Courtside with Jacki Gemelos

An unfiltered Q&A with WNBA players — past and present.

Hello and welcome to Courtside.

Take a break from the game. Pull up a chair. Settle in. Have some water. And relax. 

As often as I can, I’ll be bringing you honest, revealing and fun Q&As with some of the greatest players in WNBA history as well as rookies, veterans and All-Stars in the league today. 

Now and again, I’ll also be posting columns focusing on what’s happening in the WNBA or sharing my thoughts about basketball-related current events, issues, and/or players in the news cycle. 

Now, let’s get to the conversation.

New York Liberty

Jacki Gemelos, 32, is a former WNBA player and current assistant coach for the New York Liberty. She is also one of the most resilient athletes to ever lace up a pair basketball sneakers. A top recruit in high school, Gemelos seemed destined for WNBA stardom. She averaged 39 points per game during her senior year and women’s college basketball analysts were comparing Gemelos to her idol, Diana Taurasi. She almost followed in Taurasi’s footsteps when she committed to play for Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, but decided to stay closer to home and play for the University at Southern California instead.

As soon as Gemelos embarked on her college basketball career, the knee injuries began. Three and a half years later, she was finally able to play her first game for USC. She re-injured her knee halfway through her final college season. Still, the Minnesota Lynx selected Gemelos in the third round of the 2012 WNBA Draft. She didn’t end up making the roster and spent the bulk of her professional career playing overseas and in Greece, where she excelled. Gemelos eventually signed with the Chicago Sky in 2015 for one season. Five years later, she got another shot when she signed with the Connecticut Sun and played in the 2020 WNBA bubble. After getting cut by the Sun halfway through the season, she was picked up by the Washington Mystics.

“We needed a guard who could make threes and fit into our unselfish passing. She brought a joy and passion for the game that helped keep us upbeat during the tough time we were going through. She loves the game and loves being in the gym. She’s a great teammate.”

— Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault on why he signed Gemelos and what she brought to the team for the duration of the 2020 WNBA bubble season

(The Athletic)

Gemelos thoroughly enjoyed her time with the Mystics, and she planned on joining the team in training camp in late April 2021 to compete for a roster spot. But ultimately, she decided to retire. When Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins offered Gemelos a spot on his coaching staff shortly after, she accepted. It seemed like the perfect fit.

Steve Freeman

In January 2021, you re-signed with the Washington Mystics on a training camp contract. Where were you at both physically and mentally?

Mentally, I was in a place where I was unsure of where I was going to be physically. I had hopes that things were gonna turn out to be okay. But then I also had [reservations] at the same time, like, you know, with my knee. I had gone to Turkey and I was in an immense amount of pain there just with my left knee. And that’s really why I decided to come back, because I wanted to treat it, I wanted to get ready for the WNBA season.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go into training camp or go into a WNBA season where I was, so I needed to seek help back home and see my trainers. So I was just kind of at a place of uncertainty. But definitely, you know, my eye was set to go to Washington and try and do it.

A few months later, you decided to retire from basketball altogether. What were the motivating factors that led to your decision?

After my season in Turkey, I went to Greece and did a stem cell injection there, which I thought would be helpful. And then I was going to see my physical therapist in Los Angeles who has been taking care of me for years and years and years, and she’s fixed every problem I’ve ever had. So, it was just like these things that I felt like I needed. But in the end it just wasn’t the same. All of these treatments, everything that I did, it just — nothing was helping.

I thought finally, at this point in my career, nothing is going to help me and I was in that much pain that I thought it was the right time to retire. [It was an] extremely hard decision. Like, I fought it for my entire career. I fought not playing. But really at the end there, it was just like, okay, I’m not gonna be able to perform the way I want to perform, I’m going to be in pain every single day — just the bad outweighed the good for the first time. So I had to make that decision.

You were recently hired by the New York Liberty as an assistant coach. How did that come about and have you always been interested in coaching?

Honestly, it happened so fast. When I announced on my Instagram that I was going to stop playing — I had met Walt [Hopkins] in the (WNBA) bubble in 2020, and was always talking to him in the weight room and in passing, and we had great conversations . . . We just had so many things to talk about all the time. So that’s where the relationship developed and I think that those moments between the staff and me kind of stuck.

Fast forward and I put that announcement on my Instagram, and then Walt texted me immediately within a couple of hours and he was like, what are your next moves? I told him I wasn’t sure yet. And he just said, coaching with me? I’d never even thought about coaching in the WNBA. I really thought that coaching for me would be in college. That’s just really how it happened. It went from a conversation on Instagram to a conversation on the phone and then from us just pretty much talking every day until we actually solidified everything. It’s just the perfect situation and team for me to be in.

Looking back, if you could describe your WNBA career in one word what would it be? And can you explain why you chose that word?

I guess just . . . emotional.

I mean there’s so many emotions that played into my WNBA career. Just the actual dream in itself, of wanting to be in the league and wanting to be a part of the WNBA, to being cut numerous times, to then finally making my first team, to being cut again and being out of the league for five years, and then to being invited back to the 2020 bubble season with Connecticut and being cut in the bubble, to getting picked up by Washington — I mean, just the emotional wave that I experience from being in the WNBA was just so . . . it was a roller coaster. So many different emotions, but just brought me tears of joy and sadness on both ends.

You were a part of a few different teams throughout your WNBA tenor. Which team was your favorite and why?

Each team that I played on, they each had their own unique experience. And they were all special for me for different reasons. Chicago being my very first WNBA team, playing with Elena Delle Donne, playing with Cappie Pondexter — you know, that whole high of it all and experiencing what its like. I could never compare that to anything else, so that was extremely special for me.

You know, Connecticut, I had a great run there, had a great experience there but I didn’t play a lot. So it’s kind of blessing that I ended up with Washington. My experience there was just another great one, because coach [Thibault], I’ve known for so long but had never played for him. And vice versa. So he knew me really well going into it. And he’s really the coach that made me the mayor of the bubble, so that’s all him. He’s just a cool guy and I connected with him and his son Eric. That was a great time for me, too. I don’t know how to sum it up any other way.

What would you say was the highlight of your WNBA career?

I mean, I think you know me well enough to answer that yourself. I feel like you know (laughs).

True. Does it have to do with Diana Taurasi?

Yes. That goes without being said — literally a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life. I guarantee that.

Where do you see your career path going as a coach?

For now, I mean, I’ve been a coach for one month and I’ve learned so many things. It’s just a different experience being on this side of things so far, everything that plays into everything that happens, just how everything operates. It’s a lot different.

I think, I could see my career, hopefully, I would love to stay in the WNBA. I think it’s such a great league. There’s so many good things about being in the W. It’s a shorter season, obviously having a longer offseason. And I just like the pro lifestyle. It’s how the players have the freedom to be pros and we treat them as pros. It’s not really babysitting younger players and making sure they go to class, eat good, this and that. I enjoy the environment. I’m not saying I won’t experience [coaching in college], I’m sure at some point I will.

I don’t know, coaching has just been really cool and if it’s not something I do forever, I’m sure I’ll be close to the game no matter what. But this is something I know I needed to do for myself.

What’s something about you that people would be surprised to know or wouldn’t expect?

Oh, you’re giving me one of these questions? Ugh. Something about me that no one would expect . . . um, I guess because I’m talkative, I know everyone, everyone kind of knows who I am, I still like to be alone. And I’m an introvert at heart. I don’t really like to be around a lot of people. I think that’s something that would surprise most people.

What’s your guilty pleasure? Could be a song, movie, food, etc.? 

Um . . . yeah . . . my mind is drawing a blank.

Oh my God, I always say this as my guilty pleasure — what is that show called where they meet each other overseas — 90 Day Fiancé! That is for sure one of my guilty pleasures, I am obsessed with that show.

When you were playing (in college and/or in the WNBA), did you have any pregame rituals or superstitions that you stuck to before every game?

Yeah, I had a sports bra that I wore for, like, 15 years. For every game. I know, I know. It was this yellow highlighter sports bra and it ended up staining — it’s like brown (laughs). That was my good luck charm. I started it my freshman year in high school, and my high school days were my glory days. I was a big time player there. So that just stuck with me, I just had to always wear my lucky sports bra.

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