Jacki Gemelos will wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling of butterflies in her stomach, maybe a little clutch of fear.
What if it doesn’t happen?
What if the dream of playing in the WNBA, one she’s had since she was seven, doesn’t come true? What if all the injuries have taken their toll? What if all the rehab and all the pain that went with it doesn’t pay off?
She shook her head, as if to dispel such thoughts. Maybe that day will come, perhaps before she’s ready for it. But for now there is no room, no time. Gemelos, a guard vying for a roster spot during Lynx training camp, is too invested in her WNBA dream to give up now.
“I can’t see myself walking away,” she said. “Not yet. Not until I get a chance.”
Gemelos is a case study in perseverance. Only 24, she already has undergone five reconstructive knee surgeries, three on her left knee, two on her right, all for the anterior cruciate ligament. Gemelos reels them off with little emotion, sharing the details of injuries that ended some seasons, prevented others.
She was introduced to the game by her dad, Steve, who played in college and in Europe. At St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, Calif., her skills were so prodigious she was compared to Pete Maravich — which she loved because he had been her dad’s favorite player.
At 15, Gemelos became the youngest player to commit to UConn before opting to stay closer to home at USC. People already were saying she was good enough to jump right to the WNBA when Gemelos was a high school senior in 2006. She was averaging 39.2 points, 8.9 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals when, during a playoff game, she tore the ACL in her right knee, ending her high school career.
It was the first significant injury of her life. But not the last.
Just the beginning
After taking a redshirt year, Gemelos was getting ready for the 2007-08 season when she tore the right ACL again. A year later, she tore her left ACL in an individual workout. Eight months into rehab after that surgery, doctors discovered the graft that had been used had been rejected by her body, requiring yet another surgery.
Finally, after more months of rehab, Gemelos made her college debut on Feb. 4, 2010, picking up eight points, five assists and five rebounds against California. She went on to play in 11 games that season.
In 2010-11, she entered the season fully healthy and averaged 12.9 points per game while leading the Pacific-12 Conference in three-point shooting (42.2 percent). That summer Gemelos was part of the U.S. team that won gold at the World University Games.
And then, nine games into her 2011-12 season, it happened again. She tore an ACL during a game at Texas A&M. Her left knee, again.
So why keep at it? Gemelos — who was home in California when the Lynx made her a third-round pick in the 2012 draft — is quick to answer.
“I ask myself that, too,” she said. “But if I even entertain the thought of not playing before I got my shot here, it gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I have a passion for basketball. Not everyone is as fortunate to have a passion. I’m just going to keep going until I absolutely have to stop.”
Tough on the whole family
Sitting in the stands watching one injury after another takes its toll, too.
“Heart-wrenching is a good word,” said Steve Gemelos, Jacki’s father. “Each time she gets hurt, it gets a little tougher.”
As a parent, he wanted so badly to find somebody to blame. Was it him? Did he overwork her as a child on the concrete pavement at the park? Or the doctors? The therapists? “You never want to just say that’s just the way it is,” he said.
So Steve and Linda Gemelos were ready for Jacki to be done with basketball after the injury in Texas. But then she was drafted by the Lynx. Suddenly there was a goal.
“At that point, we couldn’t say no,” Steve Gemelos said. “She was saying, ‘I’ll never know if I could have made it if I don’t try one more time.’ … I am so proud of her, but I’m also scared.”
Steve Gemelos said his daughter gets her toughness from her mom, but the whole family is filled with it. Steve has beat cancer, as has Linda, twice. Jacki’s sister, Johnna, tore an ACL in high school, ending her sports career; she is now a doctor.
Even the family pet, a cocker spaniel named Oliver, has come back from an ACL tear of his own.
So the grit is there.
Still, Gemelos faces an uphill task to make the Lynx roster. She knows it, just as she knows five surgeries have robbed her of some skill. She brings height (6-0) along with the ability to shoot the three-pointer and play both guard positions.
But even if it doesn’t happen right away, Gemelos isn’t about to quit. “If there is a time period where I’m healthy for four, five years? I think I could really get some momentum going. I can see by 28, 29 years old playing the best basketball of my life.”
But first things first. She’s trying to make it here.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is impressed just by Gemelos making it this far. “The things we always talk about are preparation, passion, perseverance,” Reeve said. “This kid, from a perseverance standpoint? Times 10. … But it might take a little bit. This league is really hard to crack.”
Gemelos is ready to do whatever is necessary. “I’m going to go until I get it,” she said of her dream. “However long it takes.”