WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room
The WNBA commissioner speaks out on the NCAA weight room and what it represents.
Jacki Gemelos plays for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. After numerous knee injuries derailed her WNBA career in 2015, Gemelos made her long-awaited return to the league this summer for the 2020 season, first as a member of the Connecticut Sun before being picked up by the Mystics. She spoke with JWS about her experience inside the Wubble, how she’s persevered through all of her injuries, and what’s next for her career.
I think what I’ll remember most is the fact that I switched teams in the bubble. It was just such a unique experience. And even throughout it all, I still maintained good contact with my old Connecticut Suns teammates. I stayed in the same room, which was like right in the middle of the team. So it was like nothing changed. It was literally just like, “Okay, same bubble, same routine, same situation, but move your Connecticut gear to the side and now let me bring you some Washington Mystics gear because you’re just on a different team.” There were just so many emotions with everything going on within the bubble, but that is definitely something that I’ll never forget.
Another standout was when we boycotted the games to represent Jacob Blake. That was just such a monumental moment for this entire season. Those couple of days were incredibly emotional, and it was really hard for everyone to just come out of that and turn it back on to play. But ultimately, I think it brought our league closer.
The word that I think of when I think of the WNBA is unity. The entire league made sure that everyone had a voice and was able to express exactly how they felt when decisions were being made. And to see an unanimous decision of 144 girls coming to one conclusion was a pretty amazing sight to see.
Yeah, I mean, I think that that was the hardest part of the bubble. It was just a roller coaster of emotions, for me and everyone involved. Just trying to transition into that situation, in that routine, it wasn’t easy. The idea that you’re just in this one area for so long was already a big challenge in itself, but then there was this other fact that we’re there to play basketball with games every other night.
And aside from the routine of waking up, having practice, and watching videos, we also were eating three times a day in the cafeteria and sharing elevators with other teams and personnel and that sometimes was pretty awkward. Like, maybe you just played them the night before, maybe it’s the coach from the game you just played, or maybe you’re stuck in the elevator with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird and it’s like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
So it was just a really unique experience. One full of ups and downs, but mainly ups. For me, I went through more of a personal rollercoaster just because I switched teams, but I think that everyone handled it really well despite the uncertainty of how it was going to be and how everything was going to play out. And the fact that the WNBA was able to pull it off in such an amazing way that made us all feel safe and healthy was a huge plus. Between testing us every single day and giving us activities and events throughout the bubble to keep us going, they did the best that they could in such a short amount of time and for such a condensed season.
So, it was like the last day where people can get cut and for me, I had no idea it was coming. I thought that I had proved myself to be on the team for the rest of the season and really didn’t have any thought in my mind that I was going to get cut. Usually, you hear from your agent or you’ll hear something before it actually happens. I hadn’t heard anything prior, so I had no idea that it was coming. And then it ended up happening like 15 minutes before the deadline.
I was at the pool, just chilling with all my teammates, and then Curt (Miller) came down and was like, “I need to talk to you. I’m so sorry, but I have to waive you.” And you could tell he was really emotional having to make that decision, but it was a decision that I think that people from above had to make. Which when it all comes down to it, it’s a business and they have to do what they think is best for the team. So, I understood the reason even though I didn’t like it. I thought I had found a good place within that team and I really liked the coaching staff and the girls a lot.
So that was a down moment for me because I’m like, “I have all this stuff in this hotel room that I’ve accumulated throughout the last month and a half. How am I going to get everything back? I’m not ready to leave.” It was just like, I expected to be here for the end of the season. So I felt pretty shitty about that. And then the next day I got a call from Mike Thibault at 10 p.m., and he was like, “Hey, we want to sign you to a seven-day contract. Are you willing to stick around?” And I’m like, “Wait, what’s going on? Yeah, sure.” So he’s like, “Okay, well we have a game tomorrow against Atlanta, we’re going to play you.”
In Connecticut, I wasn’t playing, I didn’t get any minutes. I was just pretty much a bench player for like a month and some change. So I wasn’t even in shape to play basketball. I had sustained my stamina and stuff just like on the treadmill and stuff, but that has nothing to do with the basketball court. I kind of just accepted that I wasn’t going to play so much for Connecticut and that was going to be that. And then Coach T was like, “No, you’re going to play. We need you to play and you’re going to get minutes, we’re just going to throw you out there.”
So I went to shoot around the next morning and we went through a couple of plays and it was just like, “Okay, we’re just going to go for it tonight. Let’s see what happens.” And we played Atlanta, and luckily Connecticut had played Atlanta like a week prior. So I knew the scouting report well and knew what to expect. Everything just ended up being okay and we won that game. So that was cool. It was a really unique experience, to say the least.
I think that a lot of credit goes to our staff. Coach Thibault and Eric [Thibault] and Asjha [Jones] and Maria [Giovannetti]. Shout out to them because they’ve been around for so long. Coach T has been coaching for so many years and I think that he’s been through every emotion possible when it comes to being a coach, like whether it’s good or bad. I felt like he always had the right thing to say after a loss or after a win.
There was a time, like right when I had gotten to the team, where it felt like everyone felt defeated. We didn’t really understand what we were playing for because we didn’t think that it was going to be possible to make the playoffs. It was just a really down time. As a coach, what are you supposed to say to a team of girls who are trying and giving a hundred percent, but the results aren’t what we want them to be? I’m not sure how he does it, but I felt like after every game, he was always on point.
After we lost a game to Dallas, we thought our chances were done to make the playoffs. We had four games left and the only way we were going to make playoffs was if we won all of them. So, we play Minnesota. We get a huge win. Then we beat LA. Then we beat New York and then it’s like, “Okay, Atlanta has nothing to play for right now. If they win, they still don’t go to the playoffs. So, maybe they’re not going to put so much energy into the game.”
Like all these things are just circling your thoughts. Turns out, Atlanta ended up playing really hard, but we still got the win. And it was just like, wow. We deserved that eighth seed.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end with that loss against Phoenix. That is still hard to swallow because it all came down to that last-second shot, and you hate going out like that. But that was a super amazing shot by Shey Peddy, and I’m happy for her, but dang, that should have been us.
Just always wanting to chase the dream of being a WNBA player. When I had made the Chicago Sky in 2015, it was such a fulfillment for me because all I wanted to do, after my injuries, was prove to myself and everyone that I could still play at a high level. But being able to get back in the league this past summer after not being in it five years, it was just another exclamation point on my career. It’s truly been a time that I’m never going to forget and I’m just so grateful that I had this opportunity. I just feel like everything really does work out.
I had put in so many hours and so much time and devotion. Same for my parents. They’ve sacrificed so much for me and my sister to be able to do anything we wanted and play all the sports that we could. They took us from tournament to tournament, driving throughout the state, taking airplanes and flights to different tournaments. I saw the devotion that they put into my childhood and career. It made me want to keep trying and make them really happy and proud by making it back, so they could say that their daughter played in the WNBA.
I think I really found my niche in Europe and overseas. I have a really good career over there and it’s just been like the core of everything. I’ve been really happy playing there. It’s super high level, and they treat you well over there. It’s just a good life. I was able to be very satisfied with what I was doing there, and the WNBA was just going to be an added bonus if that were to ever happen. I think that the season that I had overseas last year is what propelled me to get back into the WNBA this summer. Sometimes it just works out like that, and I’m super grateful. And now hopefully I made a statement this summer where I can maintain a roster spot in the league next year.
So I leave for Turkey this week, and I’ll be playing there this offseason. I think it’s a really strong league and there’s a lot of WNBA players that are also playing in that league. Honestly, I’m just really happy to continue to be playing and playing in a different country that I’ve never played in before. So that’ll be pretty fun.
It’s going to be my eighth season overseas, which is just so wild to me. I never would have dreamed of having a long career in Europe, but I think I’ve just fallen in love with my life out there. So I’m just really excited to get there and see how that’s going to unravel and how this season will unfold. COVID is obviously still very real, and I’m curious to see how FIBA and everyone, like Euro Cup and Euro League, are going to manage the season. But I’m just really pumped for this next chapter and can’t wait to get out there.
The grind never stops, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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