It has been the most difficult year of Kia Nurse’s life, fighting through the most serious long-term injury of her basketball career and trying to deal with the knowledge that a friend, teammate and colleague is locked away in a tiny Russian prison cell.
He has challenged her physically and mentally. Now, once again ready to play the game she loves and representing her country on a significant global stage, the 26-year-old seems free, relaxed and set to go — in somewhat limited minutes — at the FIBA World Cup that begins Wednesday in Australia.
“For the last 11 months almost now, there was a lot of great days, a lot of bad days, a lot of tears, a lot of anger, but a lot of little wins along the way as well,” Nurse said in a Zoom media session with Canadian reporters Monday morning.
“I had … physically the smoothest process possible. But just, mentally, it’s been hard. It’s been up and down and a roller coaster. So, it’s nice to finally be able to get back on the court.”
Nurse blew out the ACL in her right knee in a playoff game with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury last October and missed the entire 2022 season. She had hoped to play a bit at the end of the season, but that didn’t work out and now she’ll return to the court — under restrictions to be determined — when Canada plays Serbia to open the 12-country tournament Wednesday ( 11 p.m., Sportsnet).
Teammates say she’s looked great in training camp and in two exhibition scrimmages in Australia last week. They know how valuable she can be.
“I tell Kia every day that she just needs to be her, especially going through a process like tearing an ACL and coming back from that,” Canadian teammate Natalie Achonwa said. “I’ve been there, done that and I realize the mental and the emotional strain that it takes. But she’s tackled this every day, and it’s like we say: celebrate the little wins.”
It hasn’t been easy for someone forced to sit out months for the first time in her career. Nurse did most of her initial rehab in Toronto and only joined the Mercury as a supportive teammate late in the just-completed season. She said she leaned on her boyfriend for support and also her uncle, former NFL star Donovan McNabb, who got through an ACL tear during his career.
She thinks it made her more resilient and allowed her to fine-tune some aspects of the game.
“I played two games in 11 months and (had time) to kind of decipher and see what works really well for me and what doesn’t. It’s still something that I think I’m going through right now,” she said. “I haven’t forgotten how to pass, dribble or shoot. It’s just a matter of being able to kind of do that at a high clip and at a high rate.
“And so that’s a lot of what I’m going to work through at some point throughout this process, throughout this term and throughout the rehab process after this as well.”
Being away from the Mercury for most of the WNBA season also separated Nurse from one of the most emotional sports stories of the year. Her voice began to crack and the emotion was palpable when Nurse was asked about Mercury teammate Brittney Griner, who remains in a Russian prison after being convicted of minor drug charges.
“It was really hard to play an entire season without her,” Nurse said. “So (we’re) continuing to keep her in our prayers, to keep her family in our prayers, continuing to make sure she knows that she’s loved and she’s not forgotten. And putting as much emphasis as we can on those who have the power to make decisions to help bring her home, because she is wrongfully detained there by all accounts.”
But all that emotion and memories of long, hard rehab sessions and months away from the game should disappear when Nurse plays her first real game in almost a year.
“We know what we’re going to get out of her,” teammate Bridget Carleton said. “She’s going to take the right shot, she’s going to take care of the ball, make great decisions and she’s going to play defense and go as hard as possible.
“She might not be exactly who she was when she got hurt. We don’t expect her to be — she hasn’t played in a year. But her presence on the court is definitely felt and we need her.”
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