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There was a time when Jacki Gemelos was thought to be the first high school player who could potentially go straight to the WNBA. But after enduring five devastating ACL reconstructions in the last six years, Jacki Gemelos improbably still has one last shot at making her WNBA dreams come true.
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Jacki Gemelos sat in her apartment by herself, hands clasped on her lap in front of the T.V., hearing the faint clack of her shoe nervously tapping the ground as she watched the first and second rounds of the 2012 WNBA draft go by last April.
Selected were women who as girls Jacki remembered lighting up in high school games. Some were the recipients of her spectacular no-look passes and some could never catch them. Others were part of triple teams that Jacki effortlessly split. Over 20 names were called of girls who were ranked behind Jacki at St. Mary’s (Stockton) high school, where her flare passing the ball in transition triggered comparisons to “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
The third round approached. Over a decade of her life hinged upon the league president’s words and yet one night, nightmarishly kept coming back to her: December 18, 2011, when she tore her ACL for the fifth time in six years as a USC senior a game against Texas A&M.
The draft – her moment – played out much differently in her head when she was younger.
At 15, the dominant, 6-0 point guard became the youngest girl ever to commit to UConn. In 2006, the McDonald’s All-American averaged 39.2 points, 8.9 assists, and 6.5 rebounds a game. Jacki once scored 52 points in a high school game, able to get her shot whenever she wanted. She was dominant. Some professional scouts even thought Jacki could do what girl’s didn’t do: bypass college altogether and become a first-round pick in the WNBA.
Now, more than five years later, she just prayed to be one of the 36 names called. After playing just one full season for the Trojans in 2010-11, she averaged 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game and received All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention, leading the conference in three-point percentage with 42.4 percent. Nice numbers, but hardly where Jacki and everyone else had always assumed she’d be.
And with the 31st pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, the Minnesota Lynx select… Jacki Gemelos, USC.
There were no streamers, no hugs from family standing around a big table for ESPN cameras to record, no league president’s hand to shake, and certainly no jersey to hold up before a podium. There was just silence—loud enough to contain six years of struggle, surgeries and setbacks — and one long exhale of joy.
“The second my name came up on the screen I called my parents and everyone was crying,” Gemelos says. “I may not have been a first-round draft pick like I always thought I would be before all of this happened, but I got there.
“It was all worth it.”
Will it be?
Being a third-rounder is as unstable as the fragmented ligaments in Jacki’s knees, especially in a league where rosters max at 11 players and teams struggle to garner long-term profits.
The Lynx hold Jacki’s rights, but she must compete for a spot on the team in training camp this April, her last shot at the professional career she’d dreamed about since she was seven.
“I sometimes think of not playing basketball,” she says, stopping a moment, as if taking in the fact that she’s almost 24 and no longer seven and wide-eyed. “It just gives me a nervous feeling in my stomach. It’s something I can’t do yet. There’s just something that’s holding on to still play.”
Growing up in Stockton, Jacki attended almost every Sacramento Monarchs game with her dad, Steve Gemelos, who first put the ball in her hands after having played professionally in Greece.
Summers weren’t summers without basketball. Running around from AAU tournament to practice to league games with her dad and mother Linda, Jacki had tunnel vision: she was among the first generation of girl’s basketball players to grow up with a professional league already in place, and was determined to make her mark on it someday.
After the reign of Cheryl Miller (Riverside), Cynthia Cooper (South Central), and Lisa Leslie (Inglewood), Southern California became even more of a hotbed for girl’s basketball when Diana Taurasi (Chino) took over for the next generation. Next in line, Jacki would be the most heralded player from NorCal. She never thought about a plan B, especially since it seemed she was going to follow in Taurasi’s footsteps as the next UConn phenom.
“My parents always told me, ‘Make sure you have a plan B, you never know what could happen,’” Jacki says. “But I just brushed them off. I never thought anything bad was going to happen.”
Until it did. In a playoff game during her senior season, Jacki tore the ACL in her right knee for the first time. This was the first injury of her entire career.
As one of the most highly-touted recruits for the Women of Troy, Jacki redshirted her freshman year in 2006-07 to rehabilitate fully.
Yet in offseason workouts, she tore the same ACL, sidelining her again for another year (2007-08).
The hits kept coming. Just before the start of the 2008-09 season, she tore the ACL in her left knee for the first time, missing her junior year. After completing rehab for the third time, and ready to begin her senior year (2009-10), the training staff discovered that during rehab on her left knee, her body had rejected the graft used to repair the tear, leading to yet another reconstruction, her fourth.
Jacki fought her way back and eventually made her college debut at Cal on Feb. 4, 2010, scoring eight points, five rebounds and five assists, but played just 11 games that season.
A Division I athlete is only as good as their body is healthy. To play at that level, the body is put under the most grueling duress of conditioning, weight training, healthy eating and competition. And to someone who spent years conditioning her body to perform at the highest level, Jacki thought her body had failed her.
Nothing she could do could make her knees feel like they did when she was a child, running around the court, laughing, jumping and never stopping. They became either too stiff or too loose. A mix of jelly and concrete. Never right, and never going to be again.