Dom Amore: Paige Bueckers torn ACL a punch to the gut of UConn women’s basketball and to those who’ve grown to love watching her play

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The iPhone shook and the email popped up at 3:17 p.m. On a nondescript summer day what could the UConn women’s basketball program be announcing? A scheduling change, a new NIL deal, a bit of routine housekeeping?

If only. With the first glance, the first three words in the message field were “Paige Bueckers suffers ...” and you knew nothing good would follow. Opened up, the gut punch followed, “... torn ACL, will miss 2022-23 season.”

In time, the perspective will set in. Basketball players all too often tear ACLs, miss seasons, recover and return good as new, or close to it. Just last week, I remembered covering a UConn women’s tournament game in Cincinnati in 1999, watching from across the court as Sue Bird, at the end of her freshman year, walked along the baseline on crutches and tried to smile as she recovered from her torn ACL. I remembered that, in fact, as I watched Bird, nearly a quarter century later, still doing Sue Bird things at 41 in her last WNBA game in Connecticut.

But on Wednesday afternoon there was only an emptiness in the pit of the stomach for anyone who follows UConn, follows women’s basketball or follows UConn women’s basketball, with the news that an entire year will come and go without seeing Paige Bueckers do Paige Buckers things on a basketball court.

She will have surgery on Friday.

“We’re all devastated for Paige,” read UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s statement. “She’s worked really hard to get stronger and healthier this offseason and this is an unfortunate setback. Paige is obviously an amazing basketball player but she’s a better person and teammate and it’s really unfortunate that this has happened to her. We’ll miss her presence on the court, but she’ll do everything she can to still lead and help her teammates this season. Our program will support Paige through her healing process to help her come back better and stronger.”

All true. But the images in mind’s eye now are of Bueckers on crutches, in a brace, watching forlornly as her teammates warm up for games, cheering them on gamely, but all the while knowing how much she will be hurting inside because she can’t be out there with them. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to identify, or to hurt with her over the coming year. Last season we learned all too well what that looks and feels like.

It’s a gut punch, too, because we have only seen glimpses of what Bueckers can do, but what glimpses. That memorable tour de force against South Carolina in February 2021 came during the pandemic, in a nearly empty Gampel Pavilion. She played to the end of her freshman year through an ankle injury that required surgery. She worked her way back from knee surgery last season, and we saw the glimpse of her at her best in a regional final, the OT win over North Carolina State. But she never quite regained her explosiveness, even as the Huskies reached the championship game.

Those glimpses are the reason her terrible luck with injuries resonates the way it does. At her best, she does what few others can, and in a way few others do — with a joy and exuberance that leaves its mark. There is a reason everybody wants Bueckers’ name and image associated with their product or service, and no publicity machine could manufacture it.

“God put a dream in my heart,” Bueckers said via Instagram, “and if I have to walk through a nightmare to get it, I’m going to keep believing.”

And it’s a gut punch because we know, deep down, that the very joy, exuberance and relentlessness that makes Paige Bueckers who she is can at times be her worst enemy. The fight she puts up in coming out of a game, any game, any time, moved Auriemma to keep her in to the end of a long-decided game vs. Notre Dame last Dec. 5. He blamed himself for the injury she suffered then, even though it was a freakish injury that could have happened any time.

In the wake of the gut punch, one may wonder why young basketball players don’t take fuller advantage of the summer months to rest their bodies, at least give their feet, ankles and knees a break from the relentless pounding on hardwood floors. The culture of the game doesn’t allow that. No one wants to be outworked, no one wants to be accused of leaving a ball unbounced, a shot untaken in the never-ending quest to get better, least of all Bueckers. The thought of passing up that pick-up game Monday to give her joints a break likely never crossed her mind. That’s what makes her Paige Bueckers. The art of pacing oneself is only learned much later in a career.

All is not lost, even if it feels that way. There will be a season. Auriemma’s teams always have enough high-end talent to contend for a title. Getting over the towering hurdle that South Carolina has become without Bueckers may or may not be possible in 2022-23. But there’s no reason to believe Bueckers won’t be back to chase another title or two in a UConn jersey, just like Bird, Shea Ralph, Mel Thomas and Caroline Doty all did. The passion that has made her so good, so uplifting to watch, won’t fade and it will certainly drive her to recover on schedule.

“Some little kid who just tore their ACL or had a major surgery might need this story,” she posted, “because it’s going to be one hell of a comeback.”

Those better days will come, after the ache of Wednesday’s gut punch subsides.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com