Chelsea Gray had to sit and watch one more time as the ball went up and down the court without her.
As their afternoon obligations at the ACC's media day in Greensboro, N.C., wound to a close, Gray and Duke teammate Tricia Liston were ushered into a small recording studio in the conference offices. Inside, television analyst Debbie Antonelli and Liston ran through a series of video clips from last season's ACC tournament for a segment that would run at a later date. Teams sent multiple players for the entire day's proceedings, but given time constraints, only one per team sat for some of these interviews on camera. So as highlights came and went on the large screen in the front of the room, Gray sat off in a corner of the studio and watched in necessary silence. There wouldn't have been much to say, anyway, about the occasional glimpses of her on the bench.
What she has to say this season is perhaps the biggest piece missing from college basketball's championship puzzle.
In truth, Gray probably didn't mind sitting out a round of questioning. Every time she sees a microphone or a tape recorder these days, she knows what is coming. How is the knee? That would be the right knee that caused the All-American to miss the final 11 games of her junior season, including the NCAA tournament, in which the ACC regular-season and conference champion Blue Devils exited one win shy of the Final Four for the fourth season in a row.
"It's tiresome," Gray admitted. "At the same time, I just want to be treated like normal, like 'How is Duke doing? How is everything coming along? How is the team doing?' But the first question I get is how the knee is doing.
"But inquiring minds want to know. It's doing well. I'm happy."
She is also ready to play in an official game for the first time since the first half against Wake Forest on Feb. 17. One of the best rebounding guards in the game, Gray came from underneath the basket to try and corral a defensive rebound, landed awkwardly on her right leg and collapsed in audible agony with a dislocated kneecap. She suffered a torn medial patellofemoral ligament, responsible for tethering the patella to the inside of the knee. She also tore some of the quad muscle off the kneecap.
"I've seen it before, but I've never actually had a kid that has fully dislocated, acute dislocation, on the court or on the field," Duke athletic trainer Summer McKeehan said.
Duke's four consecutive regional final defeats came against teams that featured, in order, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins, the first a freshman unlike any player the college game had ever seen at the time, and the next three players the college game never quite solved. The Blue Devils thought they had that kind of players last season in Gray, a big point guard who, prior to the injury, averaged 5.4 assists per game with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, shot 40 percent from the 3-point line and 85 percent from the free throw line.
With plenty of talent arrayed around her, she was the conductor who was supposed to put it all together when it mattered most.
Then came the awkward landing, just as the season approached the point when she could prove it. The point when Duke could try to erase the sting of a 30-point loss at Connecticut in January that cast doubt on its credentials as a contender.
"She was playing solid and strong," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "But the time of year that it was, I mean, this is a person who plays for March -- end of February, March, April -- more than most. Even as a freshman, she had a game-winning steal against Marist [in the NCAA tournament]. She was like a rocket ready to launch, and she was playing great basketball. …
"As a coach, it's almost like you knew what was coming and then you were denied what was coming."
Denied then, perhaps only delayed in the long run. The Blue Devils find themselves the favorite to challenge defending champion Connecticut as a new season begins. The logic isn't difficult to deduce. A team that went to the Elite Eight a season ago missing arguably its most important player brings everyone back, from All-American post Elizabeth Williams to emerging star Alexis Jones and breakout performer Liston, plus a loaded freshman class. That they will also have Gray is both the biggest reason for optimism and, to her continued chagrin, the biggest question mark.
Duke went back to square one in pursuit of a championship when it lost Gray, but for her, the eight months since then have been about just getting to that starting line.
As Gray and Liston walked away from Cameron Indoor Stadium to find the van that would take them on the short trip to Greensboro for media day, a voice called out to Gray from across open space. That isn't necessarily an uncommon occurrence for a confident, charismatic point guard at a basketball-obsessed school, but this wasn't in the form of adulation.
"Don't embarrass us," McKeehan commanded.
It was the kind of playful taunt offered between people who have spent a lot of time together. Gray envisions her role as point guard as that of a coach on the floor, someone who thinks on the same wavelength as McCallie. But it isn't the head coach who occupies the most active day-to-day role in Gray's life, especially not in the weeks and months since the game against Wake Forest. Gray might see herself as an extension of McCallie, but she is joined at the hip -- and ankle and knee -- with McKeehan.
"I've dealt with her every year," said Gray, who also underwent surgery on her ankle as a freshman. "She pushes me."
Tweak the verb into an adjective and the feeling is mutual.
"She's very inquisitive," McKeehan said. "And pushy sometimes."
Gray was in McKeehan's car on the way to a doctor's appointment when the latter broke the news that the injury was going to require surgery and the player's season was over. McCallie said she and Gray didn't talk about season-ending options in the aftermath of the injury, and Gray held out hope that she might be able to return for the postseason with a brace of some sort. It was only when Gray heard the words from McKeehan that the tears came and reality set in.
Gray had surgery March 14, a little more than a week before Duke began play in the NCAA tournament. Her work was barely underway by the time the Blue Devils lost to Notre Dame in Norfolk, Va. Her victories were modest: ridding herself of the straight-leg brace, regaining full range of motion in the knee, taking her first steps on a treadmill, shooting from a standing position, half-court pick-up, and by late summer, cutting and jumping. She scuttled plans to spend the summer at home in California, instead working out with McKeehan in Durham while teammates scattered across the map.
Gray insists that there is no lingering doubt or lack of trust in her mind when it comes to the knee. She rid herself of that when she planted on the knee for the first time in practice and got caught up in a collision for the first time. Perhaps that is true, although she doesn't seem the type to ruminate publicly on such things. But there might still be a lag between what her mind is used to her body doing and what her body is ready to do.
Duke assistant coach Candice Jackson suffered a series of knee injuries during her time playing for McCallie at Michigan State; the first was a torn ACL in January of her freshman season. She has been where Gray is now.
"She's relearning how her body is right now," Jackson said. "When she first started practicing and doing stuff in September, it was difficult for her. The passes that she made, where she had that extra half a second ahead of the defense, she didn't have that. That was difficult for. Her upper-body strength was still there but her lower body wasn't, so her shot was a little bit different. She was changing her jump shot. That took her a little bit of time."
As will the fact that returning to the court isn't really like unpausing a scene frozen in place since the game this past February. McCallie steadfastly holds to the belief that the Blue Devils remained capable of winning a championship without Gray. Though that might seem as dubious in hindsight as it did to most at the time, the team did beat Maryland on the road, win three games in three days in the ACC tournament and reach a regional final after the injury. Jones in particular played beyond her years as the replacement point guard. Roles changed, confidence grew, the team adjusted.
Through much of preseason, Gray either ran the second team in practices or played the 2-guard position alongside Jones. That the senior piled up 14 assists in 22 minutes in the team's first exhibition game was an indication of how things are likely to eventually settle, but it will be a process.
"That's one thing I really credit Chelsea, is understanding a lot has happened since you've been gone," McCallie said. "And it's really positive, so let's keep that going."
How is the knee? It isn't really what we want to know. The health of a repaired ligament reveals only so much. We want to know if she's whole again.
During a practice not long after the initial injury, Gray sat off to one side and rode a stationary bicycle as her teammates went about the business of moving on without her. She soon asked McKeehan for a basketball, and as her feet pushed pedals without taking her anywhere, she dribbled the ball by her side, then around her back, then dribbled with two balls at once. She needed the reminder.
"Any time she has a ball in her hands, she's happy," McKeehan said. "We had to do a lot of rehab things where we had to just try to incorporate having the ball in her hand because she's just that kind of kid. … She has been one of the most positive kids through the entire thing, I think that sets her apart in a lot of ways."
The ball is back in her hands now. The answer will come soon enough.