Jacki Gemelos nearly gave up on her goal of reaching the WNBA.
Who could blame her? Most players might feel the same way after suffering five ACL tears.
Yes, five. Yet she persevered. And now the 26-year-old guard and former St. Mary’s (Stockton) standout has finally achieved her dream, signing with the Chicago Sky on Wednesday.
The Sky had brought her in as a free agent to training camp before she was the final cut. General manager and coach Pokey Chatman knew she wanted Gemelos in a Chicago uniform and when guard Allie Quigley left to play for Hungary in the Eurobasket tournament this week, a spot opened up on the roster.
“I had tears of joy, tears of every emotion that I felt,” Gemelos said about signing her first WNBA contract. “Even when I was putting on the uniform in my first scrimmage, I was tearing up inside. Wearing that jersey and being so close. It was tough when they cut me, but now I’ll be able to play in my first real WNBA game. It’s going to be hard to keep it together.”
Gemelos will get her first chance Friday in Atlanta.
“This has been a day I’ve been waiting for since I was 7 years old,” Gemelos said. “I’m ready for this, this is the next step in my career.”
Gemelos had to wait a few extra days to sign with Chicago. The team tried to sign her Friday, but a league rule doesn’t allow teams to acquire players who are cut from training camp rosters until 11 days after the season starts. So she had to wait until Wednesday to officially be on a WNBA regular-season roster.
It was hard for Gemelos to imagine this day ever arriving.
Coming out of high school, she was the next big thing for women’s basketball. The northern California native averaged nearly 40 points a game as a senior before tearing her ACL for the first time in her final game. That was just the beginning of a long, winding road over the next eight years when she suffered four more ACL tears in college while playing for Southern Cal.
After her third ligament tear at USC, everyone was telling her to call it quits. After one ACL injury, most players aren’t the same. Do it more than once and playing again is rarely an option.
“The hardest part for me was when my dad asked me to please stop,” she said. “He’s the one that drove me to every AAU tournament, killed himself to make sure I was at every practice. He rebounded for me every day since I was a little girl.”
It would have been easy for Gemelos to feel sorry for herself and feel she’s cursed. Heck, even the family dog — a cocker spaniel named Oliver she had growing up — tore his ACL at one point.
Still, Gemelos never gave up, a trait she learned from her parents. Her father, Steve, overcame prostate cancer. Her mother, Linda, beat cancer twice and survived a stroke.
In 2012, her agent Allison Galer set Gemelos up with physical therapist Fabrice Gautier, who helped her rehab again. She’s been healthy ever since.
“She is resilient and perseveres in the face of seemingly impossible odds,” Galer said. “I am constantly amazed by her, she is an inspiration.”
Gemelos was drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Lynx in 2012. She wasn’t healthy enough to play and the Lynx brought her back in 2013, but cut her in training camp. Not discouraged, Gemelos played in Greece in the winter and spring and had a great season.
The Atlanta Dream, who were coached by her former college coach Michael Cooper, gave her another tryout last season. She was cut again.
“That cut the deepest,” Gemelos said of being released by the Dream. “I didn’t know if I could keep going. I felt like I had been let down by basketball so many times. I questioned if it was worth it.”
But once again, she persevered.
Gemelos said she took a month away from the game she loved. It was her first break, not because of an injury, since she was 7. That re-energized her and she knew she wasn’t done.
“Being away really helped me refocus,” she said. “I got myself back in gear and had a great opportunity to play in Italy, so I had to take that.”
Gemelos put up great numbers in the Italian League that also featured WNBA rookie of the year Chiney Ogwumike. She was teammates with New York Liberty center Carolyn Swords, who was impressed with Gemelos.
“Jacki’s one of the most resilient players I’ve ever met. To go through all those injuries and exhausting rehab, it’s really commendable,” said Swords. “She’s done it with a smiling face and is very positive. She’s a great teammate, very talented, a gifted athlete. I’m rooting for her.”
Gemelos averaged 14 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists for Umbertide and her play caught the eye of Chatman.
“I remembered seeing her play in high school when I was coaching at LSU,” Chatman said. “I was trying to get one of her other AAU players knowing we had no chance of getting her. To see what she’s been through, it really is a remarkable story.”
One that now has a happy ending with Gemelos finally getting a chance in the WNBA.