Jackie Gemelos: A case study in courage and persistence

January 21, 2014 - 11:46pm
One-time National High School Player of the Year Jacki Gemelos encountered one serious knee injury after the other over the course of her college career, but she has never given up on her dream of playing professional women's basketball. She is currently playing for Panathinaikos in Athens, Greece, and hopes to make a return to the WNBA this spring. (Photo by V. Stolis)

One-time National High School Player of the Year Jacki Gemelos encountered one serious knee injury after the other over the course of her college career, but she has never given up on her dream of playing professional women's basketball. She is currently playing for Panathinaikos in Athens, Greece, and hopes to make a return to the WNBA this spring. (Photo by V. Stolis)

Editor's Note: When she graduated from St. Mary's High School in Stockton, Calif., in 2006, Jacki Gemelos had racked up a career record of 3,162 points and, after averaging 39.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game as a senior, was widely considered one of the hottest recruits in the country, a player with the combination of skills and athleticism to place her among the ranks of potential game-changers like Candace Parker and Maya Moore. But things did not work out as planned for the McDonald's and WBCA All American and 2006 MaxPreps and Scout.com National Player of the Year once she arrived on the campus of USC. Her injury-plagued collegiate career begin by red-shirting her freshman year to recover from a knee injury sustained near the end of her high school season. Looking to come back as a sophomore, Gemelos again sat out after again tearing her ACL during the off-season, and the following year saw Gemelos once again sidelined when she tore the ACL in her left knee shortly before the season began.

Gemelos did not take the court in a Trojans uniform until Feb. 4, 2010 after rehabbing from yet another off-season knee injury. But though there were glimpses of her once stunning potential, Gemelos was no longer the impact player that had been hoped for. She averaged 7.6 points, 3.6 boards, 1.4 assists and 0.8 steals per game in her 11 appearances in the 2009-10 season. 2010-11 was Gemelos' first healthy season,  and she made the most of it. Appearing in all 37 USC games that year and starting in 28 of them, Gemelos led the former Pac-10 Conference in 3-point percentage (42.4 percent) and set her career high of 27 points against Fresno State on Dec. 29. In the summer of 2011, Gemelos achieved one of her goals when she helped Team USA take the gold medal at the World University Games. Entering her final season the following year, Gemelos was named to the early-season Naismith Watch List and was averaging double-digit scoring and leading her team in both rebounds and resists for the first nine games, until injury raised its ugly head once again.

Despite having undergone five ACL reconstructive surgeries in a span of six years, Gemelos was tapped by the Minnesota Lynx late in the third round of the 2012 WNBA Draft (No. 31 overall). Still recouping from injury, Gemelos didn't  play in the WNBA that year, but was given another shot by the Lynx, who signed her to a training camp contract in 2013. She didn't stick on the talent-packed squad, however, and was waived on May 22, 2013, after appearing in just one, preseason game.

But Gemelos's courage and grace in battling through the adversities that have beset her have inspired many, and true to form, Gemelos still has not given up on her dreams of a career in professional women's basketball. Today, she plays for Panathinaikos in Athens, Greece, where she took time from her busy game and practice schedule to respond to questions from FullCourt.com's Sue Favor.

Full Court: How long have you been playing in Greece?

Jacki Gemelos: I came out here Sept. 1, 2013, and I plan on leaving April 29, 2014.

Full Court: Did you specifically seek out a playing opportunity in

Gemelos: Greece was always a place I dreamed of playing in. Being that I am half Greek and really identify with my Greek side, my family had a
huge influence on wanting to play out here. When my dad was the exact age that I am now (25), he was playing for a club called Sporting. A team we actually played for our first game this season.

Full Court: How is the team doing so far? How has it been building
chemistry with your teammates?

Gemelos: We are doing well. We are tied for first place with another great team, Eliniko. The chemistry of this team is very good. One of the best I have ever been a part of. We are looking to win games, and it’s
consistent to see three, four or maybe even five players in double figures.

Full Court: You look so happy in all the pictures I've seen of you playing in Greece. I hope that's a reflection of your experience there so
far. Can you speak to that?

Gemelos: I am beyond happy at this point in my life. Coming to Greece at the time I came was perfect. I needed a change and a break from my life
back home. Greece has been a place where I have regained my confidence on the court, and off the court I have met some incredible people. I couldn’t be happier.

Full Court: How is the style of play different in Greece than in the United States?
Gemelos: The style of play here in Greece isn’t too different than the U.S. It’s a little slower pace, and some minor rule changes, but for the most part it’s a similar style. Traveling is a little different in Europe, and I have had to change my hesitation move that I do almost every time I get the ball in the U.S. (Laughing) They like to call that as carry out here. So I would say that has been the biggest adjustment to my game. But it has also forced me to be more creative with my dribble.

Full Court: What are Greek fans like?
Gemelos: The only fans I can speak on are Panathinaikos. The fans at this club are like no other fans I have ever experienced. If I had to compare them to a fan base, I would compare them to the “Cameron
Crazies.” But that still doesn’t cut it. These fans here are crazy in the most amazing way! They live for the success of our teams. When we lose, they feel it just as much as the players do. We play not only for ourselves and for each other, but for our fans as well. They are a huge reason for our success and I appreciate every last one of

Full Court: Had you been to Greece before this? How is it different from life in the U.S.?
Gemelos: Shockingly this is the first time I have ever been to Greece. Athens is literally “the city that never sleeps.” They party harder than anything I have ever seen. (Laughing) It’s very fast-paced out here. Never a dull moment. Lots of public transportation. I am 15 minutes from the sea, which is the most beautiful water I have ever seen. The crazy thing is I haven’t even been to the best Islands, where they say it's paradise. And what I’ve experienced seems like paradise already. The weather is comparable to Los Angeles. Pretty much perfect. A majority of people speak English here as well so that’s great too! The food is delicious. They love their meats, dairy, and carbs!  (Laughing) You definitely have to be careful out here!

Full Court: How is your game continuing to evolve?
Gemelos: My game is evolving daily because I have been healthy. I've taken care of my body and [have been] doing all the necessary things to sustain it. I think that has been the biggest key to my success this time around. I
have the “green light” on the court so that’s huge as far as confidence goes. The key to my game evolving is to stay healthy. Point-blank, period.

Full Court: How are your knees?
Gemelos: My knees feel great. Better than ever.

Full Court: What do you do off the court and for fun in Greece?
Gemelos: I met a few friends outside of basketball who I really adore. I hang out with them whether it's an occasional club, or just a movie and dinner night. I love to shop out here. They have all the Jordans -- no hassle in getting them, either.  (Laughing) I love going to the water to relax and get a nice tan. I am a member to a gym that’s across the street from my apartment that I’m always at. I like going to different coffee shops to read or download music. Basically my life is very relaxing out here, and I have had a lot of time to reflect on myself and make some changes to be a better person all around. I’m thankful for this time out here in so many different ways.

Full Court: Are you going to try out for the WNBA next year?
Gemelos: Signing to a training camp is definitely something I want to do. Everything I am doing now is preparation for the WNBA. That’s still my goal. I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied if I don’t reach it.