Exactly one month ago, Paige Bueckers was playing pickup in the Werth Champions Center when the trajectory of UConn women’s basketball’s entire season — and her career — changed drastically. She was running full speed and tried to stop when her left leg just gave out.
“I knew it was bad. I felt a pop. I’m not really sure if I heard it, but I felt it for sure,” Bueckers explained on Thursday. “I knew something was wrong.”
She immediately limped to the trainer’s room for initial testing. At that point, it didn’t look good but the full extent of the injury still wasn’t known. That night, she underwent an MRI and even though the doctor had the results quickly, he wanted to take a second look in the morning to be sure.
The next day, Bueckers’ worst fears were confirmed: She had torn the ACL in her left knee and would miss the entire 2022-23 season. In the moment, Bueckers was still in shock, so the gravity of the news didn’t really hit her. It wasn’t until the team made the news public two days later on Aug. 3 that she really started to process it.
“When they posted it and the texts came through, all the posts came through, when I saw that, then it really became real life,” Bueckers said. “Everybody knows about it. It really happened. I had to own it.”
The first week after the injury was the toughest for Bueckers. She struggled to stay positive while stress and anxiety weighed her down — especially ahead of her surgery. But once she came to grips with happened, she turned a corner mentally.
Bueckers read heavily — devotionals, books and a quote from Kobe Bryant about how he never dwelled on his injuries — while leaning on her faith and her teammates, especially those who had previously suffered ACL tears like Caroline Ducharme, Dorka Juhász, Aubrey Griffin and Azzi Fudd. They helped give her realistic expectations for the recovery process over the next 9-12 months.
“I’m walking right now so I’m like ‘Why can’t I play?’ I’m trying to be back as soon as I can,” Bueckers explained. “But them just telling me that it’s going to be a long process and a long journey and just sort of asking them how it went for them and what could they start doing and just the different perspectives and in different ways that they went about it, I’m just trying to learn more so I can be better in my process.”
Some of the most important advice her teammates provided is that she can’t pace her recovery based on how the knee feels.
“They told me...you start to see you’re making your way back but at the same time, your knee will feel great but it’s not healed yet,” Bueckers said. “Just to be careful and not to get too far ahead of yourself and not to force your way back.”
Bueckers even heard from a former UConn star: Breanna Stewart. While she suffered a ruptured Achilles, not a torn ACL, she still wanted to send her well wishes and provide some advice, too.
Even though UConn already ruled Bueckers out for the season when it announced the injury, she re-affirmed that she won’t attempt to play this year — even if her rehab is ahead of schedule. She doesn’t want to make a short-term decision that could affect her for the rest of her basketball career.
“I’m not gonna play the season just because if I come back too soon, then something else is gonna get injured,” she said. “I really just want to be 110% healthy before I ever play basketball again just because I never want to take a break like this again, ever, in my career.”
Bueckers also said she’ll return to UConn next season despite being eligible for the 2023 WNBA Draft.
“I’m not leaving. That is not in the question,” she said. “People asked me, ‘What are you thinking about your fifth year, COVID year, redshirting this year?’ I’m not thinking too far ahead about that at all but I will be playing college basketball again.”
So far, Bueckers’ recovery is going well. She’s been working out on a stationary bike and plans to begin hydrotherapy soon. She also got cleared for “chair workouts”, which allow her to undertake any basketball activities that she can do while sitting in a chair.
“Anything I can do with on the basketball court is extremely therapeutic for me,” Bueckers said. “So I think all those are really big steps.”
In the mean time, she’s starting to figure out her role for the upcoming season. When Bueckers sat out last year while recovering from a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus, she was one of the most vocal and animated people on UConn’s bench. Now that she knows she’s out for good, Bueckers plans on taking it to the next level.
“Yeah, I’m head coach. Coach (Geno Auriemma) let me take his spot,” she joked.
There is some truth to that, though. Bueckers does plan on taking a coaching-type role — one that she’s uniquely qualified to hold.
“I told them I’m players coach. I’m gonna be like the one that they can talk to, the one that’s gonna push them but also the one that they can rely on when they need support and anything like that,” she said. “I’m definitely taking a job as a coach but I’m not sure which spot I’m taking yet.”
At the moment, Bueckers said Auriemma likes the idea of having some extra help on the staff. Whether or not that enthusiasm lasts is another story.
“He likes it but I’m not sure he’ll like it when it starts happening,” she laughed. “It’ll be great. I’m excited.”
As physically and mentally challenging as the last month has been for Bueckers, she’s a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. She gave herself that first week to be upset but since then, she’s refused to mope and has been working on self-improvement. From this point on, Bueckers is only looking at the positives.
“There’s so many things in my life that I’m grateful for,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t even have to pay for my surgery. I’m at my dream school with people I call family. To sulk and be sad about this, there’s a lot more that can be wrong in life...Everybody has their own journeys and their own pains.”
Few players love basketball more than Bueckers, yet it’s been taken away from her twice in less than an eight-month span. She’d be forgiven if she felt a little sorry for herself. Instead, she’s done the opposite and has shown maturity well beyond her years.
“It’s been a process but I feel like I’ve handled it pretty well,” she said. “I think it’s only up from here.”