Growing up, Jacki Gemelos always seemed to have a basketball in her hands.
At the age of 7, Gemelos decided she wanted to play in the WNBA. She poured her heart and soul into basketball and developed into a transcendent player. Gemelos averaged nearly 40 points per game her senior year of high school and did it with uncommon skill and panache.
Gemelos wasn’t just better than everyone she played against. She looked better playing. Lightning-quick crossovers led to soaring layups. No-look passes found her teammates with laser precision. Gemelos could knock down a deep 3-pointer on one possession and elevate over an overmatched opponent on the next.
Numerous scouting agencies and magazines declared her the National High School Player of the Year. A decorated college career and WNBA stardom seemed to be in the cards.
Unfortunately, her knees wouldn’t cooperate.
Gemelos tore her right anterior cruciate ligament for the first time in a high school playoff game. She was dribbling down the court late in the first quarter when an opponent pushed her from behind. Gemelos stuck out her leg to keep from falling and felt it hyperextend.
“I kind of hopped around on my other leg until I realized it really hurt and fell [to the floor],” Gemelos said. “I started crying because I knew that something had happened.”
She was sitting in her living room with her dad and Amateur Athletic Union coach when the phone call came saying she had torn the ligament. Gemelos broke down again at the prospect of missing a year of basketball.
“It was definitely a very, very hard time,” she said. “The thought entered my mind that I would have to redshirt my first year at USC, and that made it even harder for me.”
The next three years would push Gemelos to the limits of her mental strength and determination. She went under the knife four times to repair her knees.
“She’s very strong-minded,” said Linda Gemelos, her mother. “I think most of all it’s the love of the game. She’s had that since she was eight years old.”
There were times when Gemelos wanted to throw in the towel. Times when the prospect of another year of rehabilitation seemed too much, and she wondered why it had to be her.
“I asked that question a million times,” she said. “After my second surgery I talked to one of my friends, and she said, ‘The last thing you need to start doing is questioning, “Why me, why me?” ’ ”
Gemelos took the advice to heart and stopped pitying herself. Instead, she focused her energy on rehabilitating her knee. Even after injuring it two more times, Gemelos kept fighting.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know that in the end, somehow there’s a silver lining to all of this,” Gemelos said. “Not everybody has a passion for something. I think that I’m fortunate and lucky to have found my passion at such a young age.”
Even the most optimistic person would have a hard time finding the positive side of her saga. One time Gemelos’ body rejected the ligament graft doctors put in her knee. The ligament disintegrated and wiped 6 months of rehab away with it.
However, there was reason for hope: a new coach who doubled as a lucky charm.
“I told her that one thing I was blessed with is I bring good karma with me,” USC coach Michael Cooper said. “I told her to get ready because this was going to come sooner rather than later.”
Gemelos and Cooper formed a bond during the lonely hours the pair spent shooting inside the Galen Center. Gemelos put up thousands of shots, with Cooper rebounding each one of them.
“In the beginning, when I was limited, all we would do was shoot,” Gemelos said. “He rebounded for me every day. I felt he believed in me right off the bat regardless of how many surgeries I’d been through.”
The faith Cooper showed in Gemelos paid off when she made her long-awaited debut for USC at California. It was a homecoming of sorts for Gemelos, who grew up an hour away in Stockton, Calif. Friends and family at the arena saw her score eight points and hand out five assists that night.
Her parents were in the stands again last week when Gemelos drained a deep 3-pointer that put the Women of Troy ahead for good against Washington.
“It was so heartbreaking when she was hurt — every time she got hurt — and we couldn’t fix it,” Linda Gemelos said. “Now to see her play, it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
Her return so far has been spotted with moments of inconsistency. Sometimes Gemelos is a step slow laterally on defense. Other times she gets the ball stolen in traffic. Her coaches aren’t worried. After three years off, a little rust is par for the course.
“I think right now she’s trying to find her skill level and find out what she can and can’t do with the brace on,” Cooper said. “At 60 percent, she’s better than a lot of players that are 80 or 90 [percent].”
For every turnover she commits, Gemelos makes five plays that remind you why so many people called her a once-in-a-decade prospect in high school. Talent oozes out of her. Gemelos is a gifted and willing passer, a deadly outside shooter and good for at least one “did you see that” moment a game.
Everything might not turn out the way it should for Gemelos. She might injure one of her knees again or decide she’s sacrificed enough for the game and hang up the sneakers.
“I think the reason I continue to play and fight through the surgeries is so I can reach my goal of the WNBA,” Gemelos said. “I feel like, however many years it takes me, that is realistic because I know that’s what I want to do.”
Gemelos deserves to put her knee problems behind her and enjoy the rest of her college career. She deserves to hear her name called at the WNBA draft. But none of that really matters.
Just being back on the court is victory enough.
“I knew every single time that I hurt myself somehow I was going to get through it because I love basketball so much,” Gemelos said.
Here’s betting she makes it.