December 16, 2023 

How an ACL tear helped grow the Bamberger family legacy at Saint Mary’s

Ali Bamberger seemed destined to be an all-time great for Saint Mary's since the day she was born

With three minutes to go in a game in February 2020, the Washington Huskies were leading the then-No. 8 UCLA Bruins by 12 points. Japreece Dean stepped to the line for the Bruins to shoot two free throws. She missed her first attempt but made the second. However, a traditionally routine play on the second free throw changed the career of then-Husky and current Saint Mary’s star Ali Bamberger.

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Bamberger, a native of Walnut Creek, California, seemed to be born to play basketball. Her father, Eric, was a star basketball player at Saint Mary’s and a two-time All-WCC performer. He went on to be a high school basketball coach and athletic director. While Ali played many sports as a kid, she had a connection to basketball from before she could even walk.

“My dad was a high school coach growing up, and he always tells a funny story about when my mom was working night shifts in the hospital, how he would bring me to practice sometimes so she could stay home and sleep,” Ali Bamberger told The Next. “They had a ball cage at the high school he coached from floor to ceiling, and they’d kind of sit me in the ball cage … I think I was probably two or three years old and I [would] just move around with the balls. So obviously I wasn’t playing basketball at that age, but I was exposed to basketball from the moment I could remember.”

She started playing basketball for fun in second grade and continued to play as she got older. However, she hit a bump in the road when she got to high school, breaking the growth plate in her foot before her freshman year. The foot injury was a small blessing in disguise, though, as the doctors told her she still had four more inches to grow. At the time of the injury, Bamberger was already 5’10, so she would be 6’2 when she was done growing.

Carondelet forward Ali Bamberger shoots an open right-handed layup.
Ali Bamberger (24) scores for Carondelet High School in an undated photo. (Photo credit: Eric Bamberger)

After she recovered from her injury and started practicing multiple hours a day, six days a week, Bamberger really started falling in love with the sport. She had enjoyed basketball because of the social aspect, but as she started working at it and realizing she was good at it, she truly fell in love with the sport itself. Her dad wasn’t her high school coach, but he worked with her a lot to make her better, and he saw the tremendous growth she had.

“Over the last couple years, it seems the biggest growth I’ve seen is she’s able to take criticism and improve her game,” Eric Bamberger told The Next. “But it was like, Okay, I’m not doing it. I’m not impressing my coach. And it would break her a little bit, it would worry her, and then she would get into a little funk, especially when she was young. And then as she got older, she realized, They’re trying to make me better. They’re just trying to make me improved. And she was able to take criticism without — I don’t want to say without affecting her game, but without it bothering her a lot.”

Ali developed quickly in high school and started drawing college interest. By the time Sept. 1 of her junior year rolled around — the day college coaches can officially reach out to potential student-athletes — Bamberger was flooded with interest.

As she worked through her options, four schools stuck out: UC Davis, San Diego State, Boise State and Washington. Saint Mary’s had been Bamberger’s first offer, but it was her “home school,” and she wanted to experience something different and new.

After much discussion and thinking, the idea of the Power Five atmosphere and the education that Washington offered drove Bamberger to pick the Huskies.

As a freshman, she saw some action for Washington, even starting a game, and scored in double figures multiple times. In fact, she scored 12 points in her final game at Washington against UCLA. However, on that made free throw by Dean, one of UCLA’s players crossed behind Bamberger and fell on her leg, causing her to tear her ACL and ending her freshman season.

Saint Mary's forward Ali Bamberger shoots a wide-open layup on the left side of the basket with her right hand.
Saint Mary’s forward Ali Bamberger gets a wide-open shot in a game against UC San Diego at UCU Pavilion in Moraga, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2023. (Photo credit: Tod Fierner)

“I think when it happened, I automatically knew,” Bamberger said. “I had twisted some ankles, but when I went down, I was like, Yeah, this is pretty big time. But right when it happened, crazy enough, I wasn’t really thinking about [the] future. … I kind of was really in the moment. I was like, Wow, this is real. I really just went down with a significant injury. It’s kind of scary. I had no family around me. I was kind of all by myself.”

After tearing her ACL, Bamberger came to the realization that, while she had enjoyed her time at Washington, she wanted to be closer to home and her family. She is very tight with her family and felt it made sense for her life at the time to come home.

So she transferred to Saint Mary’s and had surgery on her ACL. All of this happened at the start of COVID-19 shutdowns, which ended up being a blessing in disguise for Bamberger. She got to do all her rehab at home near her family, especially her mom, who is a hospital nurse.

As she progressed through rehab, though, Bamberger wasn’t seeing the results that she and her athletic trainer were expecting. Nine months post-surgery, Bamberger wasn’t anywhere near where most patients are at that stage, despite putting three to four hours a day into rehab on top of practice and lifting. At that point, most people are being cleared to start getting back on the court and doing impact workouts, but Bamberger still couldn’t even get full extension on her knee.

An MRI found a rare cyclops lesion on her knee. A cyclops lesion is a ball of scar tissue that is stuck to the back of an ACL and limits range of motion. This lesion required Bamberger to have a second surgery to get it removed.

Saint Mary's forward Ali Bamberger holds the ball with two hands as she tries to step past a defender in the middle of the paint.
Saint Mary’s forward Ali Bamberger makes a post move in a game against UC San Diego at UCU Pavilion in Moraga, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2023. (Photo credit: Tod Fierner)

After the removal of the lesion, Bamberger’s rehab was finally back on the right track. She was cleared in June 2021, 17 months after her first surgery. She went through a full summer of workouts and finally got back to playing the sport she loves.

In her first game back against Nevada, Bamberger scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 34 minutes. She put up 22 points and 20 rebounds against San Jose State in just her seventh game back. However, Bamberger’s dad knew she was going to be a star for the Gaels even before those performances.

“Did I know where Ali was before Washington? If she went there, would she be a dominant player? Yes. No doubt,” Eric said. “But I had no clue how she was coming back from injury. But then I snuck into a scrimmage, her first scrimmage she got back, and I sat up in the right corner and she struggled in the scrimmage. She’ll even tell you, she really struggled. And I knew right after that that she was going to be a great player for Saint Mary’s. I mean, I saw the things she was doing, but her IQ didn’t leave her. She’s a very smart player. She makes the right decisions. She doesn’t force anything. And I went and I was like, ‘You’re going to be fine. You just need to give yourself a break.'”

Bamberger finished her first season in Moraga averaging 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. She won the WCC Newcomer of the Year award and was named an All-WCC First Team performer. Her play helped propel the Gaels into the 2022 WBI championship game, which they won behind a 21-point and 10-rebound performance by Bamberger.

Saint Mary's forward Ali Bamberger shoots with her right hand as an Illinois State defender pulls her hands back to avoid fouling.
Saint Mary’s forward Ali Bamberger shoots in a game against Illinois State at UCU Pavilion in Moraga, Calif., on Nov. 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Tod Fierner)

However, after the season, she was still feeling pain in her surgically repaired knee. She had another X-ray and MRI, and they found that her body was rejecting one of the original screws doctors had put in. Bamberger had another surgery to remove the screw and finally had her knee feeling as strong as it had been in a long time.

In the 2022-23 season, Bamberger’s second as a Gael, she repeated her success on the court, but the team’s success didn’t follow. The team struggled early on, and then-head coach Paul Thomas was put on administrative leave in late December. A month later, the school parted ways with Thomas, and the Gaels finished the year 13-18.

During the offseason, the Gaels hired Long Beach State head coach Jeff Cammon. When he and his staff came on board, specifically assistant coach Paul Reed, there was a bit of déjà vu for Bamberger.

“Coach Paul Reed was my assistant at Washington also,” Bamberger said. “Coach P recruited me … He’s just a great person. … He just brings so much energy to this team and the program.

“I remember my freshman year, we’d be having a down day and Coach P would come in and now everyone’s happy because that’s just what he exudes. He’s such a vibrant person, and he really cares. He checked on me my freshman year, and even throughout college, he would send me texts here or there: ‘How’s your knee doing?’ Because he just cared [about] who I was.”

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Now in her final season of college basketball, Bamberger has gotten off to a slow start, but Cammon feels she is figuring things out in the new system.

“She’s been a great leader, great teammate to her teammates,” he told The Next. “She wears her emotions on her sleeves, and sometimes people can take that the wrong way. …

“We’re trying to push each other to be better, but she has taken coaching and she’s allowed us to push her. And she’s growing in a lot of different ways. And she’s just been great. There’s some things that I have to get on her about that have been habits of hers that have maybe impacted her ability to grow as much as I think she can. But she’s been open to taking ownership and accountability and working on those habits. She wants to improve.”

Despite her early-season slump, Bamberger has a chance to make history.

In Bamberger’s second game this season, she surpassed 1,000 points scored for her career. This made her and Eric the second-ever father-daughter combo to score over 1,000 points at the Division I level. Ali needs to score 15 more to surpass 1,000 at Saint Mary’s. This would make her and Eric the first-ever father-daughter combo to score 1,000 points at the same school in Division I history.

Ali and Eric Bamberger put an arm around each other and smile for a photo.
Ali and Eric Bamberger at a AAU Tournament. (Photo credit: Eric Bamberger)

“I’ll be extremely proud. I mean, where she’s come from in terms of everything: overcoming the injury; academically, she’s brilliant,” Eric said. “Her GPA is off the chart in her master’s program. She’s doing amazing. The friendships she’s built, the growth she’s made as a person, as a daughter, as a woman, what she stands for — I mean, it’s everything that a dad would be proud of. I mean, it’s hard not to be.

“And then to do it at Saint Mary’s, where I played, on her own — yes, I know people at Saint Mary’s, but I didn’t get involved with her. She did this on her own, by herself. And it’s something she can hang her hat on for the rest of her life. So of course, as a dad, [I’m] very proud of her.”

Though Bamberger is still figuring out Cammon’s system, she has figured out what she wants to do when she is done with basketball. After all the surgeries Bamberger’s had, she wants to help others get through the tough times that she had to go through. She had a physician’s assistant who helped her understand what was going to happen at each step of her ACL surgery and made the process seem less scary. She wants to do the same for others by becoming a physician’s assistant.

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During her time at Saint Mary’s, Bamberger has made a name for herself and written herself into the record books. She is no longer known just as Eric Bamberger’s daughter. She will finish as one of the all-time women’s basketball greats at the school, having gone through a career that’s had more highs and lows than anyone can imagine. However, she has persevered through it all and helped add to the Bamberger legacy at Saint Mary’s.

“I don’t think it’s every day you say you can play at the same school that your dad left his mark on. So that’s one of my favorite things about being at Saint Mary’s. It’s a small community. And so that is really cool that everyone knows who my dad is, but I think I’ve built my own name here … I think it is really cool to have both of our names kind of known around Saint Mary’s to create my own legacy,” Bamberger said.

“Having experienced something that’s kind of sad, a little traumatic, in my career with my knee injury and just being able to look back and see how it made me a better person and player, I didn’t let it get the best of me … I really excelled afterwards, which I think is really a testament to how my character changed. I think it would have been really easy for me to not want to play basketball anymore. And then to be able to come back and just kind of say, ‘I’m going to do the best that I can and play to the best of my ability’ was kind of cool. And I am proud of myself.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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