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Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Jacki Gemelos determined to recover

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Jacki Gemelos knows what you know and what you think and why you think it: This should be it for her.

Fate, faith, karma, none of those are important now. For the fourth time in six years the USC senior has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in one of her knees, twice on each side. For the fifth time in six years, she will have reconstructive knee surgery.

Jacki Gemelos
After already having endured five surgeries on four ACL injuries in three years, Jacki Gemelos suffered another injury Sunday. On Tuesday, results revealed a torn ACL.

Whether there is some message in her mangled injury history, or simply bad luck, it's difficult not to swallow hard on the thought that a basketball career that was once so bright just might not be meant to be.

Go ahead and think it -- she does too. Just don't tell her what to do next.

"I'm sure people are tired of my positive outlook on this and wondering, when is this girl going to give it up?" she said over the phone Tuesday evening, after an MRI confirmed she'd torn her left ACL on Sunday, effectively ending her season and a six-year college career in which she was able to play just 57 games.

"But I don't care. It's about myself and what I want out of life. I want to put on a WNBA jersey. That's what I've always wanted and I'm going to do it."

Every part of you is thinking she is setting herself up to be disappointed again. That WNBA teams aren't likely to have much interest in a 6-foot-1 point guard who has undergone five knee surgeries in six years, even if she was the No. 1 recruit in the country back in 2006, and even though she made it back far enough to be named to the Naismith Award watch list this season.

By now I'm sure you're wondering why she even wants to keep doing it. How she could love a game that has hurt her so badly? How she can still have faith in something that has done its best to destroy hers these last few years?

But maybe it's not important what comes next or whether she makes it to the WNBA one day. Too much of what we write about these days focuses on what a player does or does not accomplish. Not nearly enough looks at what they try to do.

"She loves the darn game so much," her father, Steve Gemelos, said. "But if someone is trying to tell you something possibly, time and time again, I think you have to pay attention to that and try and listen. I want to tell her, 'You've got nothing else to prove.'

"But I can't tell her that. And I won't tell her that."

He stopped himself and thought on it some more. His voice cracked as all the pride welling up inside choked him. The emotion and sadness and anger of the past 72 hours was overwhelming.

"But shoot, if she wants to try this one more time, I'll back her 100 percent. I'm pretty awed to have a daughter like her. I don't know what the right word is for what she has. I guess it's faith.

"I've never really had a passion like that. Or a drive. I'm just an average guy. I work as a grocery store clerk. So if she wants to try... if she wants to keep playing ... "

He left the thought hanging in the air and started flashing back on their life together. His daughter was a star the first time she dribbled a ball. He was her coach.

Every weekend was spent in a gym or on a blacktop court somewhere. Most days she dragged him out to play.

She committed to play for Connecticut when she was 15. By 16 she and her father were going to Sacramento Monarchs games and wondering if she'd be better off jumping straight to the professional ranks.

"We'd look at the end of the bench and, not to brag, but I'd be like, 'You can make this damn team right now,' " he recalled. "I guess when you feel you can make it at such a young age, maybe that's what's still driving her."

The knee injuries started when she was a high school senior at St. Mary's High in Stockton in 2006. Each of the next three years she suffered a new one. The last time was the cruelest, as she worked herself all the way back to play for USC in the 2009-10 season, only to discover her body had rejected the grafted ligament, and she'd have to start all over again.

She finally took the court on Feb. 4, 2010 against California, nearly five years after she suffered her first knee injury. From that point, she appeared in 57 games, averaging 11.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists. USC advanced to the 2011 Women's NIT Final.

Over the summer Gemelos helped the United States win a gold medal in the World University games. She was averaging 11 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists this season before she crumpled to the ground Sunday in a game at Texas A&M.

Although the diagnosis was just confirmed Tuesday, she said she knew immediately that her season, and college career, was over.

"I knew right when I came down," she said. "The tears, the screaming, the slamming the floor, that wasn't because it hurt.

"I'm so mad. I've never been more mad at an injury than this one. This time around I'm more mad than I am sad, which is saying a lot.

"But I'm not done. I can't walk away like this. I won't walk away like this."

There's a defiance in her voice, along with an anger.

But in order to hate something so much when it's taken away, you first have to love it even more.

I have no idea if that love will be enough for Gemelos to live out her dreams and play in the WNBA. But I don't think it matters, either. She's going to try.

"If this is where it ends, I'm pretty darn impressed," her father said. "Just for her will. Just for her will, man."

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