jacki at St. Mary’s (Stockton) high school, where her flare passing the ball in transition triggered comparisons to “Pistol” Pete Maravich.

The third round approached. Over a decade of her life hinged upon the league president’s words and yet one night, nightmarishly kept coming back to her: December 18, 2011, when she tore her ACL for the fifth time in six years as a USC senior a game against Texas A&M.

The draft – her moment – played out much differently in her head when she was younger.
At 15, the dominant, 6-0 point guard became the youngest girl ever to commit to UConn. In 2006, the McDonald’s All-American averaged 39.2 points, 8.9 assists, and 6.5 rebounds a game. Jacki once scored 52 points in a high school game, able to get her shot whenever she wanted. She was dominant. Some professional scouts even thought Jacki could do what girl’s didn’t do: bypass college altogether and become a first-round pick in the WNBA.

Now, more than five years later, she just prayed to be one of the 36 names called. After playing just one full season for the Trojans in 2010-11, she averaged 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game and received All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention, leading the conference in three-point percentage with 42.4 percent. Nice numbers, but hardly where Jacki and everyone else had always assumed she’d be.

And with the 31st pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, the Minnesota Lynx select… Jacki Gemelos, USC.

There were no streamers, no hugs from family standing around a big table for ESPN cameras to record, no league president’s hand to shake, and certainly no jersey to hold up before a podium. There was just silence—loud enough to contain six years of struggle, surgeries and setbacks — and one long exhale of joy.

“The second my name came up on the screen I called my parents and everyone was crying,” Gemelos says. “I may not have been a first-round draft pick like I always thought I would be before all of this happened, but I got there.

“It was all worth it.”

Will it be?

Being a third-rounder is as unstable as the fragmented ligaments in Jacki’s knees, especially in a league where rosters max at 11 players and teams struggle to garner long-term profits.

The Lynx hold Jacki’s rights, but she must compete for a spot on the team in training camp this April, her last shot at the professional career she’d dreamed about since she was seven.

“I sometimes think of not playing basketball,” she says, stopping a moment, as if taking in the fact that she’s almost 24 and no longer seven and wide-eyed. “It just gives me a nervous feeling in my stomach. It’s something I can’t do yet. There’s just something that’s holding on to still play.”

***

Growing up in Stockton, Jacki attended almost every Sacramento Monarchs game with her dad, Steve Gemelos, who first put the ball in her hands after having played professionally in Greece.

Summers weren’t summers without basketball. Running around from AAU tournament to practice to league games with her dad and mother Linda, Jacki had tunnel vision: she was among the first generation of girl’s basketball players to grow up with a professional league already in place, and was determined to make her mark on it someday.

After the reign of Cheryl Miller (Riverside), Cynthia Cooper (South Central), and Lisa Leslie (Inglewood), Southern California became even more of a hotbed for girl’s basketball when Diana Taurasi (Chino) took over for the next generation. Next in line, Jacki would be the most heralded player from NorCal. She never thought about a plan B, especially since it seemed she was going to follow in Taurasi’s footsteps as the next UConn phenom.

“My parents always told me, ‘Make sure you have a plan B, you never know what could happen,'” Jacki says. “But I just brushed them off. I never thought anything bad was going to happen.”

Until it did. In a playoff game during her senior season, Jacki tore the ACL in her right knee for the first time. This was the first injury of her entire career.

***

As one of the most highly-touted recruits for the Women of Troy, Jacki redshirted her freshman year in 2006-07 to rehabilitate fully.

Yet in offseason workouts, she tore the same ACL, sidelining her again for another year (2007-08).

The hits kept coming. Just before the start of the 2008-09 season, she tore the ACL in her left knee for the first time, missing her junior year. After completing rehab for the third time, and ready to begin her senior year (2009-10), the training staff discovered that during rehab on her left knee, her body had rejected the graft used to repair the tear, leading to yet another reconstruction, her fourth.

Jacki fought her way back and eventually made her college debut at Cal on Feb. 4, 2010, scoring eight points, five rebounds and five assists, but played just 11 games that season.

A Division I athlete is only as good as their body is healthy. To play at that level, the body is put under the most grueling duress of conditioning, weight training, healthy eating and competition. And to someone who spent years conditioning her body to perform at the highest level, Jacki thought her body had failed her.

Nothing she could do could make her knees feel like they did when she was a child, running around the court, laughing, jumping and never stopping. They became either too stiff or too loose. A mix of jelly and concrete. Never right, and never going to be again.

Hit page 2 to read about her future WNBA prospects…

According to a 2010 study by Dr. Timothy E. Hewett in the November issue of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) Now, female athletes involved in pivoting or jumping sports (such as basketball) are 2-to-10 times more susceptible to ACL injuries than their male counterparts. Hewett cited biomechanic and neuromuscular factors to be among the causes.

She watched her basketball career slip away.

“There were doubts,” she says. “Not so much after the first or second injury. But the third, fourth, or fifth time, I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m capable of doing this anymore.'”

She started to retrace her choices the way a coach tries to figure out why his team lost by one point on a last-second shot. What if she would have gone to Storrs, Connecticut, sticking to her original commitment to Coach Geno Auriemma, after backing out to be closer to home?

“Who knows how another program would have reacted to all of this?” she says. “That thought in my head, if I went to UCONN, would I still have done it two, three, four or even five times? Of course that’s in my mind.

“But the fact is, I didn’t go there, and I did go to USC, and I truly feel it’s the best decision I ever made in my life.”

The type of loyalty she received at USC is impressive. At that level of athletics, you can argue that athletes are bodies first, people/students second. And yet her scholarship was never revoked, her surgeries never rushed, her relationships never strained. USC supported not one degree, but two. After receiving her bachelor’s in sociology, she pursued a master’s in gerontology for the next two years while continuing to play ball.

As a first-year graduate student, Jacki played her first full season in 2010-11, establishing herself as a leader on the team. USC compiled the most wins since 1994, going to the 2011 WNIT Finals. That summer Jacki even made the 2011 Team USA World University Games team, winning a gold medal alongside premier players like Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne. She was even named to the Naismith Award Early-Season Watch List.

Moving, flowing and even sprinting—playing rather than thinking. Jacki entered back into her space on the court and never wanted to leave.

Until it was all taken away again quicker than it came.

***

She knew. As soon as Jacki hit the floor in December of her final year of graduate school, a look to the training staff said it all: they all knew. That pop. That pain. This had to be the end.

The possibility of cracking a WNBA roster faded from the consciousness of the people closest to her after she ran out of NCAA eligibility. Her parents wanted her to walk away from the game for good.

“Her Mom [Linda] and I assumed that it was finally over,” says Steve Gemelos. “We felt pretty strongly that she should move on, and get into coaching or something like that; anything besides playing.”

Jacki didn’t want to be one of those — a could have been, a should have been. If she didn’t try one last time, she’d wonder “what if” for the rest of her life. Steve and Linda had no choice but to support her.

Many call her crazy. Even stupid, saying she’ll be lucky to be walking at 40. “Don’t you know it’s just a game?” follows her wherever she goes.

But it’s not. Not to her, at least.

“Everybody has a dream, and mine happens to play in the WNBA,” says Jacki. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but I’m doing this for myself. I have to do this.”

So what if she doesn’t make the Lynx roster come training camp?

“To be honest it scares the hell out of me,” says Steve. “It’ll be devastating for all of us. We want it for her, not for us. I have lived vicariously through her as an ex-player but at this point, we just want her to be happy.

“I don’t have the courage or perserverance or inner-strength that she does,” Steve continues. “It’s just mind-boggling. Just for her to go through those surgeries and rehabs, and after all of that hard work and pain and suffering, it just blows me away that she’s still playing.”

Along the way, Jacki has had to accept that she may not get off the ground like she used to, or turn the corner as quickly or as swiftly as she used to, but the ball still feels a part of her hand, the net still welcomes her shot.

“I’m used to people saying, ‘She was so good’ or ‘She could have been this or that,'” says Jacki. “This is my game now. I may not be the player I used to be, but that’s what I’m learning to live with, to accept the new me.”

It has taken her between eight and 12 months to heal from her previous ACL injuries. Currently working out at USC with long-time trainer John Meyer, Jacki is almost cleared to begin again at full-speed.

While rehabbing last summer, the Lynx reached the 2012 WNBA Finals for the second consecutive year before losing to the Indiana Fever 3-1 for the title.

With more women playing basketball than ever before, why would one of the WNBA’s most competitive franchises take a chance on one of the most vulnerable players in the 2012 Draft class?

“Jacki’s one heck of a basketball player,” says Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “That’s always first and foremost why you draft someone. And second, given all that she’s been through, having an opportunity to at least try to have a professional career, we thought it was important to give her that opportunity.

“She certainly has shown a lot of perserverance. We think she would still have the opportunity at her size and skillset to see what she can do.”

After finishing the regular season 27-7 for the league’s best record, the Lynx are determined to reclaim the championship.

“I’d say it’s a very bad taste in our mouth,” says Reeve. “I’d be very surprised if we weren’t really hungry to try to get that championship back in Minny. I’ve got winners on this team. Every time we’ve fallen short we’ve always been a group that comes back together and tries to do better.”

Sounds like Jacki will fit right in.

What do you think?

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