Crossley enjoying new role with Shock

TULSA, Okla. -- A year ago, Shanna Crossley had to wonder if maybe she just wasn't getting the message. After a shoulder operation -- "By far, the worst thing I've gone through painwise" -- in 2007 and an ACL injury and surgery in 2008, Crossley was in terrific shape and figured she had navigated the toughest rapids of her WNBA career. Surely nothing more was going to swamp her boat, right?

But then at the start of the 2009 season in San Antonio, she suffered a torn meniscus in the same knee (left) in which she'd torn the ACL.

"At that point, I thought maybe I was done with basketball," Crossley, a 5-foot-10 guard, said. "I had worked so hard on the ACL, had gotten my trust back in my knee. But then it went out again on me. And I was starting to question how many more surgeries I could go through. But I still had the drive and desire."

That got her through rehab once again, and she finished the second part of the season. She was looking forward to her fourth season with the Silver Stars in 2010, and entered the spring feeling 100 percent healthy. But then …

No, not another injury. Instead, a proposed change in locale. Crossley heard that the Tulsa Shock, having moved from Detroit, were interested in her.

"Initially, I didn't want to go," she admitted. "But the more I thought about it, I realized the opportunity that lay ahead for me, personally, by not being Becky [Hammon's] backup. She's one of faces of the league, and no matter how much I improved, I wasn't going to get the chance I wanted to get in San Antonio."

So here she is in Oklahoma, one of three Shock players to start all five games thus far. And was anyone expecting that a couple of weeks into the season, Tulsa would have more victories (two) than the Los Angeles Sparks (one)?

For Crossley, the trade that sent her to Tulsa for Crystal Kelly might not have been obviously beneficial at first glance, but it quickly became something she appreciated. Crossley can't stand the stereotype tag that has sometimes been assigned to her: spot-up shooter. And she realized that Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson, with no previous experience coaching women's basketball, had no preconceived notions about her.

"He doesn't care who you are or what your reputation was; to him you're just a basketball player," she said. "That's what's great about it."

Crossley -- known as Shanna Zolman before getting married after her WNBA rookie season of 2006 -- also found the town of Tulsa and the enthusiasm about the team to be well-suited to her.

"I'm definitely a country girl," she said. "I'm not into the big city. When I'm not playing basketball, I want to be outside, on a lake, in a park. So Tulsa was easy for me to adjust to.

"And the most exciting part of Tulsa is that the fan support is like a college atmosphere. Coach Richardson is like a basketball god here, and people love his style of play. Even though it's a brand-new organization here, they treat us like rock stars. I hadn't experienced it like this before in the league."

Of course, when Crossley compares the atmosphere to college, that's very strong praise, considering she went to Tennessee.

Crossley is from Syracuse, Ind., in the north-central part of the Hoosier state, and is part of the legacy of great high school girls' hoops in Indiana. A huge part, in fact. At Wawasee High, she scored more points (3,085) in her prep career than any other Indiana schoolgirl. In second and third place behind her on that list are former Purdue star Stephanie White (now an assistant with the Chicago Sky) and Notre Dame rising sophomore Skylar Diggins.

At Tennessee, Crossley scored 1,706 points. San Antonio picked her early in the second round of the WNBA draft (No. 16 overall) in 2006. And then she began the odyssey that is professional basketball. Some players figure out a way to stay in the game, others don't.

Crossley had a solid rookie season for the Silver Stars, averaging 6.6 points. Then, prior to the next season, San Antonio acquired Hammon via trade. That helped boost the Silver Stars to the 2007 Western Conference finals, where in an exciting and pivotal Game 1, Crossley got whistled for a controversial foul on Cappie Pondexter in the closing seconds of a tie game with Phoenix.

It was one of those "oh, no" moments -- unless you were a fan of the Mercury. Hammon had just hit a 3-pointer to tie the score, it had been a particularly thrilling final minute of regulation, and it appeared the game was headed to overtime. That seemed like an appropriate ending for a terrific contest.

However, the call came. Pondexter hit her free throws, then Crossley missed a heave at the buzzer. And with that, the Mercury were up 1-0 and headed back to Phoenix, where they would wrap up the series and eventually win the WNBA title.

Many viewers thought that Pondexter had simply slipped, and that Crossley actually just tried to get out of her way. But that was little consolation for Crossley, who afterward was beating herself up about having been close enough to Pondexter to have been called for the foul.

Still, Crossley was gracious in talking about it, even managing some wry humor when asked how much she was probably going to agonize over it for the rest of that night.

"Let's say I feel bad for my husband tonight," she said.

Andrew Crossley met Shanna while both were student-athletes at Tennessee; he played football. So he understood, of course, how games don't always "end" for a competitor until long after they're over.

What observers probably didn't realize, though, was just how much physical pain Crossley had been playing with then. She'd had a torn labrum in her right (shooting) shoulder for quite a while and had been gutting it out until the season was over.

She had surgery in September 2007, followed by several months of having to sleep sitting upright with her arm in a sling. Then range-of-motion torture began. Followed by the humbling experience of starting to shoot again and being unable, initially, to even make a layup.

"The first time I shot, I was right under the rim and couldn't get the ball up there," she said. "My arm was like a noodle. But once they said, 'OK, you're good to go,' I was out on the floor for hours trying to get it back. I tried not to let myself get down with it. Had a lot of time to work on it and play pickup, and by the time the season started, it was feeling fine."

Then -- bam -- the ACL, which happened during a two-on-two practice drill. At first, Crossley didn't even think she was hurt badly, and neither did the trainer. A subsequent MRI revealed the truth: a partial ACL tear. Still, Crossley opted to try to wear a brace on the knee and see if she could play. Within about 20 seconds of the first preseason game in 2008, though, she felt it tear completely.

And with that came the loss of a whole season. "Absolutely devastating," she said.

Another long stretch of months filled with rehab followed. But she undertook it, and again felt very good starting the 2009 season. Then the meniscus tear, and the wondering if somehow Providence was saying, "It's time to let go of basketball."

But she was able to heal enough to play in 19 games for the Silver Stars last season. And now, she looks back on all the injuries and wonders if maybe there was some benefit to them, as strange as it sounds. She thinks the time she spent rehabbing was also time for personal growth.

Physical difficulties are not the only things that can hamper professional athletes. Emotional issues sometimes can be almost as debilitating. In Crossley's case, she acknowledges that making a marriage work while you're pursuing a pro sports career can be very hard -- and at times has been for her and Andrew.

"Being in a committed relationship is very taxing because basketball itself is so demanding," she said. "Marriage by itself can be overwhelming to anybody. Then you have travel, trying to get your rest, having the right frame of mind.

"It's a lot to deal with. And I know he takes the brunt of it because he's asked to just deal with it. He has to say, 'OK, I know she's just tired,' when I might be acting like a jerk. But I know I have to show my respect to him, too, and remember that regardless of what's going on with basketball, he's my husband and I need to treat him fairly."

At the same time, though, she says Andrew really does understand the importance of basketball in her life and how seriously she takes every aspect of it.

"He didn't marry me to change who I am and what I do," she said. "He always accepted that."

Crossley is now playing many more minutes (25.8 per game) than in any of her previous seasons, while averaging 9.4 points and 2.4 assists. With the Shock, she's reunited with former Tennessee teammate Alexis Hornbuckle. And Crossley jokes it is the sacred duty of all who formerly wore the orange to teasingly speculate -- in the grizzled fashion of, "We used to walk 10 miles through blizzards to get to school!" -- about whether coach Pat Summitt goes easier on today's kiddos.

Crossley knows there is still plenty of building that must happen in Tulsa. And she feels very happy to be a part of that. Especially considering how close she felt at times in the past few years to possibly having to give this up.

"Basketball is still fun, it's still a release for me," she said. "It's something I've loved and done my entire life. It has changed in that it's not my 'identity' anymore. But … when I get out on the floor, I'm the same Shanna I've always been."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.