March 20, 2021
‘I just have to reinvent myself’: Jacki Gemelos retires from professional basketball
After overcoming several knee injuries to make the WNBA, Gemelos was one of the best stories of the 2020 season
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Watching Washington Mystics guard Jacki Gemelos play last season, it almost seemed like she would never retire. Not because she had always been in perfect health—in fact, she suffered five ACL injuries in high school and college—but because she had beaten the odds so many times, who was to say she couldn’t keep doing it?
On Friday, the 32-year-old Gemelos was the one to say so, announcing her retirement from the sport a decade after many observers had expected. Gemelos overcame 10 knee surgeries in her career to play 35 games in the WNBA in 2015 and 2020, averaging 1.9 points, 0.8 rebounds, and 0.6 assists in just under nine minutes per game. She also had a long overseas career, including making the Greek National Team in 2018 and being named the Most Valuable Player in the Greek League in 2019-20.
“My body just kind of hit a point where it just said, ‘Hey, it’s time,’” Gemelos told The Next. “… I just made a decision to walk away and step away before it got to a point where I actually couldn’t walk away.”
The turning point came sometime during the 2020 WNBA season, when Gemelos’ knee didn’t feel right and she wondered how much longer she would be able to play. She had arthroscopic surgery after the season, and her longtime doctor told her parents that her career was nearing its end based on how her knee looked. “He didn’t have the heart to tell it to me,” Gemelos said. “But he did use a different tone with me and I kind of sensed [it].”
Still, she decided to travel to Germany for a treatment that had helped her in the past called regenokine. It involves drawing blood from a patient, concentrating the anti-inflammatory proteins found in their blood into a serum, and injecting that serum into the area in which they are experiencing pain. Regenokine was developed by German spinal surgeon Peter Wehling and is not yet approved for use in the United States, but Wehling’s clinic reports that about three in four patients with mid-stage osteoarthritis in their knees see at least a 50% decrease in their pain levels.
But the procedure didn’t help Gemelos this time, and when she tried to play for Bellona Kayseri Basketbol in Turkey, she found herself in “an excruciating amount of pain” and had to stop. She then had a stem cell injection in Greece and began to think seriously about what her next steps would be if the injection didn’t work.
Back at home, Gemelos’ pain subsided when she stopped playing and shifted to lower-impact workouts. “The impact and the pounding that you have to put on that knee as a basketball player is what made it so unbearable,” she said. “… Now that I’m not doing that and I’m doing non-impact [workouts] and I’m lifting … I don’t have any issues.”
She ultimately decided that playing through pain was less appealing than retiring on the heels of a season that saw her break into the WNBA for the first time in five years, made her stronger on and off the court, and culminated in an improbable playoff berth. In 12 games with the Mystics, she averaged a career-high 3.2 points and 16.1 minutes per game and got her first WNBA start on September 8 against Minnesota.
Fittingly, when Gemelos announced her retirement on Instagram, one of the photos she chose for her post was of her wearing a shirt from her clothing line, Overcome, that reads, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Her post reflected on her journey from an elite high school prospect to a player who had a long overseas career and eventually achieved her WNBA dream:
“I was just a kid from Stockton, California who picked up a ball 23 years ago, laced up my white and red air swoop sneakers, and practiced shooting jump shots from sunrise to sunset. Way back when they said I would become the greatest. One of the best to ever play the game. But it turns out the predictions were wrong. They didn’t predict 10 knee surgeries. They didn’t predict the pain. The anguish. The challenges that would come to make my dreams come true. But I still gave the game everything I had. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyways? …
“As I write this, it turned out it was never really about being the greatest. It was about being an example for resilience. It was about never giving up. Always showing up. It was about someone hearing my story and realizing they could turn their dreams into a reality too.”
The comments on Gemelos’ Instagram post provide clear evidence of the example she set, regardless of where she ranks on any all-time lists. WNBA champions Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender and Greek national team players Mariella Fasoula and Eleanna Christinaki all wrote that Gemelos had been an inspiration for them or for others.
Another person who has been inspired by Gemelos’ career is her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Donakowski, who recently mailed Gemelos a letter she had written to herself for a class project. “When I grow up I want to be in the W.N.B.A.,” the young Gemelos wrote in 1998, just two years after the league was founded. “I know I will like traviling [sic] all around the U.S.”
In a note accompanying Gemelos’ letter, Donakowski wrote, “I’m so proud of your perseverance throughout your career. You have overcome so much and fought hard to achieve your dreams. … You are an inspiration to so many.”
Earlier this year, Gemelos had signed a training camp contract with the Mystics and was expected to compete with players such as Stella Johnson and Sug Sutton for a spot on the 2021 roster. However, Gemelos said Thibault was fully supportive when she told him she couldn’t continue playing. In a statement released by the team, Thibault thanked Gemelos “for giving us your all” and credited her for “energiz[ing] our team at a crucial point last season.”
The Mystics signed another guard on February 16, North Carolina State alum Aislinn Konig, to fill out their training camp roster. Konig was the 2020 ACC Tournament MVP but was not selected in the WNBA Draft, so she signed with the Swiss team BCF Elfic Fribourg and led the team to a championship.
With her playing career in the rearview mirror, Gemelos is still figuring out her next steps. She will continue to work on her clothing line and plans to remain involved with basketball, ideally in a creative or merchandising role with the WNBA. “I see myself as an advocate for the WNBA and someone that wants to be behind it and supporting it, and I think everyone knows my burning passion for that league by now,” she said.
Because of that passion for the WNBA and basketball as a whole, Gemelos’ emotions were still raw when she spoke with The Next, and she expressed both sadness about the end of her career and optimism about her future.
“I love basketball—shit, I don’t know—more than anyone in the world,” she said. “My passion for basketball is just at a different level, I feel like. So … it’s gonna be hard for a little while. But I am at peace with my decision because I know how I was feeling in Turkey and I know that I don’t want to put myself through that. And I think I’ve set myself up in a way where I’m gonna be able to do something still with hoop …
“I just have to kind of reinvent myself as not Jacki the player anymore, but Jacki that can bring something else.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.