MINNEAPOLIS — Somehow, Jacki Gemelos hasn’t given up yet.
Four torn anterior cruciate ligaments and five knee surgeries haven’t stopped the one-time high school sensation from pursuing her dream of playing professional basketball. Instead, Gemelos’ journey has led her from Stockton, Calif., to Minnesota via a long, injury-plagued career at Southern California.
It’s been a long path to get to this point, but Gemelos hopes she can finally get her shot.
Gemelos was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the third round of the 2012 WNBA Draft following her final season at USC. Before her Trojans career came to a close, though, Gemelos tore her ACL in her left knee for the third time just nine games into the season. It was yet another devastating blow to Gemelos, who was widely regarded as one of the top high school recruits in the nation during her time at St. Mary’s High, where she scored 3,162 career points.
But this isn’t a tragic tale. This is a story of determination, personified by Jacki Gemelos.
The 24-year-old Gemelos can recall with great detail each of her knee surgeries, and can cite to the day each of the four days that her ACL was torn. The first occurred during her last game of her illustrious high school career in March of 2006 when the ACL in her right knee gave out. That forced her to miss her first year at USC while she rehabbed. Then, on Sept. 11, 2007, she reinjured the right knee and once again had to miss another year.
It was the same story on Oct. 13, 2008, although this time she injured her left knee for the first time. Gemelos got hurt during individual workouts, before even starting an official practice with the Trojans.
After eight months of rehab, something wasn’t feeling right. Gemelos didn’t necessarily tweak the injury again, but she could tell something was off. Prior to the 2009-10 season, it was discovered that Gemelos’ body had rejected the allograft (a graft from a cadaver), so doctors had to once again perform the surgery on her left knee.
“So that eight months of rehab was for nothing, pretty much,” Gemelos said.
Finally, late in the 2009-10 season, Gemelos was able to take the court for the Trojans. After her college debut on Feb. 4, 2010, she finished the year playing 11 games and averaged 7.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. The next year was her lone full season of college ball. She started 28 games and played in a total of 37, scoring 12.4 points per game.
Just when it looked like Gemelos’ knee troubles were finally behind her, her world came crashing down again when, for the third time, she tore the ACL in her left knee just nine games into the season. That was it for Gemelos’ college career. At the time, she had no idea whether she’d play another minute of basketball again.
But Gemelos simply couldn’t picture her life without the game she loved so much, the one she had played since she was a little girl growing up in California, the one her dad played professionally in Athens, Greece. Knee injuries be damned, she was going to play again.
“I question myself sometimes and kind of ask myself why I do it,” she said. “I think if I even entertain the thought of not playing before I get my shot here, it’d kind of just give me a really bad taste in my mouth. I just feel like I have a passion for basketball. Not everybody’s fortunate to have a passion. It’s just something that I’ve wanted to do since I was seven years old, so I’m just going to keep going until I absolutely have to stop.”
Even though the Lynx drafted her last year, there’s no guarantee that Gemelos makes Minnesota’s 11-player roster for the 2013 season. When healthy, she can shoot the three and provide some versatility by playing either point guard or shooting guard. Then again, that qualifier of “when healthy” has not been used often for Gemelos over the last six years, although she said this week that her knees “feel great.”
While she’ll no doubt have an uphill battle in camp if she hopes to make the Lynx’s roster, the fact that Gemelos is even practicing in Minneapolis with the likes of Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus is a remarkable feat in itself.
“The things we always talk about are preparation, passion and perseverance. This kid, from a perseverance standpoint, times 10,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “For her to come back and for us to give her an opportunity was something we felt was important. … She’s not afraid. You’d think there might be some hesitation about some things, but she’s not afraid. I think that speaks volumes about who she is.”
Added Whalen: “I give her a lot of credit. It’s really a story you can really admire.”
As a high schooler, Gemelos was compared to former NBA great “Pistol” Pete Maravich because of her deft passing skills. She won just about every accolade a girl’s high school player can win: McDonalds All-American, National Player of the Year, Miss Basketball of California.
Gemelos’ stellar high school career helped her land at USC. Her knees may have limited her production in college, but she’s hoping they don’t prevent her from pursuing her ultimate goal.
“I think anybody would have those thoughts where it’s just like, ‘Is this worth it?'” she said. “Yeah, I’ve had those days. I’ve had weeks where I’m like, ‘I can’t do this.’ But something the next day or the next few days just kind of clicks.
“I just can’t see myself walking away. Not yet. Not until I get a chance, and I’m here getting my chance and trying to fulfill my dream.”