- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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You can hear it in the tone of her voice, anxious with a dash of impatience.
After the longest injury layoff of her acclaimed basketball career, Penny Taylor just wants to play.
"It's been a long time coming," said Taylor, who is close to those first minutes on the floor for the Phoenix Mercury. "It's been a bit of a process. I would definitely say it's been difficult, to say the least."
Taylor was playing overseas for the Turkish team Fenerbahce on March 29, 2012, when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. The injury cost her the entire 2012 WNBA season in Phoenix and the opportunity to play with the Australia national team in the London Olympics.
The recovery after surgery, typically six to nine months, was complicated by setbacks, which included the need for another surgical procedure in November to repair cartilage that was floating in the knee and causing swelling.
"It's devastating, because you think things are going well, and then all of a sudden it's like, 'Uh oh, that doesn't look right,'" Taylor said. "I really expected it to go smoothly, and you think it's going to, but it's been very up and down."
She hoped to be ready to play at the start of the WNBA season in May, but it didn't quite work out.
"The longest I had ever been out before that was nine weeks," Taylor said. "I am so used to being in season or with a team. It's been a very different experience for me personally and professionally."
Taylor has been playing professional basketball since she was 15 years old. She had a ball in her hand since before her first day of school.
She understood, rationally, that injuries are part of the game. She knew she had been lucky because she had seen teammates and friends who have gone through the ACL injury and recovery process "once, twice, three times."
"I really have an appreciation for what they've been through," Taylor said.
But patience with her own recovery was harder to summon. Rehabilitation is a daily grind under the best circumstances, and it's not for those looking for instant gratification. Taylor joked that she's barely patient enough to walk through an IKEA, much less endure the months of "mind-numbing" progress that rehab entails.
"After surgery, there are small things you have to do every day, and there's no skipping steps, no getting around it," Taylor said. "That was really, really difficult for me. I had to learn to be patient with the rehab process. And I am not a patient person. It becomes a real test of how badly you want to play."
Mercury coach Corey Gaines took Taylor's calls from Australia more than once. Gaines calls Taylor "Penelope."
"It wasn't always about playing. It was just talking about what was going on," Gaines said. "I knew she was having a hard time. If you are a player -- and Penelope is definitely a player -- not playing is difficult."
But Taylor knows, as difficult as it has been to be turned into an unwilling observer of a game she loves to play, that there was at least one silver lining.
She went home to Melbourne, Australia, for her rehab, allowing her to spend time with family, specifically her mother, Denna Noble, who was battling cancer.
"In a way, this worked out that I was home for a really important phase in my life," Taylor said. "Because if I was playing, there is no way I would have been there for this time. I would have been overseas, and that would have been really difficult."
Taylor said rehab "gave me something to focus on."
"My days were split in two," Taylor said. "After rehab, I would spend the evenings with my mom. If I hadn't done my rehab, my mom would have been so mad at me. She was making sure I was doing it."
Taylor's mother died in May.
"I am going to treasure that time we had together," Taylor said. "It's definitely been a roller coaster, emotionally."
Taylor knows the injury could have come earlier in her career, and that is also a blessing.
"I don't have anything to prove," Taylor said. "There's no pressure. I have played in the Olympics and the World Championships and the WNBA for more than 10 years. I'm just happy that I'm getting closer to getting back on the court and back to my team."
Taylor, who has been practicing with her teammates, will ease back on to the court, playing limited minutes with the goal of increasing her impact as the Mercury draw closer to the postseason.
"At this point, I'll be happy if I get to warm-up, play 30 seconds and come out," Taylor said.
"I know she wants to play now, now, now," Gaines said. "And she is a rock for us. But there's no rush. Our goal is to have her back for the playoffs. If we are going to make a championship run and Penny is back for midseason, everything is good."
Taylor said the best advice she has gotten is from NBA star Grant Hill, who told her: "Don't expect to be the player you were, and don't be too hard on yourself."
"This experience has taught me never to have plans," Taylor said. "My plan is to get through the next week and play a few minutes. What happens after that will take care of itself."
15dBonnie D. Ford