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How I am no longer allowing what hurt me to hold me back

To: those who are experiencing a setback,

From: Alaina Coates (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To those who are experiencing a setback,

No matter how discouraged you feel right now, don’t quit.  At some point, all of us will have our minds go against us. But these last few months have taught me that there is always one person who can beat your inner demon. 

See, when I was eight years old, I saw my brother playing basketball, and I decided to try it. My parents signed me up for a rec league.

Right away, everyone was like, “Oh, she’s got some skills.”

So, I started playing in a more competitive league, AAU. That’s where I fell in love with basketball. I enjoyed the camaraderie and competitiveness, as well as being in the paint and wrestling girls for loose balls.

The game was fun, really fun, and by fifth grade, I knew one day I wanted to play professionally.

My dad became my 24/7 coach. If I wanted to shoot hoops, or if I had a question about basketball, he was always available. He also was my biggest cheerleader. However, we had to develop our own system.

Alaina says she was always close with her father. She calls him her twin.

He was a big man with a loud booming voice. As a former bodybuilder and a member of the National Guard, many people were scared of him.

Early on, he would yell simple things from the stands such as, “Go rebound!”

But it sounded so aggressive, I told him, “Dad, you need to calm down.”

So, as I got older, he started giving me hand gestures.

He would do a cranking up motion if I needed to up my tempo or a relaxing motion if I needed to take a breather and chill. We had our own little language. It worked for us.

By eighth grade, I was already getting looks from colleges around the country. In high school, I wasn’t happy when coaches could directly reach out to me. I was trying to watch Netflix on the couch, and the phone kept ringing off the hook. I don’t even know how many offers I received, but it was a lot. Ultimately, I decided to go to the University of South Carolina.

While college was a bit of an adjustment, I came in with the mindset that I would need to earn my minutes and my spot. And I did just that. I was the SEC Freshman of the Year and I went on to be a 4x All-SEC player and 4x All-American.

My dad missed my freshman year because he was deployed, but he was there for the other three years and he loved coming to my games.

We played Mississippi State my senior year.  They were the team that we needed to beat to get to the championship. The game was tight the whole time. Within the last couple of minutes of the last quarter, I had the ball at the top of the key and no one was expecting me to drive to the basket. But I ripped the ball through, went to the basket and scored the layup. They panned the camera to my dad. He was super excited, high-fiving everyone, including my pastor, who was also at that game.

I loved looking up and seeing him and my whole family cheering for me and going nuts when I did well. They motivated me to put on a show for them and they always told me how proud they were of me.

Up until my senior year, my basketball career went very smoothly.  Then, in February of 2017, we were playing Missouri and my journey took a turn. I went up for a block and I ended up stepping on my opponent’s foot. I twisted my ankle inward and landed hard on my inner ankle. It was painful and swollen.  

After I got it checked out, I was able to come back for senior night against Kentucky. I felt fine, and then I got hit by what I call the invisible sniper. Literally, I was running on the court and I just fell over. I tried to play one more time, but I made a wrong move, and it felt like my tendons ripped apart inside of my ankle. So, that was it. It was every senior’s worst nightmare.

I had surgery and began rehabilitation.

My team made it to the National Championship game. I was so happy they won, but I couldn’t even attend the game because I had to keep my leg still.

It sucked. But, thankfully, my basketball career was not over.

In April of 2017, my family came with me to New York City for the WNBA draft. I knew I was going to get drafted, but I thought I would go number three overall to Dallas. Instead, I was shocked when Chicago chose me with the number two overall pick. I had so much raw emotion and I am thankful my father was there for that moment because my dad never got to see me play again.

By the 2017 season, I was healthy enough to get on the court, but I wasn’t yet in shape to go up and down the floor. So, I missed the season and I signed with a team in Hungary to get some professional experience.

In Hungary, on the day of the last game of our series, I was at shootaround when the owner of the team approached me. He told me I needed to call my agent. Then, my agent told me to call my mom. So, I went into the owner’s office and Facetimed my mom. I could see my family around her. They were all teary-eyed.

My mom said, “Daddy died.”

That’s how I found out my father passed away. He went into cardiac arrest while driving his car.

The following day, I got on the first flight home.

There was a lot of anger, confusion and hurt.

When I finally played in the WNBA, it wasn’t easy. Father’s day and my dad’s birthday both fell within the season. I tried to play through all of my emotions and use basketball as a distraction. But it didn’t work.

I wore my dad’s number and I wanted to do him some justice. Throughout my time in the WNBA, I played with four teams.

With each team, I constantly was thinking, “What should I do?

“What spot am I in?”

 “Who is open?”

“Should I pass?”

I wouldn’t allow myself to just play like I had done my entire life.

That’s why this summer, I am home instead of with a WNBA team. But don’t worry, I will be back. See, after this past season overseas in Israel, I looked at my numbers and watched film.  I knew I could be better. I knew something was holding me back.

I knew I could be better. I knew something was holding me back.

My mother and I talked after the season and she told me that I wasn’t separating my emotions from my work. She told me that I wasn’t having fun anymore.

She was right. My emotions have no business dictating what I do on the court,

So, I decided to reach out for help. I began talking to a therapist about my life and my grief.

Already, I feel so much better. I don’t want to say I never thought that I would get to this space of understanding, but I certainly didn’t expect to get here so soon. Now, I feel like I can get back to hooping without being in my head or nervous. I can just go out there and play the game that I love.

I am so proud to say that my strength is back, and so is my spirit. And I am confident it will translate on the court when I go to Turkey to play overseas.

So, if you’re feeling down or you’re not doing so well, take the time to figure out what’s wrong. Is it mental? Is it physical? Figure it out and work on it.

What I have learned through my own journey is that the same person who created your inner demon is the one person who can beat it.

And that’s you.

Your comeback awaits you and so does mine!

Alaina Coates
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