By: Austin Staton
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Eleven minutes into the game against Big 12 foe Kansas State on February 2, 2008, Jhasmin Player’s career as a student-athlete encountered a roadblock. The junior co-captain suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) in her left knee during the Lady Bears' 63-49 win against the Wildcats.
As a leader for Kim Mulkey’s squad, this would be a major in-season loss for Baylor. Player had started every game during the 2007-08 campaign, and was averaging 12.2 points, 6.0 boards and team-leading 3.5 assists a game.
“Ever since Jhasmin set foot in our gym, she's been a huge part of our success. She got to play 21 games of her junior year and played an important part of the team's success this season,” Head Coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after the win over Kansas State.
“She makes people around her better,” Mulkey said. “She is a very good basketball player in her own right, but what she brings to the floor to help the confidence of everybody around her is more valuable then anything that she can do by herself. That is what we lost when we lost her last year — the ability for her to make everybody else better.”
Prior to Player's injury, the Lady Bears were rolling. Ranked No. 6 by The Associated Press and winning 20 of their first 21 contests and 8-0 in the Big 12, Baylor was set to make a deep postseason run.
Forced to watch from the sidelines, Player assumed a new role.
“(It) was tough for me in the sense that when I got here I was always more vocal than some,” Player said. “With me on the bench, I am trying to explain ‘Ok, you run over there and do this’, but I couldn’t show them. It really made me a lot more patient with the freshmen. It is a different way to learn how to communicate with everyone, but somehow it helped out.”
Player's absence reduced Mulkey's player rotation to seven players. The Lady Bears went 5-6 down the stretch and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Following her surgery in the early part of the spring semester, Player took nearly eight months to rehabilitate her left knee. She was driven to be ready for the start of the 2008-09 season and was encouraged by the coaching and training staff plus her teammates.
“There was no doubt in my mind that she would be back,” Mulkey said. “She will never be the player that she once was in Jhasmin’s mind because she is such a competitor. That is when you have to tell athletes, ‘Yes, you will’. She can still be the player that she was, and she is proving that.”
The eight-month recovery process was challenging. Player admits that the first few days of rehab were quite an emotional roller coaster.
“At the time it happened it was at a time where I was playing the very best basketball of my career. So when it happened I thought I was done for, that there was nothing next for me,” Player said during Big 12 media days in October. “(Rehab) was something I had to want for me to do myself. It was something that God was teaching me. You have to want this for yourself before having to want it for someone else. It was a blessing in disguise. I got through it. I feel like after I've gone through that I'm as battle-tested as anything.”
A NEW BEGINNING
In late August, the Lady Bears played a two-game exhibition series in British Columbia, Canada. Baylor won by an average of 38 points but Player didn't play. There was talk she might sit out the 2008-09 season as a medical redshirt.
When practice started, Player was working out but was uncertain of her status. It wasn't until an exhibition game with the Houston Jaguars on Nov. 3 that Player took the court in the first half. She received a standing ovation from the 5,375 fans in the Ferrell Center.
“It was tough. The journey was tough. It was just great to be back out here in front of the fans,” Player said after the 123-70 rout of the Jaguars. “Just eight months ago I was sitting on the operation table, so to be out here today with my teammates—we still have a lot of things to work on, but to be back in the mix and to get that chemistry back, just speaks volumes.”
The Lady Bears feature six new players this season. With Player averaging 29.5 minutes along with 10.5 points and 5.2 boards per contest, a veteran voice is something that will pay dividends for Baylor as the season progresses. Player understands her position on the team as a senior captain.
“I remember Sophia Young being my mentor when I was a freshman and me just trying to do exactly what she did for me for them. They are all fun and they all bring something different to the table,” Player said of the newcomers. “What is key is that when they are down you have to know ‘Ok, let me go over here and let me pick them up.’
"At this age I have to put myself aside because I know more then they do and try to put them on my back and bring them along until they are at a point where they can finish it out.”
Baylor won nine of its first 10 games and is ranked in the top 10. With Player back as a productive leader, expectations are high.
“Jhasmin Player is (an athlete) that you wish all coaches have the opportunity to coach because she is going to listen to what you say,” Mulkey said. “As a coach you better know what you are doing because she is going to question you enough to see if you are on the ball and if you are sharp with what you are telling her. She understands the game.”