Two Missed Opportunities; Two Shakes of the Head
Two sad stories… but for markedly different reasons.
by Clay Kallam
Kara Braxton is one of the most athletically gifted tall women in the world. She is a strong 6-6, and at 28, should be entering the prime of her career. Instead, she was just traded for the 11th player on the New York Liberty roster, as the coach Corey Gaines and the Phoenix Mercury could simply no longer stand to deal with her any more, despite her 10.6 ppg and 4.9 rpg.
Sadly, this latest move is not an aberration. Braxton’s history of wearing out her welcome began in high school, when she was unhappy in Michigan and moved to Oregon to play. Things never worked out at Westview High the way folks had hoped, but Braxton’s impressive physical talents landed her a scholarship to Georgia.
She was Freshmen of the Year in the tough SEC, but she was tossed off the team in the middle of her junior year by Andy Landers (who, by the way, has always been very popular with his players).
In the WNBA, she stuck it out with Detroit (and Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn) for five seasons, but despite her talent, and the players around her, never averaged double figures and only once, despite shooting only in the paint, was better than 47 percent from the field. Her play was notably erratic, with the good Kara a dominant post, and the bad Kara a turnover-prone, clueless detriment whenever she was on the court. Laimbeer, though, could afford to keep a player like Braxton around because of the depth of his team and the presence of Cheryl Ford – in short, he knew he couldn’t rely on her, but he didn’t have to.
When the Shock relocated to Tulsa, Braxton followed, but was quickly flipped to Phoenix by the equally enigmatic Nolan Richardson, where Braxton gave the Mercury the post presence they’d never had, and put up the best numbers of her career.
But there are those people, and we all know them, who can find a way to turn any situation sour. If you give them a 20-dollar bill, they won’t even thank you; they’ll just ask if you’ve got two tens.
So now Braxton, who should be in the prime of her career, has been shuffled off to New Jersey (where the Liberty play), and she might have a few weeks of glory that will remind everyone of what could have been a dominant career by a great player. But if history is any guide, it won’t be long before she clashes with John Whisenant, New York’s coach and general manager, and this clash might just be her last in the WNBA.
At some point, talent gets trumped by attitude, which is why all Ann Meyers Drysdale could get for the 6-5 Braxton is Sidney Spencer, who will spend most of her time in Phoenix on the bench cheering for Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor.
Which brings us to our second sad story, but this one still has room for cheering – and maybe even a happy ending.
When Jacki Gemelos played at St. Mary’s of Stockton in California, she was considered one of the best, if not the best, high school player in the nation. She was a 6-0 guard who could shoot the three, go right or left, run the point, and not incidentally play with flash and style.
And Gemelos loved to play. I remember seeing her in a Portland airport one summer in a wheelchair after an AAU tournament – she was flying to Atlanta for another tournament, and fully expected to rise from her wheelchair and play again. She didn’t, but after her first ACL tear at USC, she was so eager to get back she tore it again. And then again. And for good measure, she had a fourth knee operation in early 2009.
This January, Gemelos finally returned to the court, and took full advantage of USC’s long run to the WNIT title game. She started 28 times, played 1,132 minutes, averaged 12.4 ppg, hit 42.3 percent of her threes and 81.2 percent of her free throws.
That’s a pretty good season for most college players, but for those who had seen Gemelos when she was Geno Auriemma’s top recruit, it was clear she was just a shadow of her former self. But Gemelos has never stopped working, and this summer she made the World University Games team — and she says she’s finally beginning to feel like she can play as she once did.
Logic and medical reality suggest strongly that Gemelos will be a solid starter in the Pac-12 this year, and will have to find a pro career overseas. The WNBA is not known for mercy (well, except for Marion Jones), and Gemelos will have to earn one of those precious roster spots with talent in the spring of 2012.
But even if she just improves on last year’s numbers at SC, and gets a chance in a WNBA training camp, the Gemelos story is a triumph over adversity, a reward for uncounted hours of painful, lonely rehab. And though there would be nothing sweeter than to see Gemelos playing in the WNBA next summer, even that redemption would be tinged with sadness – the sadness of watching what might have been a truly great player reduced to mere mortality by fragile knees and the surgeon’s repeated incursions with the knife.
Women’s basketball doesn’t have enough superstars, and losing one like Gemelos to injury, and one like Braxton to stupidity, are both cruel blows. Both left a game that needs every ounce of star power it can muster with unfulfilled promise, and a sadness that can’t be erased with just a shake of the head.