- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The month since the Olympic break ended has been a pretty trying time for Tulsa Shock teammates Temeka Johnson and Kayla Pedersen, who still hope to finish this WNBA season as strongly as possible.
Saturday's loss to Seattle in Tulsa was the first game in which both played since Aug. 17. The reason they were sidelined wasn't officially announced, but the organization and the players have confirmed they were dealing with staph infections.
"I am feeling close to 100 percent right now," said second-year pro Pedersen, who played Aug. 17, but then missed the next seven games before returning Thursday in a game at Seattle. "But I only started practicing a couple of days before [Thursday's] game."
Saturday, she started and had two points and seven rebounds in just more than 22 minutes of play. Johnson, who missed four games while ill, came off the bench Saturday and played 18½ minutes, with five points and three assists.
Johnson, who was traded to Tulsa from Phoenix before this season, said, "I feel pretty good; it's the best I've felt in almost two weeks.
"I was lucky that I didn't have to stay out as long as Kayla did. I've watched her fighting very hard to come back. It really takes a lot out of you."
There's no getting around it: This is a tough subject for the Shock -- and the WNBA -- because the franchise has dealt with staph infections each of the three years it has been in Tulsa.
In June 2010, former Tulsa World beat writer Lynn Jacobsen first reported about four Shock players who'd been diagnosed with staph infection: Amber Holt, Chante Black, Marion Jones and Shanna Zolman. Holt and Black are still with the Shock; Jones and Zolman -- the only one of them to miss multiple games (four) because of it -- are no longer in the WNBA.
Last season, Shock guard Ivory Latta was sidelined with a staph infection as well; she is Tulsa's leading scorer this year.
Those five cases were more matter-of-factly acknowledged by the Shock. But Tulsa was vague in listing what sidelined Pedersen and Johnson, using terms such as "flu-like symptoms" and "abdominal/ankle injury." Technically, Pedersen's symptoms were "flu-like."
"I got pretty sick," she said. "Fever, chills, nausea. All of that."
Still, the length of Pedersen's absence with "flu" prompted some rather ridiculous rumors about what was actually wrong. Why didn't the Shock just initially acknowledge publicly what it was?
Well, staph (short for staphylococcus aureus) infections are something that franchises and leagues really don't want to talk about ever, let alone three years in a row. ESPN the Magazine's Ric Bucher wrote, in an October 2010 story, about how staph was "the secret scourge of locker rooms everywhere."
He detailed a staph outbreak that hit the Boston Celtics in 2006, along with several other harrowing experiences by athletes with infections. Including the NBA's Grant Hill, who missed an entire season after contracting a staph infection during an ankle surgery.
Throughout Hill's difficult battle to recover, few people knew what he was actually dealing with. It wasn't until he spoke of it before the 2004-05 season that it became public knowledge. As Bucher wrote in his piece, "Personal privacy issues, malpractice lawsuits and the desire to prevent panic have kept staph on the down low."
Compounding things for the Shock is that Tulsa is still in the process of establishing itself in the WNBA. The Shock ownership is committed for the long haul, and wants players to think of Tulsa as someplace they really want to play. But the team has had to deal with some negative perceptions of the city and franchise. The staph infections have compounded that to degree.
"You know how it is -- perception becomes reality," Johnson said. "I heard about it before I got to Tulsa. Players on other teams will say, 'Don't shower there,' and they wonder if there's something wrong with the building. Whether it's fair or not, it's a stigma that Tulsa has to fight off."
Shock president Steve Swetoha and BOK Center general manager John Bolton both recently spoke at length about this latest situation. The Shock play all home games at the BOK Center, which opened in 2008, but they sometimes practice at other facilities, including at the University of Tulsa.
"We have multiple teams, events, and concerts in the BOK facility," Bolton said. "And we manage the convention center across the street as well. Our daily protocol is that every time anyone uses the locker rooms or training rooms, they're cleaned by our staff with hospital-grade chemicals.
"We have hundreds of events every year, and the only instance we've had with an employee or someone involved in an event here in regard to [a staph infection] is with the Shock. I've been a GM in facilities like this for 17 years, and this is the first time I've had incidents like this. In my experience, it's very, very rare.
"But we know it happens -- in hospitals and other places. It's just tough trying to figure out where it comes from, because there are so many possible avenues for contamination."
That's part of what's so scary and frustrating about staph infections. They might have nothing specifically to do with a building or location. Some people are "carriers" who don't exhibit symptoms and unknowingly can spread it to others wherever they go.
"We have to file a report to the league anytime a player is hurt -- whatever it is," Swetoha said. "And in a case like this, we automatically alert our medical staff, obviously. We alert the buildings that we play and practice in. But we're not sure where it's coming from. It could be from anywhere."
Swetoha said players and staff are reminded about hygiene and how best to avoid any infection.
"We have trainers talking to players about it," he said. "Our team doctors and our athletic trainers are all familiar with making sure those processes are followed to minimize risk or eliminate it altogether."
Neither Pedersen nor Johnson knows where/how they contracted their infections. Pedersen thought she might have had a small cut, but she's not sure that was the entry point. Meanwhile, what Johnson thought was just a normal pimple turned out to be much more serious.
"It was something I had to get educated on," Johnson said of staph infections. "You hear about this, but you have to learn about it. Not everybody realizes it can be as severe as it is. If it doesn't happen to you or somebody around you, you don't pay as much attention to it.
"Anybody who wants to know anything about it, I will share whatever I know. As exhausted and drained as I felt, I wouldn't want anybody to go through that."
WNBA spokesman Ron Howard said the protocol in regard to a staph infection is this: "Upon a positive finding, the team is to immediately have an infectious-disease specialist involved, and to thoroughly disinfect any areas where the players train or play. We also, as has been the case [in Tulsa], involve a league physician to evaluate the situation."
Asked how many cases of staph infection have been reported by the WNBA in the past five years, Howard said that information wasn't readily available. He said all injuries/illness are categorized by what part of the body they impact, but the details aren't necessarily catalogued. In other words, the league might be able to access information on how many shoulder injuries have occurred, but not the specifics of that injury.
Even if the league actually did have these specifics -- and was open about sharing them with media -- that doesn't mean all teams actually have honestly reported when/if they have dealt with staph infections. At times, teams and athletes fib, fabricate and fudge about injuries and illness at all levels and in all sports. Staph, though, seems to be even more hidden throughout the athletics world.
Incidentally, some folks might be making the leap that this staph issue is somehow related to Liz Cambage's decision not to return to Tulsa after the Olympic break this season. However, in speaking with ESPN.com, Cambage didn't give any indication that was a factor. She started her journey to Tulsa, but then stopped it when she realized she wasn't emotionally up for leaving her home in Australia for a month to come here to the United States, only to then have to spend the rest of the winter playing in China.
Regardless, the bottom line for Tulsa is that this is just something the franchise has to deal with and continue to try to avoid. Johnson, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, said that despite the ups and downs she has had with the Shock, she will still consider staying with the franchise as she looks at the market.
"I won't shut the door on Tulsa," Johnson said.
Swetoha knows that some people might still jump to conclusions about Tulsa and the Shock. The organization has been trying hard to get a foothold in the league itself and with its city's fans. The Shock have had more than their share of setbacks -- from players who didn't want to be involved when the franchise left Detroit, to very unlucky bounces of the draft lottery balls. But they also have a fan base that has stayed loyal despite the tough launch in Tulsa. So this is just another challenge.
"We feel like we're doing everything possible to deal with this and take care of everyone," Swetoha said. "People will have perceptions on anything. But I don't want anyone to fear this. This is something we take very, very seriously as an organization."
17dBonnie D. Ford