January 29, 2021
Asia Durr’s journey as a ‘Long-Hauler’ puts her WNBA career in question
The Liberty guard has battled adversity before, but fighting the after-effects of COVID-19 is uncharted territory
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Asia Durr is no stranger to either setbacks or comebacks. She suffered a torn groin during her freshman year at Louisville and in the years following was voted to the all-ACC Tournament first team, was a WBCA First Team All-American, and was named both the Dawn Staley and Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Winner for the best guard.
History appeared to repeat itself when Durr struggled with her groin and hips during her rookie season on the Liberty. Playing limited minutes and games, her first professional season ended with surgery to repair lingering labral tears in both hips.
At the beginning of May, Durr told her Liberty teammate Kia Nurse that she “could do anything without any pain” and consistent physical therapy visits only made her more confident and stronger.
“My life has completely changed since June 8th,” Durr told correspondent Mary Carillo on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel on Tuesday evening as part of the show’s season premiere.
But on her YouTube channel, Durr revealed this week that her life actually began to transform during a vacation in February of 2020, at a time when doctors weren’t even testing for COVID-19 in the United States. While sitting in a restaurant in Florida, Durr was hit with an uncontrollable cough which turned into profuse sweats and body aches. At the time, doctors told her she had tested positive for flu type A.
Durr’s partner then contracted an illness as well and it got so severe that she was put on a ventilator and remained ill for around two weeks. After weeks of observing what the world and country were going through in the early stages of learning about the virus, both had determined that they most likely contracted COVID-19 during their February trip.
A few months later, Durr was diagnosed with COVID-19 officially in June after regularly going to physical therapy and the gym to lift in order to prepare for the 2020 season. After being struck with the virus a second time, she opted out of the Wubble season and received her 2020 WNBA salary as a high-risk player who also has sickle cell anemia and asthma. According to Durr, she was on her way to the hospital on the day she announced she couldn’t participate in the 2020 season.
After Durr’s announcement on Twitter, Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb responded to her decision in a team press release. “Asia worked extremely hard this offseason to put herself in position to take a major leap forward in her second WNBA season,” he said. “While we are disappointed that we will need to wait a bit longer to see her emerge as one of the bright young players in the game, we fully recognize and support the difficult decision she had to make amidst unprecedented circumstances. Brooklyn will be ready for her in 2021.”
Almost eight months later, it’s unclear if she’ll be ready for Brooklyn in 2021 or even ever. According to Dr. Emily Brigham, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Medicine with expertise in pulmonary and critical care medicine, Durr’s experience is one that many people diagnosed with coronavirus go through. Brigham, who runs a clinic for “Long-Haulers,” or folks like Durr who don’t fully recover from the virus, noted that she hasn’t been able to tell patients when or if they can fully recover. Also known as post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, 10 percent of all coronavirus patients are susceptible to becoming “Long-Haulers.”
“We’re still trying to figure it out, and it’s one of the most frustrating things for patients, but also for physicians,” Dr. Brigham told Carillo. “We’re here because we want to help, and when we don’t know what’s going on, it’s very hard to help.”
Durr’s arduous battles with coronavirus have left her with debilitating after-effects which included lingering respiratory troubles, headaches, hemoptysis, heart palpitations, and a loss of appetite. “COVID really knocked me off my feet,” Durr said on her YouTube channel. “It took me three months [after she was diagnosed in June] to be able to get out of bed.”
She explained the gravity of her lung pain.
“It’s just lung pain that was just so severe it felt like somebody took a long knife and was just stabbing you in your lungs, each second,” she said on Real Sports. “I woke up two o’clock in the morning, vomiting, going back and forth to the bathroom. I couldn’t keep anything down.”
“I can’t eat or have certain things right now,” she said on the first episode of her channel. For a while, her favorite meal was watermelon and salt. The former two-time ACC Player of the Year has dropped over 30 pounds.
For Durr, it’s not just physical debilitation that prevents her from playing basketball. Another concern is what her bouts with COVID have done to her brain function and memory. She told Mechelle Voepel on Wednesday that sometimes she can’t even hold verbal conversations. She texts family and friends instead.
“Headache and confusion are things I deal with every single day,” she said. “Brain fog. I was just watching an episode [of television] last night with my family. And after it went off, I was like, ‘Wait, what did I say?’ I had just watched it.”
This isn’t the first time Durr has had to take a pause from basketball. After her groin injury in college, she was forced to “figure out what life meant outside of basketball.” Usually, rehab from an injury takes time, but it is based on a set of controllables. The amount of work an athlete is willing to put into their rehabilitation process can sometimes yield desirable results. But the uncertainty that accompanies post-acute COVID-19 syndrome makes these challenges uncharted waters for Durr.
“I’m striving to do everything I can to get back out there on the court for the 2021 season,” she told ESPN. “I’m so used to if you get hurt playing basketball, they say, ‘You’ll be out for two weeks or two months, or whatever.’ This is, ‘We don’t know.’ Everybody’s body is different. That’s something I’ve never heard before. I’ve been hurt a few times in my career, and I’ve always been put on a timetable. This is all new.”
For Durr, a goal from now until the unforeseeable future is to harness her support system and just keep going. On her latest YouTube video, Durr thanked the people around her including her agents, fans, and the New York Liberty.
“I’m very thankful for … my team, New York, the whole coaching staff, they’ve been great,” she said. “It’s very important to have a great support system because those are the people who are going to help you get through it.”
Many current prominent figures in women’s basketball have shown support for Durr including Liberty players such as Layshia Clarendon, Joyner Holmes, Jazmine Jones, Amanda Zahui B., and Kia Nurse. Durr received kind words on her Instagram stories from players around the league such as Arike Ogunbowale, Elena Delle Donne, Astou Ndour, and Courtney Williams. “Day by day and step by step we’re cheering you on,” Delle Donne wrote. “Keep on fighting. ❤️”
Also, Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia shared an Instagram story in honor of Durr. “Thoughts and prayers up for the toughest baller I ever came up against! Here for you always fam. 🤞🏽❤️ 💯.”
As for the Liberty organization, their actions speak louder than their words. According to Voepel’s reporting, the Liberty mustered together a medical team that would assist Durr with her recovery. She has breathing exercises and physical therapy that she completes around three times a day. For the Liberty, their priority is Durr’s overall health and then anything related to basketball is secondary.
It’s worth noting that the Liberty exercised the team’s four-year option for Durr earlier this month. If Durr isn’t well enough to participate in this upcoming season, Kolb told ESPN that he isn’t sure yet if she will be able to obtain another medical exemption with salary.
He made it abundantly clear that both he and the Liberty organization have invested in Durr not only as a player but as a human being as well. Calling Durr one of the “most incredible human beings,” Kolb also emphasized how difficult it is for the 23-year-old to lose something so engrained into her identity. “The hardest part is seeing somebody lose part of their identity through no fault of their own,” he said.
And that loss of identity is what Dr. Brigham alluded to on Real Sports. She referred to a period of grief and mourning that takes time. An acceptance of the situation that she hopes isn’t permanent but could be long lasting. Bryant Gumbel asked Carillo to clarify what the doctor meant once her segment finished.
“What’s she’s basically saying … what a lot of “Long-Haulers” are being told is we may never get you all the way back,” she said. “Not with the lung scarring, not with the inflamed heart, not the blood clots. That’s what I think she’s saying more than anything.”
As for Durr, while her body continues to tell her no when she tries to shoot or dribble with flare-ups still interrupting her daily life, that doesn’t mean she’s given up on her WNBA career quite yet.
“She is so driven,” Kolb said in an interview with ESPN on Wednesday. “She’s not flipping the switch and saying, ‘That’s it.’ I think people need to know what a fighter she is. We have a team around her and there is immense support for her as a person first.”
While Durr is currently deficient in her basketball identity, what she isn’t void of, however, is her determination. While much is uncertain, she’s been building this type of resilience since her days in Louisville. During her senior year, she shared what piece of wisdom allowed her to battle back from prior injuries and other emotional turmoil. Her mother told her: “Never let anyone see that they got you beat.”
If it’s up to Durr, she’ll make sure that coronavirus won’t have the last laugh. Regardless of if she returns to the court, her mission right now is to make sure that her fans and people across the country understand the gravity of this virus.
“This COVID, you can’t play with it,” she said.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.