Indiana’s Grace Berger sidelined after injury at maligned Vegas tournament
Berger will miss Thursday's game vs. North Carolina.
Rebekah Gardner has spent most of her career as a basketball nomad. By 2018, she had played six years in Israel and Turkey, packing her bags and returning to California during every offseason. The lifestyle weighed on her, and though she felt welcome, Gardner never felt fully at home.
So she created a blog, “Overseas: Uncut,” as an online diary of sorts, relaying her adventures back to people in California who were cheering her on from afar. The UCLA graduate was starting her seventh year of professional basketball, a journey that also took her to Romania and Spain.
In her first entry on Sept. 11, 2018, she described what it was like playing for a new team — “an uncomfortable feeling at first” — and expressed her delight in finding a Starbucks in Ankara, Turkey.
In the thick of her overseas career, Gardner wrote about how difficult the constant changes were. It was an unsteady world, one where the future was forever uncertain. And in an effort to convey that to her readers back home, Gardner penned the following: “Just when you are getting comfortable and are beginning to get into a routine, things shift in a way that you have no idea what to expect.”
It’s been three years and 10 months since Gardner published that blog post. And in the moment, she had no idea just how right she was.
She had no idea that she’d find her way to the WNBA, playing as a 32-year-old rookie for the first-place Chicago Sky. Or that she’d become an integral part of their hunt for a repeat WNBA championship and a Commissioner’s Cup title Tuesday night.
As she typed, listening to the familiar sound of fingers on a keyboard, in an unfamiliar Turkish town, Rebekah Gardner had no idea that a dream she had pushed to the side would finally come true.
Mel Sims turned on his TV in mid-May to watch the Chicago Sky. At 80, the longtime coach is mostly retired, but he still soaks up as much basketball as possible.
Sims coached at colleges in California, and then for a fledgling women’s professional team in 1979. Eventually, he turned to high school basketball, spending decades molding young players.
After so many years in the coaching world, there isn’t much on a basketball court that surprises Sims. But on that late spring day, something, or rather someone, caught him off guard.
He recognized the slender frame, the slicked-back black ponytail, the easy smile. He knew the way she moved to the hoop, and how she fit effortlessly into the team’s game plan.
“I said to my wife, ‘That’s Rebekah!’ I didn’t know she was in the WNBA,” Sims said. “So I called my assistant coach, and he said, ‘You’re right, that is Rebekah.’”
He hasn’t missed a Sky game since.
Seeing Gardner on his TV screen was unexpected, but it wasn’t the first time she had surprised her former coach.
When he was at Ayala High School in Chino Hills, Calif., Sims got a phone call about an incoming freshman. Then he got a second call. Both people said the same thing: “You’re getting a girl who can really play. Her name is Rebekah Gardner.”
It wasn’t a name that Sims recognized, but as soon as the 14-year-old showed up for her first summer practice, he knew what the callers meant.
She was the real deal.
Once Gardner started to blossom as a basketball player, her dad, who had also played growing up, set out to find a high school program that suited her. He walked into the Ayala High School gym and saw Sims on the sideline. He was loud, energetic, and wasn’t afraid to get on his players. That was the style of coaching Gardner’s dad wanted, and she thrived under Sims’ tutelage.
“It’s hard for kids to play for me because I’m so demanding,” he said. “But Rebekah, she came in, and she never even blinked when I got on her.”
Gardner laughs at the idea of Sims being hard on her. Sure, he yelled from time to time, but that just meant he wanted the best for her. In reality, Sims was a tough coach, but Gardner was a tough player. Everything he said, or yelled, went toward improving her game. “I just tried to be coachable,” she said. “When a coach critiques me, I look at it as them having the best intentions for the team.”
The good intentions brought even better results, and by the time Gardner signed to play college ball at UCLA, she had led the Bulldogs to two undefeated league titles and a CIF Southern Section Championship. She also broke her school’s scoring record.
Sims knew that no matter how long he coached, he wouldn’t come across another player like her.
“If you’re lucky, you get one,” he said. “In college, you can recruit, but at the high school level, you get one walk in the door, you’re very fortunate. And I was very fortunate.”
Cori Close took the head coaching job at UCLA during Gardner’s senior year of college, and she quickly learned the same thing Sims had: If the team wanted to be successful, they had to play through Gardner.
“She was just that one rock solid kid I always knew I could count on,” Close said.
During her first three college seasons from 2008-11, Gardner had been more of a role player, appearing in the starting lineup 20 times. But when Close came in, she identified Gardner as more than just the center of UCLA’s game plan — she saw her as the future of the program.
It was a challenging season for the Bruins. They went 14-16 and 9-9 in conference play, failing to advance to the postseason. But Gardner’s impact goes much beyond that single 2011-12 season. Close is in her 12th year at the helm for UCLA, and every player she’s recruited since has Gardner to thank. She was the blueprint of what Close wanted a Bruin to be.
Close described Gardner’s presence that season as a “beacon of light.”
“She was always in the gym early or staying late,” Close said. “And she was one of the only ones at that time when I first got the job. She was really the one that we built our cultural foundation around. I’m just so grateful for her.”
Even after Gardner graduated, though she spent only one season with Close and her staff, she remained loyal. She came to team events, alumni weekends and practiced with UCLA players in the offseason.
“She could have said, ‘I’m going to survive this staff and then I’m going to go my own way,’ but she didn’t,” Close said. “She’s been a proud Bruin through and through.”
It was at an alumni event this year when Close first heard about the possibility of Gardner playing for the Sky.
Gardner kept coy, not knowing if the opportunity would work out, and not wanting to get her hopes up. Over the years, there had been chances — even once before with the Sky — and they hadn’t materialized.
The WNBA has always been a part of Gardner’s story. When she was 6 years old, the league launched. Her mom, inspired by the new professional organization, signed her daughters up for peewee basketball.
Gardner didn’t have professional aspirations then, but as she grew, the game became an obsession. She watched as much as she could, and was desperate to learn everything about basketball. Eventually, the WNBA became a fixation — “It’s every basketball player’s ultimate goal,” she says — and even when that final season at UCLA didn’t go according to plan, she still held out hope for the dream.
Close always thought Gardner had the skills; it was the other things that didn’t line up at the time.
Without UCLA making the postseason, it was challenging for Gardner to showcase her capabilities and get her name into the WNBA conversation.
“There’s a lot of luck involved, too, because there’s only 144 spots,” Close said. “But I knew she had the work ethic. I knew she had the drive. I knew she had the perseverance; it was just a matter of having preparation and opportunity matching up at the right time.”
It wasn’t the right time. Not yet.
In fact, Gardner almost didn’t get an opportunity to play anywhere. She wasn’t selected in the WNBA Draft, and even though she knew she wasn’t ready to give up basketball, Gardner had no idea where to begin when it came to going overseas. She even started looking into graduate school as a backup plan.
But a former teammate connected her with an agent, and eventually, Hapoel Petah Tikva, a team in Israel, pursued Gardner.
“There was one coach who gave me a chance, “she said. “I remember there were a few others who weren’t sure about me. But that team gave me an opportunity, and that’s what kind of started off my professional career.”
From 2012-22, Gardner played for nine different teams. Her first three seasons were in Israel, then three in Turkey, another in Israel, one in Romania, and finally, her last in Spain.
A California girl at heart, Gardner wasn’t sure what it would be like to live in another country. But she found beaches in Israel that reminded her of home and developed a community with other American players. By the time she moved to Turkey, Gardner was a pro at integrating into new places and cultures.
And as her overseas career progressed, Gardner moved on from the only team to give her a chance to some of the top leagues in the world. Her last season was in the EuroLeague, regarded as the second-best professional league after the WNBA. There, she averaged 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game during the 2021 season.
“That was really exciting, and a big goal for me,” she said. “I felt like that was enough for me.”
For years, Gardner battled to prove she was good enough to be in the WNBA.
In 2014, she participated in training camp with the Atlanta Dream, and then in 2017 she had a tryout with the Sky, under former coach Amber Stocks.
Both instances felt like formalities, not real opportunities. After working out with the Sky in 2017, she made a decision.
“I would only go back if a coach or team really, really wanted me,” she said. “They would come after me or give me a call. I think before, when my goal was to get to the WNBA, it was kind of to prove to everyone else that I was just as good of a player as some of the WNBA players. But then I started to realize, like, I am as good as them. So I didn’t really need that stamp to prove it.”
In 2022, the Sky really, really wanted her.
Gardner described Chicago as playing a “run and gun style,” of basketball that suits her abilities. Her success in Spain, and her compatible skill set, caught the attention of Sky coach James Wade.
“When free agency came about, he called me and asked if I would even be interested in playing in the WNBA,” she said. “And from there, I finished out my season in Spain and came straight here.”
When it happened, Gardner didn’t even have time to take in how monumental it was for her career. She finished her season in Spain on a Thursday, and was at practice with Chicago the following Monday. Two days later, she played in her first game.
She was nervous and excited, and also a little surprised. The Sky didn’t waste time easing Gardner in, and her first appearance was a start on May 11.
“I don’t even have the words to express it,” she said. “It was almost surreal.”
Gardner played 27 minutes in that game, scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds. Since then, she’s become a key piece for the defending champions, averaging nine points on 54 percent shooting, 1.5 steals and 1.3 assists in 21.9 minutes per game.
Gardner moves on the basketball court like she was born there. Cutting to the hoop, dropping into a defensive stance, handling the ball — everything looks natural, comfortable. It’s hard to believe it took her a decade to break into the WNBA. For 10 years, she didn’t have the luck Close says it takes to earn one of the 144 spots. But landing with the Sky, well, that was worth the wait.
“Oh my god,” Close said. “She really found the right match.”
Close says Gardner is one of the best players in the world when it comes to moving without the ball. She cuts to the hoop with purpose, and with passers like Courtney Vanderlsoot, Candace Parker and Julie Allemand on the court, she’s almost always rewarded for her efforts.
Wade even thinks she should be in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
“She’s really affecting winning,” he told reporters after an 80-68 victory in which Gardner secured a double-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “She’s a special talent.”
Even when she’s not finding a lane to the basket, Gardner is always doing something productive. She never wastes a second when she’s on the court.
“That’s a critical element,” Sims said. “There’s a lot of times when players can float. But not Bekah. She never floats. She plays hard all the time.”
Close and Sims are avid members of the Rebekah Garder supporters club. Watching her slow and steady climb to the WNBA has been proof of the coaching adage, that good things come to those who work hard.
“I’m totally fangirling,” Close said with a laugh. “She’s encouraged my heart so much, because it’s what you preach to people. If you put in the work, if you persevere and never get tired of doing the right thing, good things are going to happen.”
Since she made her debut for the Sky, Gardner has received countless messages from people she crossed paths with over the years.
“It’s funny because my friends, my family and some of my former coaches, it’s almost like they are more excited than me,” Garder said. “It makes me happy to see that I can make those people happy.”
It’s been a long journey, but Gardner’s love and appreciation for the game never dwindled. Today, it’s at an all-time high. The people in her life are overjoyed for Gardner, but also for her impact. Because anyone who’s witnessed her dedication, or even just heard her story, knows there is a bigger picture.
Gardner knows that, too. One of the friends she met while playing overseas recently told Gardner that he’d been thinking of giving up the game, but watching her play in the WNBA inspired him to keep playing.
“Bekah never quit,” Sims said. “She loved the game, and when you love the game, setbacks don’t matter. She’s a 32-year-old rookie, and that says a lot about her character.”
Gardner plans to play in Spain again during the offseason, and after that, she hopes to return to the WNBA for a few more years. From Ayala to UCLA, to Israel, Turkey, Romania and Spain, to the WNBA, Gardner’s basketball career has been epic. And if you ask Sims, it’s also been Hall of Fame worthy.
He’s tried three separate times to get Gardner into the Hall of Fame at Ayala High School, writing letters and making phone calls. So far, no luck.
“It’s discouraging,” Sims said.
But he isn’t giving up. Gardner never did, so neither will he. And Sims hopes with the WNBA added to her resume, Ayala High School won’t be able to ignore her accomplishments any longer.
“She deserves that,” he said.
Gardner’s 2022 season has been a whirlwind. The rookie hasn’t fully processed what’s happened in the last three months, and she definitely hasn’t had a spare second to ponder her WNBA future. But there certainly is one.
“I see her playing four, maybe five more years,” Sims said.
The potential to play multiple seasons in the WNBA was not something Gardner envisioned when she wrote that first blog post in 2018. Two years before it was published, Gardner says she accepted that her ultimate dream would probably never come to fruition.
But there’s one line that alludes to something different.
“I feel so blessed to still be playing the game I love and in Turkey, arguably one of the best leagues overseas- which is rare for an American player who has yet to reach the WNBA,” she wrote.
Yet. The word stands out among the rest. Perhaps there was more for her after all.
Content or not, Gardner still had hope.
Seven years into her career, she was still playing the game she loved professionally. She hadn’t climbed the ranks to the WNBA, but this was good enough — that’s what she told herself. And maybe it would have been. If the Sky never came calling, perhaps Gardner would have finished her career in Spain, or maybe she would have gone back to Israel, or ventured to an entirely different country.
That could have been fulfilling. It could have been enough.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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