Haley Steed worth waiting for

BYU's Haley Steed is a Lieberman award nominee, which honors the nation's top point guard. Kelley L Cox/US Presswire

Haley Steed has seen a lot of basketball for someone who thought her career was over before it really started.

But as with any story spanning large swaths of history, it's best to start at the beginning.

In the second game Jayne Appel ever played for Stanford, she turned in one of least imposing lines of her college career, scoring four points in 15 minutes off the bench in a loss against BYU. Appel's contributions, of course, grew more substantial in short order, including All-America honors aplenty and three Final Four appearances.

Another newcomer was rather more productive in that game between the Cardinal and Cougars on Nov. 12, 2006. Also coming off the bench that day, BYU freshman Steed (then Haley Hall) scored a game-high 15 points to pace her team in a upset that set the tone for a season that ended with a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Appel will begin her third season in the WNBA in a few weeks. On Saturday, Steed, who married Bo Steed last May, will lead BYU into the NCAA tournament for the first time since the season that began with the win against Stanford. A sixth-year player who has the option of returning for a seventh season, she is still there, a generational orphan and a holdout against the speed at which time demands college sports move. To the Cougars, she is also a point guard worth waiting for.

"In some ways it feels like it was just yesterday, but when I really sit here and think about it, it feels like forever," Steed said of her tenure. "I feel like I've been at BYU for a long time, and that was the very first year, so I think about everything that's happened in the last five years and it does feel like forever ago."

A few weeks after her star turn against Stanford as a freshman, Steed suffered a torn ACL in her left knee and missed the final 25 games of the season, including the team's NCAA tournament game against Louisville. She worked her way back from the injury and was cleared to play when practice began the following fall, most of one season lost but a career still long on promise.

On the first day the team was on the court together that second season, she drove left and came to a jump stop, just as she had in almost the same spot on the floor a year earlier. And just as it had a year before, the ligament tore. The second ACL tear sidelined her before BYU even played a game. A second season was gone.

One more time Steed sweated through the long, solitary hours of rehab, a basketball player without a basketball in her hands. Again she followed the familiar routine of ACL tears as she strengthened the muscles in her legs weakened after surgery, and again she brought herself back to playing shape in time for the start of basketball season, her third at BYU.

And during the first regular-season game of the 2008-09 season, she tore her ACL. Again.

Three seasons into her college career, Steed had played a grand total of nine games.

There was a sense of shock after the first ACL tear, but for someone who previously had suffered nothing more severe than the occasional sprained ankle, the very newness of such a serious injury pushed her to come back. After the second, there was frustration, to be sure, but also a familiarity with what came next and a sense of urgency to start the clock on a comeback.

The third tear was different. To be sent back to the starting line yet again brought only darkness and doubt.

"The third one was kind of a more devastating feeling of it's probably not in the cards for me to play basketball," Steed said.

That realization was all the more crushing because Steed for so many years looked like she was born to play basketball. She was a high school star in Syracuse, Utah, a big-time scorer in a 5-foot-4 frame who ranks seventh in state history in career points. She was a prolific 3-point shooter and no easier to stop when she took off on a foray to the basket.

"She was very, very explosive," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "She was one of the best players I've seen in this state for a long, long time."

But in the days after her third ACL tear, Judkins thought Steed might be done. So did she. The emotional and mental strain of going through all that rehab again was just one part of it. She knew how to cope with that. Processing the uncertainty that lay beyond was the truly frightening part. Friends and family commiserated. Only a few told her to try again.

"I thought there was no way I could ever trust my body to the point where I could go out and play basketball hard again and trust that I'm not going to get hurt," Steed said.

Yet she kept showing up at practice every day to be with her teammates. She continued to travel with the team on road trips, and before long, she started to realize why she couldn't stay away, that she wanted to try one more time to play college basketball.

"I don't know if at that time I really expected to come back," Steed said. "But I did have a desire inside to want to play again."

She told Judkins she wasn't going to come back afraid when she made the decision to try a third time, but that's easier stated than done. It wasn't until at least midway through her first season back on the court, 2009-10, that she began to believe this comeback might be for real, that she might be able to trust her body. It was only this season that she began to trust herself penetrating into the lane. She attempted just 28 free throws in each of her first two seasons back on the court, despite playing more than 1,000 minutes each season. This season, she has already gone to the line 55 times. Steed even left Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie exasperated with her own players by pulling down 15 rebounds in Duke's narrow 61-55 win in November.

Some of her old game will never come back. Judkins estimates she's about two-thirds of the physical player she was in high school, and she doesn't sound like she disagrees. But instead of fighting that, she worked with what was left.

"I don't think I'm exactly the same," Steed said. "I think I'm better in some ways, and I'm not as good in other ways. I still am not the same attacking player I was before. Before I was ever injured, I was way more of a penetrator, drive-to-the-basket kind of player. And I've kind of had to shift my game into something else. Now I'm more of a shooter, more of a come-off-screens type of player. This year, definitely more than the last two years, I've been more willing to drive and penetrate and kind of get inside. All three of my injuries came from penetration to the hoop, and I think there was just a big mental block the first two years back that I honestly didn't believe I could do it."

Steed also happens to be one of the best point guards in the country this season, one of eight finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award. She is fourth nationally in assists per game and third in assist-to-turnover ratio, joining Hampton's Jericka Jenkins as the only players in the top 10 of both categories. And in that regard, she might be a better player for all the injuries. After spending just about every second on the court growing up, Steed had to watch the game for three seasons, sitting with the coaches during games and making mental notes.

"That was the biggest help and blessing through it all," Steed said. "That I think I learned the game of basketball in a way that there was no way I would have been able to do if I was on the court."

These days she's as likely to put a line like she did against Nevada (11 assists, no turnovers, no field goal attempts in 23 minutes) as she is a big scoring night (17 points, eight assists in the West Coast Conference championship game against Gonzaga). It's her job to put teammates like Kristen Riley, the WCC player of the year, and freshman Lexi Eaton, who bumped her down a spot on the high school scoring charts in Utah, in the best position to succeed. She has been around "Juddy," as she calls Judkins, so long that he'll sometimes pause in a timeout and ask her what she thinks they should run.

"She's been a coach on the court," Judkins said. "For me, I haven't had to control as many things as I used to because of her. And then I think she just sets a great example. I can get on her, and she takes it in a positive way. She's very, very focused all the time, and I think that sets a great tone for my team."

As a result of all the time she lost early in her career, Steed is eligible to return for a seventh season. Her marriage to Bo helped provide a sense of security off the court, that she wasn't still stuck in the college social scene and that not every part of her life was stuck in some sort of suspended animation. It doesn't hurt that he's an avid sports fan and her biggest supporter. And the body that made it difficult to walk the morning after games her first two seasons back on the court has never felt better, even at the end of a long season.

For his part, Judkins said he'll offer his best recruiting pitch to try to convince her to return to a team that loses just two other players, albeit good ones in Riley and Dani Peterson.

But it doesn't really sound like it's going to be a hard sell. When you've seen as much college basketball as Steed, you know better than most what you would be giving up.

"There's a lot of people you talk to who are done who would die to have one more year," Steed said. "I don't know. I haven't made a decision yet, but I think I love basketball way too much to not come back."

That much she long ago proved.