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December 7, 2010It's not easy, and it's not supposed to be.
But Valerie Nainima understands that everyone has her best interests at heart.
"I saw the doc today and I'm trying to accept whatever he gives me right now," South Carolina's senior guard recently said. "I'm going by his rules, and the trainer. It is difficult not to be able to play."
Difficult doesn't describe it. Looking at Nainima's face as she sits on the sideline during games, cheering for her teammates but sometimes looking as forlorn as a girl who lost her favorite pet, one doesn't have to speak to her to know the hurt is increasing as much as the healing.
The Gamecocks' leading scorer and go-to player a year ago, Nainima tore her right ACL during a pickup game in July. She quickly had surgery to repair it, but the prognosis was grim in terms of her playing her senior season.
There was no definite timetable, but exactly six months from the Aug. 6 surgery would be Feb. 6, which would have Nainima back for the final stretch of the Gamecocks' season. That seemed a good round number for a potential return, but that doesn't take into account how capable Nainima would be of playing on the tender joint.
For that reason, coach Dawn Staley has refused to set a date for a return, saying she will welcome Nainima back if and when the player, medical staff and she feel comfortable with it. "There is professional potential to consider," Staley pointed out in the preseason. "I think she can play professionally. I'm not going to risk her future unless I know for sure she can play."
Nainima has attacked the rehabilitation, already walking normally and able to do some light running in practice. Nothing full-speed or doing drill work -- Nainima is usually working on her set jump shots to the side while the team is scrimmaging -- but to see her striving to get back is very encouraging.
The hardest part is willingly holding herself back. The 5-foot-5 guard, who became known for her fearlessness throughout the SEC despite only playing in it for a year, has to force herself not to do too much.
"Very tough. Very tough," she said. "I can't stand being on the sidelines. Some things, you've got to let nature take its course, let my body heal itself. I feel like I'm ready to do some things, but they know what's best for me, so I'm just going to be patient."
The Gamecocks (4-4) have struggled without Nainima, looking for one consistent scorer and a steady starting five. For results' sake, it's difficult to say if Nainima's presence would have been enough to overcome some of the losses (Xavier and Stanford are each elite teams, while Penn State isn't far behind. A loss to UC Davis might have been avoided) but the question of not knowing who to turn to when USC absolutely had to have a bucket could have.
USC has plenty of guards who are talented in their own right and some who will be stars in the future. Nainima is helping instruct them on how to handle themselves on the floor, advice freely given but also heavily requested.
"Yes, yes they do," Nainima said. "Not just a one-way thing for us. Their spirits are high and they tell me to hang in there."
Nainima divides her time between rehab, the regular basketball schedule (except playing) and school. Already graduated with twin degrees in business management and marketing, she's working on her third degree (economics) and is on track to graduate in May.
The popular opinion is the Gamecocks wouldn't even think about trying to get her back on the court until at least the SEC schedule (set for Jan. 2). Staley said a return looks promising, but can't set a date.
So Nainima will wait, shoving aside the frustration and agony until she can get back.
"Coach Staley always tells me, even though I'm not out there, I still have to lead a different way," she said. "And I'm also learning a lot from the sideline. I'm learning how to see things from a different perspective."
South Carolina NEWS