By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Kristi Kingma was alone. For the first time in her basketball career, she was truly alone.
It lasted through the sweat-drenched practices that Kingma used to love, through the shooting sessions that she watched from a distance, right up until the first game of the University of Washington women’s basketball team’s 2011-12 season.
While the Huskies ran out onto the court and pumped themselves up for a game, Kingma stood away from the action in street clothes, feeling utterly alone.
“Seeing girls run out on the court and be excited, and I wasn’t excited,” Kingma said last week, “that was hard.”
What was even harder was the way Kingma, a former Jackson High School star, had to spend what was supposed to be her senior season at UW. Having torn an anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during an exhibition tour in Scandinavia last August, Kingma spent more time in the training room last season than she did on the court.
The long rehabilitation process made Kingma miss basketball more than she ever could have known, and now she can’t wait to finally get back on the court for a game that truly matters.
“I get goose bumps thinking about it,” Kingma said of the 2012-13 opener that’s still more than two months away. “I am so excited to play. I think the first time I get out there, the first time my name’s called, that’s when I’ll fully realize I’m back. Hopefully, I’ll find enough calmness that I won’t be tripping over my feet.”
Just getting back onto the court, where Kingma has been working out with teammates without any limitation, has been quite a journey.
She had surgery on Sept. 9 and took the first steps of her rehabilitation shortly thereafter, spending three hours a day in the training room during late September and October of last year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever come that close to swearing in my life,” Kingma said with a laugh last week. “It was excruciating pain, bending my knee a way it didn’t want to go. I probably told (team trainer Jenn Stueckle) that I hated her a few times.”
In October, the season started without her. Kingma was mostly relegated to spectator duty, spending the pre-game shootaround near the half-court stripe, absently clapping her hands. During games, she sat on the bench in a nice dress, holding her crutches and silently wishing she was out there bleeding and bruising with her teammates.
“I’ve always been a really positive person, and I haven’t had too many setbacks in life,” she said last week. “But at first, when I was still on crutches and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, that was hard.”
In many ways, it must have been like the end of a long-term relationship. Kingma was without the love of her life, and she felt hurt and alone.
She did have the camaraderie of Stueckle and fellow UW athletes like volleyball player Amanda Gil and football player Deontae Cooper, both of whom were rehabilitating their own injuries alongside Kingma in the training room.
Gil, a senior from San Jose who underwent a transplant surgery to repair cartilage in her left knee in September, gained inspiration from Kingma during the process.
“She is such a hard worker,” Gil said this week. “She’s so dedicated. … Just going in there, being sad and depressed, she always had the biggest smile on her face. She was very diligent with her rehab, and it really helped me.”
Seeing other student-athletes go through the same process also helped Kingma, but game days were still hard. Sitting and watching might have been the most painful part of the entire rehabilitation process.
“I was so excited for my senior year, so excited for the new coaching staff,” said Kingma, who earned a medical redshirt last year and will make her playing debut under coach Kevin McGuff in the Nov. 9 season opener. “I could not even fathom sitting on the bench. As time went, it got easier. But at first, it was devastating.”
By late November, “probably before I should have,” she can admit now, Kingma started shooting a basketball on her own. She was up to an hour a day of shooting while her teammates finished up the 2011-12 season, and Kingma shot every weekday of the summer for at least 90 minutes, sometimes two hours.
Along the way, Kingma spent a lot of her down time hitting the weights, adding 25 pounds to both her bench press and squat. Her lithe frame, which critics have pointed out as the biggest weakness in her game, added needed muscle.
By the time the knee healed up and Kingma was cleared to start playing again, shortly after spring workouts, she was back playing games with her teammates. Now, as the Huskies prepare to begin Year 2 of the McGuff era, Kingma feels better than ever.
“I’m stronger, faster, quicker than I’ve ever been in my career,” she said last week.
Despite proclaiming herself “100 percent” healthy, Kingma knows the rehabilitation is not fully over. When she heard that Cooper, her old rehab partner in the training room, had torn a different ligament upon returning to the football field earlier this month, “my heart sunk.” She mostly felt for him, but it also forced her to look inward.
“I’d be lying to say I don’t think about re-tearing it,” Kingma said of the ACL injury she suffered one year ago this Sunday. “Anytime someone comes back from something like this, they’re always kind of hesitant at first.
“I remember when I took my first awkward fall in open gym (during the summer), and I looked around like, ‘OK, I’m fine.’ That was scary.”
Kingma received more bad news when incoming freshman basketball player Katie Collier, a Kent native who beat leukemia and with whom Kingma became close friends, tore her ACL earlier this month.
“The biggest thing I can tell Katie is: ‘So you’re devastated now. But you’ll come back bigger and faster than ever before — and you’ll love basketball even more now,’” Kingma said. “She’ll come back to not only the All-American she was, but she’ll be even better (after rehab).
“But it’s going to be hard. It’s going to (stink). Nobody wants to go through rehab.”
With rehab mostly behind her, Kingma believes she’s a better player now. And McGuff doesn’t have any plans to bring her along slowly.
“My expectation is we hit the ground running with her,” he said earlier this week. “I think she’s ready for that.”
Kingma’s return adds immediate scoring to a team that lost points-per-game leader Regina Rogers to graduation. With Kingma on the wing and sophomore point guard Jazmine Davis running the show, the Huskies have two prime-time scorers in the backcourt and plenty of question marks up front.
“We’re going to look different, obviously,” McGuff said. “(Graduated frontcourt players) Regina, Mollie (Williams) and Mack (Mackenzie Argens) were very good, and we had a system that kind of highlighted that. Now, we’re more of a perimeter team. Certainly, Kristi will be a big part of that.”
And Kingma couldn’t be happier. She’s finally a part of something again.