Love of the game

When Shanna Crossley needed another knee operation this past summer – she had missed the previous WNBA season to recover from ACL surgery – the news was devastating. Was she done? Was basketball, a sport she had played her entire life, over? But the former Lady Vol shooting guard recovered, returned to play this season and had her love of the game reinforced.

For the first time in her career, Shanna CrossleyTennessee fans know her as Shanna Zolman – will head overseas to hone her game because of the lost time this past season for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

The 2009 season began with much promise for Crossley. She had recovered from the ACL tear she had suffered in a preseason game in 2008 against Detroit that caused her to miss the entire season, one in which San Antonio reached the WNBA Finals before falling to Detroit.

Crossley was drafted in 2006 and played in 34 games as a rookie. In the 2007 season she played with a nagging right shoulder injury but hit 74 three-pointers – second in the league – and had surgery to repair a torn labrum after the season. She didn't miss a game in her first two pro seasons and had never missed a game in four years at Tennessee, where she holds the single season (103) and career (266) records for three-pointers and scored 1,706 points in orange, good for 10th place all-time.

Then, Crossley shredded her left knee in 2008 and was forced to sit for the first time in her storied basketball career – one that traces to her hometown of Syracuse, Indiana, where she starred at Wawasee High School and set the state scoring record with 3,085 points.

"It was pretty difficult because I never had to deal with anything like that," Crossley said. "I missed one practice at the most, maybe two in a season at Tennessee. I was devastated because basketball is very important to me, it's a lot of fun, it's something I work towards all off-season long to be ready for the season.

"When it happens to you it's difficult. You watch your team be very successful and get to the Finals, and you can't be a part of it, and it's very difficult. But in the same light you learn a lot from it."

So, Crossley turned herself into the team comedian.

"My role on the team last year was to make them laugh, keeping the lighter side in the forefront," Crossley said. "Throughout the course of the season you can get down, people can get upset, people can get very tired and kind of lose the joy. That was my job last year to keep them going. I really enjoyed that role. It was difficult in the playoffs when I wasn't able to be a part of it, but it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be."

When the 2009 season began Crossley was ready to get back on the court. She had spent the off-season rehabbing her knee and talking to others who had been through the surgery, including former Tennessee teammate and close friend Sidney Spencer, who tore the ACL in her right knee in college.

"I talked to her extensively," Crossley said. "There are so many people who have been through this it's almost like it's contagious. I talked to a lot of people to get their opinions, their views, what helped, what didn't helped. I definitely talked to Sid and it seems like everything we're going through together or have gone through it at one time or another, so it's been a very good situation that we have each other like that. She was very helpful through the whole situation."

Spencer now plays for the New York Liberty after getting traded last spring by the Los Angeles Sparks.

"We did talk about it," Spencer said. "She always knew she could call me, and we can talk about anything. ‘Did you go through this' or ‘Did you routinely have this pain?' She asked me questions like that about how my knee was."

The two friends were in the Dominican Republic together last spring on a Christian missionary trip when Spencer got news of the trade via a phone call from her agent, who lost the connection immediately after delivering news that a trade had occurred.

"It was kind of ironic because we were in the car with our buddy, and we got a phone call from her agent, and at first we thought he was kidding," said Crossley, who was hoping the trade was to San Antonio but the quick return call revealed Spencer was switching coasts. "It was not necessarily a shock, but it's a difficult circumstance to think through in the first couple of days. We were together and we could talk about it. It was a good situation that we were there together."

The pair thought they had a deal worked out to play together in Poland this fall and winter, but that didn't come to pass.

"It was a too good to be true situation and then it was not true," Crossley said.

Crossley intends to head overseas as soon as her agent lines up a team. She will be accompanied by her husband, Andrew Crossley – they met while Crossley was at Tennessee – who is a personal trainer and strength coach.

"I am going overseas for the first time, because I need to get my rhythm, I need to get my timing, I need to get everything back to where it was – confidence, strength, everything," Crossley said. "Where and when I don't know yet. I will go wherever. I am waiting to hear from my agent. We're spending time with family right now and enjoying it and waiting to hear where we're going to be going."

Crossley makes her off-season home in San Antonio and in years past has hosted camps for children – one in San Antonio over fall break and the other in Indiana for spring break. At some point she wants to schedule one in Knoxville, too. The camps teach basketball and life skills to youngsters.

"I think a lot of people kind of bashed Charles Barkley for saying ‘I am not a role model,' because it is so not true, because when you have a platform that we have as professional basketball players, whether you like it or not, you are a role model in some sense of the word, especially coming from the University of Tennessee, where you live in a fishbowl," Crossley said. "People know you. They know who you are, and they watch every move that you make.

"Now that I am where I am at the level I am playing at I definitely want to use the opportunity like basketball camps and to try and reach younger kids. I want to give young girls and boys things they can work on basketball-wise but also try to instill in them work ethic and the importance for me in my faith and try to instill in them what things are truly important in life. I try to use that platform to the best opportunity that I can and try to get involved and hopefully leave a lasting impression on kids of all ages."

Those camps, however, have been put on hold for now because Crossley hopes to be over the ocean and must be ready to leave quickly. Some WNBA players have already joined their teams overseas.

"I want to do those (camps), but I don't know when I'm going over," Crossley said. "I hate to set up something, have it all planned out and people coming and then have to up and leave."

Crossley also had intended to be in San Antonio when the Lady Vols play Texas Tech in the ESPN Classic on Nov. 17 at the AT&T Center, the same venue where the Silver Stars play their games.

"Initially I was going to be there working at it and doing some different things, but that was before we decided to try the overseas gig," Crossley said. "If we are still here for some reason I will be down there, but we are not looking to be in the States at that time."

Had this season gone as expected – an injury-free summer – Crossley would not be headed to a foreign country to play basketball.

Her rehab had gone well from the torn ACL and in an interview last June she pronounced herself fit and ready. Crossley had worn a knee brace during an exhibition game against the Detroit Shock in Traverse City, Mich., but she shed it for the regular season.

"I feel 100 percent," Crossley said that June. "Physically I am fine. It takes a little longer to warm up my left knee now, but I don't feel any different. If I can continue to keep on without injuries then I will be good to go."

Those words were prophetic in a bad way as Crossley tore the meniscus in the same knee just as the season got underway a week later. She missed a week in hopes that the tear would heal with rest and therapy.

"I was able to come back because the tear was so small," Crossley said this September. "But I played the game in New York (on June 19), and I tore it a little bit more and so I went ahead and got it cleaned out."

Crossley had arthroscopic surgery and was held off the court for several weeks. She needed some practice sessions and time to ease back into the rotation for San Antonio and did not return until July 19. She had to wear the brace when she played.

Shanna Crossley, wearing a pink jersey as part of the WNBA's outreach with breast cancer awareness efforts, lofts a shot for San Antonio against Detroit. (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

That month was an emotionally trying one for the sharpshooter.

"It was very difficult to be out," Crossley said. "In my career I never had anything go wrong, surgeries, injuries, I never had any of that. Coming off the ACL and having great expectations for the year to follow and then this happened. I was pretty devastated. I didn't really know. The second time I was like, ‘Is this it? Is this the end of my career?'

"Two surgeries back-to-back, the end of my contract year. All of these things were going through my mind. But it was another time for me to buckle down and work hard and try to stay positive. And, again, my teammates constantly were there to help support and my family was there to help support. I had a great support system. They waited for the smoke to clear a little bit and for me to get my head back on straight. I just started working from that point and tried to get back to where I needed to be."

Crossley played very limited minutes as she tested her new knee and, after sitting out for the second knee surgery, worked to get in shape during the season, which is never easy. Her shooting was uncharacteristically spotty from the field. The turning point came more than a month after her return – in her home state of Indiana – against the Indiana Fever on Aug. 27. Crossley was 5-6 from behind the arc in nearly 18 minutes of action and scored 15 points.

"I was able to get a little bit of time, and we were struggling big time as a team and it started clicking for me, shots were falling, I was able to move well and I started to get a little bit of my wind back," Crossley said. "At that point I started to get back in the rotation."

Shanna Crossley defends for San Antonio in a game against Seattle. (Photo by Katie Clementson/NBAE/Getty Images)

It was a season-long theme of resilience for Crossley and also for her team. San Antonio hovered near the bottom of the Western Conference standings for most of the summer, but the Silver Stars snared the last playoff spot in the west in the final week of the season. They pushed Phoenix, which is now playing Indiana in the Finals, to three games, and Crossley scored 11 points in the game one victory.

"That's just part of who we are," said Crossley, who added the team wanted Vickie Johnson, who has played more games (379) and more minutes (11,719) than any player in WNBA history, to end her career in the playoffs. "It's kind of how our team is built. We had a lot of hard times this year, didn't play well. We knew that we weren't playing to our potential.

"That was the thing. It's one thing for your team just not to be very good. But we realized we weren't playing as a team. We're not built to break you down one-on-one. We're built to beat you as a team, and once we started figuring that out a little bit more, even if it was not until the last week or so of the season, and our backs up against the wall, I think that is where we really started to pull it together. That's what I saw all last year when I was out. It looked a lot more familiar when we started to play that way."

Ending the season in the playoffs also can give San Antonio better momentum heading into 2010, but Crossley knows a professional roster can undergo a lot of changes.

"I think it will feel better when you can look back on it and feel a little bit better about yourself," Crossley said. "You never want to end on a loss. It's a big closure. We're looking at a different team next season, but it was a good way to end it."

Besides Johnson, Erin Perperoglou also retired after eight seasons in the WNBA and three with San Antonio.

Rosters also were reduced to 11 this past season in an economic move, and Crossley said she was grateful to be employed.

"I'm here and able to play and thankful for the opportunity to play, especially with the economy and cutting back on players," Crossley said. "There are a lot of people without a job, but I am very blessed. I'm definitely looking ahead and not looking behind."

The WNBA started training camp later this past season, and that helped teams because players were present from the beginning.

"Going into camp it was exciting that everybody was here," Crossley said. "It was a great thing because we could start practice."

But the reduced rosters meant there sometimes were not enough players to practice five on five because of injuries or the need to rest veterans after back-to-back games.

"It's going to be important for people to stay healthy throughout the season because we won't have the numbers to put people in there," Crossley said.

Crossley said that in June and a week later she was sidelined. By September she had had a summer's worth of perspective.

"The things I learned this year, along with every other year at times, was perseverance, realizing that I do still love the game," Crossley said in late September. "I don't want to give it up. I am not ready to give it up yet. Even though there are a couple of surgeries behind me the more that I've learned, the more that I've talked to people (it's not unusual to have a secondary issue post-ACL such as meniscus). It's done. It's over with. But at the same time I am glad the year is over with."

Crossley did learn one thing – her love of basketball has not waned, and she is not ready to stop playing.

"That's my one good thing that has come, because you never know if it's time to let it go, pursue something else, start a family, whatever it may be," Crossley said. "Going through all this that's one thing I realized I would give it up if it was something that I really needed to and I felt that was where that was leading us, but I don't feel that way yet. I still have a lot of it left in me. I still have a passion and a love for it.

"Until I can't do anything or I no longer have a desire to work – that's my main thing; I will constantly work harder and harder – until that goes away I will still be out there."

Crossley said she learned that level of work ethic during college and has kept up with Tennessee since departing Knoxville after the 2005-06 season.

"If I can't watch them on TV, I'll flip on the Internet and see how they're doing," Crossley said. "I stay in contact with Coach (Pat) Summitt and Heather Mason. I try to keep up with them."

Crossley was aware that last season senior forward Alex Fuller traded her No. 44 jersey for that of Cait McMahan's No. 2. McMahan, a sophomore guard, had to give up basketball because of balky knees. Fuller said she changed jerseys because she remembered the 2004-05 season in which Crossley traded her No. 5 jersey for that of Spencer's No. 1 after Spencer was lost for the season with an ACL tear.

The fit was about as awkward. Crossley, who said she is 5'9, wore the jersey of the 6'3 Spencer. Fuller, who is about 6'2, took the jersey of the 5'4 McMahan. Crossley likened hers to a quilt. Fuller's fit like a wetsuit.

"I think it shows especially your friendship, that you want them to be out there on the floor with you, especially Cait," Crossley said. "She has had such a difficult time there with her injuries and with her mother. (McMahan's mother died of cancer after her freshman year.) She has had a very hard career. It was a sweet thing to do. It showed emotion for her and it showed that she respected her and that she wanted her to be out there. Cait was remembered out on the floor."

Crossley also tries to maintain contact with Tennessee and San Antonio fans. She has her own website at Shanna Crossley and it includes news, photos, a guest book and other assorted features.

"It's me in a nutshell," Crossley said. "It talks about who I am, gives my testimony and what my faith means to me. There's a place where you can contact me. Anybody that wants to email me personally can go through that website, and I will try to contact you back."

Crossley was one of 13 former Lady Vols playing in the WNBA this past summer – the most of any school – and one of those was Chamique Holdsclaw, whose time at Tennessee preceded Crossley but who connects to her through the long orange line.

Holdsclaw, who battled depression and publicly talked about it, returned to the league this past summer and helped lead the Atlanta Dream to the playoffs.

"I'm glad she's in a place now where she can get back and be able to not only contribute but still be able to be a go-to player for Atlanta as they build up their franchise," Crossley said. "It's great for the Southeastern part of the country so that some of her Tennessee fans can see her play there."

Even though Crossley plays her home games in the Southwest she still sees Lady Vol fans no matter the venue.

"You see the bright orange shirts regardless of where you go," Crossley said. "That is just a huge testament to the Lady Vol fans and their following and their loyalty, regardless of how long or how short we've been out of Volunteer Country."

Crossley attributed the high number of Lady Vols in the league to the groundwork laid at Tennessee by Pat Summitt and her staff.

"You've got to have talent first of all, but I think that's a huge testament to Coach Summitt, because she is so disciplined in her coaching and will develop a work ethic in you," Crossley said. "Coach Summitt instills such a great work ethic in you that it becomes habitual so regardless of if she's there or she's not there you go above and beyond what you think is even possible.

"It's not just Coach Summitt. It's the assistant coaches, strength coaches, conditioning coach. You have the talent and the name but I think the most important thing is the work ethic they instill in you. You can keep your body in shape and your mental toughness. Because that is what a lot of it is – being physically and mentally tough when you're a part of this league.

"It's a testament to us as players, but even more so it's a huge testament to Coach Summitt and what she's done."

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