- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001

She caught a red-eye flight home the night after being released by the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs.

You probably missed the transaction. It was listed in the back of the nation's sports pages, in the small-print section.

It was no big deal, except I've been following the story since my early 20s. I clipped the following item out of the newspaper: "Sacramento Monarchs: Waived G Katie Smrcka-Duffy."

It was the same day the Falcons signed quarterback Michael Vick to a six-year contract.

"I wish I could have been healthy," she said, which is about all she said.

She has expressed this lament with greater frequency the last few seasons. Her 22-year-old body is no longer what it once was, and although she knows that, she would like to wake up just once, just one day, and feel almost normal again.

She would like to give up the pills and the needles, and she wouldn't mind it one bit if she never saw another surgeon, and if she could leave the game, put the basketball down for good, she might start to feel good after a couple of months. She is thinking about it, putting the ball away.

It usually depends on how her reconstructed left knee and right ankle feel on a particular day. Sometimes it depends on her back and whether the latest shot of cortisone is working.

She is a physical mess at the moment, this she knows, and she's not in a good place emotionally either, stuck as she is between wanting to play and wanting to feel good again.

She was told a long time ago not to mop up the floor with her body, which was practical advice she chose to ignore. She could run like a deer back in those days, move and jump with the best, and now she is beat-up, old before her time, cranky at times, like a fussy old woman.

The doctor cleaned up her left knee before she was selected in the fourth round of the WNBA Draft by the Monarchs. Well, the doctor said, this procedure is only going to help so much, because you're missing cartilage in part of your knee, and so what you have is bone on bone. You can play through the pain, of course. You have been doing that anyway. Go ahead, lace them up. Let's rock and roll.

She called from Sacramento one night with the news that her medical records from Georgetown University were now in the hands of the Monarchs' coaching staff. That's a lot of reading, she was told. They could put the material between two hardback covers and call it a book. The stab at humor did not go well, judging by the silence on the other end of the phone line.

She is back in the house now, and as much as we're opposites, we do a great job of putting up with each other. She even tries to laugh at my jokes on occasion. Yeah, yeah. We went four months without acknowledging each other's presence. But it was a basketball thing, not personal, because when we play together, we're both competitive to a fault, plus stubborn, and even four months after the fact, we still had to rehash the plays in the game that led to the blow-up. If you must know, we won the game, too.

I guess it's in her genes. She has red hair. My excuse is I'm just a fool. She internalizes. I let it out. She gives me that look on the court, and I hate that look. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.

If the truth be known, she is a better competitor than I, and tougher, too. I am a serial whiner. She prefers to stick her nose in your navel and take the ball.

We played again the other day. It was like old times, even if it was low-key. I accidentally knocked her down on one play, and she snapped at me, and I snapped back, and then it was all forgotten with a hug.

By the way, how's the back?

The season before last was the worst with the back. Some mornings, she couldn't bend over to tie her shoes. You going to play this week? We'll see, she would say. She sat out two games. She should have sat out the whole season.

She put up gaudy numbers in college, finishing with 2,072 points, 624 rebounds, 387 assists, 244 steals and 207 3-pointers, but they tell only the cold, clinical part of it.

They say you can't measure an athlete's heart, but I can tell you with certainty that her heart is as big as they come. She has been a remarkable athlete, and I've known a few athletes over the years, and yes, the opinion is incredibly biased, steeped in love.

I love her to death, even after we go around and around, and I try to become parental on her, and she rolls her eyes and delivers her one-word dismissal: "Whatever."

Katie, you have to let stuff go. You're going to wind up being one of those old ladies they find with newspapers and books and everything imaginable stacked to the ceiling. The poor girl. She hates to toss out even her junk mail. What can you do?

You adapt. I know I don't throw out empty shoe boxes any longer. I did that once. Boy, was that a mistake.

For now, she is trying to figure it out, and if I had to guess, I would bet on her returning to the hardwood. She just needs her body to behave a little better and then she can do the rest.

That is the hope anyway.

Until then, I plan to avoid all empty shoe boxes and junk mail.


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