Lady Vols open basketball practice

The sophomore stood at center court – an incredibly improbable event considering she had a stroke just three months ago – and shouted encouragement to her teammates. The overwhelmed freshman, feeling like that sophomore did a year ago, stood on the floor trying to absorb all the expectations now that basketball practice has officially started.

The team sessions for the past month had been relatively low key, but on Friday evening practice for the 2009-10 season officially began – and coincided with a clinic for basketball coaches – and the full force of what is expected at Tennessee struck Kamiko Williams.

As Williams spoke to the media – practice lasted slightly more than 2.5 hours – the sweat-soaked guard from Clarksville, Tenn., shook her head and said she had a lot to learn.

"It's more than what I expected," Williams said. "It is so much different from high school. The intensity is way up here (raised her hand over her head) compared to being on the bottom of my shoe."

Her spirits, however, were not that low.

"I think by the next practice or the third practice it's going to be good," Williams said. "The intensity is going to go up, run harder, not make lazy mistakes and think when I do things."

Coach Pat Summitt stood next to Williams as she spoke, smiled and patted the freshman on the back.

"Thinking the game all the time," Summitt said, by way of advice.

Summitt doesn't have to worry about Williams not recognizing the shortcomings of a first-year player. Her self-awareness is on par with an upperclassman.

"Where I am from we always have people in the gym," Williams said, in reference to the dozens of coaching observers at Friday's session, which began in Pratt Pavilion and ended in Thompson-Boling Arena for the clinic. "Audiences don't bother me. What bothers me the majority of the time is my mentality. Everything else is cool. I can deal with the crowd. I can deal with the coaches. I just have to deal with myself.

"I am my biggest enemy right now. My body sometimes does not want to cooperate, but I am going to have to push through it and keep it moving."

A source of team motivation was standing at center court during the practice in Amber Gray. The sophomore, who will redshirt this season, had left shoulder surgery last July to repair a torn labrum. She ended up having a stroke after the procedure that was brought on by a bleeding aneurysm in her brain. She defied the odds and survived those catastrophic medical events and then she underwent 12.5 hours of brain surgery to clip the aneurysm. From that ordeal Gray went to Drake Center in Cincinnati for rehab, left two weeks early and made it back – as she had planned all along – for the first day of official practice.

"I wasn't aware of what happened until I got to Drake because I was in and out throughout the whole thing," Gray said. "But throughout the whole process I told myself I was going to get back on the floor one day. I set dates. I set a date when I would be out of Drake and I set a date of when I would be back."

Gray arrived Friday with her mother, grandparents and little sister. They will return to Ohio, and Gray will stay in Knoxville with her team and roommate, Shekinna Stricklen.

"My buddy is back!" Stricklen shouted as the two left the arena after practice and headed for their off-campus apartment.

"It's great to see her," Summitt said. "She looks great. They saw her today and it was like it was Christmas. I think she's in a very good place. She has a lot of confidence now. She knows that she was real close to death. I said, ‘Don't tell me. We were all praying together and pulling for you the whole way.' She and Shekinna are really close, too."

Gray had a buoyant effect on the entire team. She high-fived teammates, applauded good plays and urged the players to bounce back from mistakes. When Cain blocked Briana Bass' shot, Gray yelled out, ‘That's mean!' and the entire team, especially Cain, laughed.

"She helped," Williams said. "It is nice to see her back. I am so glad that she's back. It was weird not having her around. She pumped us up. We were a little tired and she said, ‘Come on, don't give in.' We just kept it going."

Gray was that freshman a year ago – overwhelmed with the expectations, trying to absorb the terminology and playing for a coach who expected maximum effort in every drill. Gray said the experience taught her how to be tough physically and mentally, and she got an earful from Summitt as a freshman.

"That was one thing that she always told me," Gray said. "If it wasn't for mental toughness I wouldn't have made it through. I wouldn't be back here today, and I would probably still be laid up in a hospital bed somewhere."

Gray has lost 33 pounds and although the result is that she can reshape her body in the weight room, she laughed when told that her summer was not a recommended weight loss plan.

"Coach said the same thing," Gray said. "You've got to look at everything in a positive way so it's just something that will help me out down the road. A lot of it was muscle, but getting a little leaner and then going back into the weight room isn't such a bad thing. I am eating healthier."

Gray saw her neurologist this week to get the final medical exam before leaving her home state of Ohio. She danced and sang in the examination room while the nursing staff openly cried. Three months ago Gray nearly died. This week she got a doctor's clearance that allowed her to return to Tennessee.

Gray will take an online class and then re-enroll in regular classes in the spring semester at the advice of her doctor.

"My neurologist wanted me to wait until January," said Gray, adding he told her that she might still get headaches for a while and he wanted her in a stress-free environment for several more weeks and not feeling the pressure of classroom performance.

So Gray will channel her energy and efforts into rehab and conditioning.

"A lot of rehab and treatment," Gray said. "I have a lot to do for my shoulder and I have a lot to do for my (left) leg since I had the stroke. It's getting back. I'm able to lift a little bit but nowhere near where it was. A lot of things with Jenny and Heather (Mason). I have to take it slowly. I can start conditioning, but they want me to take it slow."

That is in stark contrast to what her teammates are being told to do now that practice has started. The coaches demand more and expect more once preseason workouts are over and it's an adjustment for the freshmen – Williams, Taber Spani and Faith Dupree.

"A lot more running that I need to get used to, but I am going to get used to it," Williams said. "It's going to take a while for my body to adjust coming from high school where I can just walk up and down the floor to now where I actually having to sprint up and down the floor.

"Go hard all the time on a consistent basis, don't give in to fatigue and always think. I like to take risks. I need to break out of that habit because since I am in college it leads to turnovers. I see (an opening for a pass), but it didn't work. It's going to be good, though."

Williams saw those passing windows close quickly in controlled scrimmage situations. If she got too deep in the paint, Cain was waiting to block her shot.

"It was good for Kamiko," Summitt said. "She was not really comfortable. I don't think that was because we have people in the stands. She's just got so much to learn. She played the game by herself about half the night. You can't fault her because that's what she did in high school and that's all she knows.

"Now she's got to learn to be a great teammate and make good reads and good decisions. I just wanted to go get the ball out of her hands and say, ‘Pass it.' "

It wasn't that Williams was selfish – far from it. But she is used to passing lanes being open and swiped or deflected balls lead to indecision the next time down the court and the ball gets stagnant.

"She knows that she's got a lot to learn," Summitt said. "She's so talented. She's got skill and athleticism. I think this kind of opened her eyes."

Summitt said Spani and Dupree also learned the same lesson on the first night.

"I guarantee you tonight Taber was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness,' " Summitt "She's got a real strong mentality, and she'll be fine. She'll figure it out."

Dupree mentioned it was a bit odd to play in front of so many coaches – several dozen sat on one side of the arena in the lower level – but they also served as fans at times, as they cheered good plays. Two blocks by Glory Johnson and a Stricklen bullet feed to Alyssia Brewer under the basket drew a lot of reaction.

"The clapping kind of gave us an up," Williams said. "OK, we're doing this right. It was interesting. And then all of them are coaches so that's kind of different. That was pretty cool."

Cain made it for two hours of the practice and then needed to ice her right knee. When she is on the floor the post play is noticeably elevated.

"We've got to get her full speed," Summitt said.

Spani will pursue loose balls – the football mentality emerges – and a collision with the 6'2 freshmen puts people on the floor. She was responsible for three players going down hard, but she also was the first to help them off the floor.

"She's got a body," Summitt said.

Stricklen, Angie Bjorklund and Bass seemed to be extremely comfortable on the court on both ends. Bjorklund, a junior and the most-experienced player on the team, took Summitt's advice to hunt shots to heart. Stricklen drained threes, got to the rim and was a noticeably improved defender.

"I thought those two, from a perimeter standpoint, are the best two things going," Summitt said.

Bass pushed tempo and left her feet and thrust her arms into the air after beating the defense down the court and finding Brewer for an easy layup.

"Bree did some good things," Summitt said.

The team will return to practice – and the second day of the clinic – on Saturday. Williams welcomed the early start.

"I like practicing in the morning," Williams said. "It wakes me up and gets me going. I wake up every day around 7 o'clock anyway, even on the weekend. I'd rather go in the morning every day, but my team doesn't. They don't like to get up."

Defense and rebounding – two glaring weaknesses of last year's team – will continue to be an early emphasis. The coaches also are installing offensive sets and defensive systems.

"We've got to make sure that our defense and our board play is something that we're very committed to and the new players have got to learn all the different sets and options that we have," Summitt said. "I think some of them are a little overloaded, but that's part of it. They'll get it. It's repetition, repetition. We may have to run one thing 15 times."

Gray plans to be out running plays with her team again, but that will have to wait. She would not have been playing this month even if she had not had brain surgery, as her shoulder rehab timetable is about six months.

"Because of my shoulder surgery I would have been out at this time anyway," Gray said. "It happened to me for a reason and luckily it happened at the time it did when I was in for my shoulder surgery.

"Before I got here (Friday) I thought I was going to be sad and upset, but at the end of the day I am just happy to be alive again and to be able to be here for this first practice and to see my team and cheer them on it's as good as it gets right now for me.

"It's an amazing feeling. I missed my team, my coaches and all the other staff. I love being at home with my family but just being able to be back here first day of official practice and getting back in the swing of things it feels really good."

Gray was rarely without a basketball in her hand – and sometimes two – as she dribbled, took a few shots and passed balls to her teammates when they called for one.

"It just feels good to have a ball back in my hands, being able to hold it, being able to dribble around a little bit, do a little form shooting with it," Gray said. "I might actually sleep with a ball in my hands tonight. It feels good to have it in my hands."

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