Gilbreath, Gemelos persevere

Jacki Gemelos still hopes to return this season and play for Michael Cooper and USC. Sam Haythorn/USC Sports Information

It's best if you can at least develop a little sense of gallows humor when fate keeps handing you the same putrid sandwich to gag down and digest.

So when Southern California players Jacki Gemelos and Stefanie Gilbreath are asked about the specifics of their eight combined ACL surgeries, they smile and put the questioner at ease.

In this case, the devil is not in the details. Rather, it's in the inexplicable weakness in otherwise strong human bodies. Talking about it doesn't make it any worse. It's something they just deal with every day.

While a tale about two young women who've yet to play a college basketball game because of multiple knee injuries might not seem like happy holiday fare, consider that actually … it is. Because their perseverance is quite inspiring.

There are life-threatening things that some people face daily, and their courage in dealing gracefully with them lifts us all. But the reality is, even more people get emotionally crushed in the so-called primes of their lives -- not necessarily by something that could kill them, but it could kill their spirit. That's what Gemelos, a redshirt junior, and Gilbreath, a redshirt sophomore, have had to deal with.

"If you would have told me four years ago that I was going to hurt my ACL four times, I probably would have said that I'd throw in the towel by now," Gemelos said. "But going through it year by year and knowing how much this game means to me, it's something that I've taken day by day. My dad always tells me it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and I really try to keep that in mind."

Unfortunately, though, it has been worse than running a marathon … more like a dreadfully long race in which just about when Gemelos has reached the finish line, she is suddenly transported back to the start.

Gilbreath can relate. She gets through her disappointment in part by cheering on her younger sister, Briana, a sophomore who is the second-leading scorer for USC. The siblings were sure they wanted to go to the same school, so when Stefanie went through the recruiting process, Briana was also making the decision.

"It's hard because I've loved playing with her, we've done that my whole life," Briana said. "To be here playing with her not able to play -- it's tough. I go through the same process she does even though I'm not injured. We go through it together. She's my biggest supporter; we really help each other through everything."

Gemelos is still hopeful of playing this season; if all goes well, she's expected to be cleared to compete in late January or early February. Stefanie Gilbreath hopes she'll return next season.

"I am at least happy that I'm able to have a scholarship and keep pursuing my education," Stefanie said. "I just stay positive. I want to pick my teammates up -- I don't want to ever walk around sad and bring everyone down.

"I find different ways to get into what the team's doing and take my mind off being injured. That helps me at rehab, because I still want to come back and play with this team."

Still, after all they've been through, they know very well that there are no certainties about what their athletic futures hold. Their recent past is full of operations, pain, rehab and disappointment. How much disappointment can you take before the light at the end of the tunnel isn't enough to keep you going forward anymore?

Maybe you never know until you're in that tunnel. And even though it seems like you move a foot back for every inch you move ahead, you find you just can't stop moving.

In 2006, Gemelos was a prep phenom from Stockton, Calif., who thought she'd already been through the worst thing she'd face in her basketball career.

She had pledged to move across the country to UConn, then had second thoughts. In the fall of 2005 before she started her senior year of high school, she realized she didn't want go that far away because it would keep her parents from seeing her play very often. Her older sister was already in Connecticut, at the University of Hartford, but Gemelos knew that the distance was too great for her.

She also knew that UConn coach Geno Auriemma and some of the Huskies Nation would be upset with her, and that bothered her. (Of course, they weren't the ones faced with having to be 3,000 miles away from the most important people in their lives.) Gemelos dealt with the wrath and opted instead for USC … but then something worse than having to turn down UConn happened.

The first ACL. She tore it in her right knee during a prep playoff game in March 2006. It took away what was to be her freshman season.

Then the second ACL: also in the right knee. That tear happened in September 2007, and there went another season.

Then the third ACL: This time, it was the left knee, and it happened in October 2008. One more season gone. By May 2009, she had finished three years at USC without ever having played a game. And then, cruel as it sounds, she got more bad news.

"We found out the cadaver graft that they used my body rejected. And it dissolved in my knee after 6½ months of rehab," Gemelos said. "There was a silver lining to it, though. It was still devastating, but at least I knew I didn't do it myself while I was playing."

But it meant another surgery and the start of her fourth season on the sidelines for USC. This time, there was a new coach as Michael Cooper took over for Mark Trakh. Cooper has heard how good a player Gemelos once was and hopes to still be. He sees her in the workouts she's able to do now. He talks eagerly about her being cleared at about the eight-month mark, which should get her back on the court during Pac-10 play. Gemelos keeps her eyes on that carrot.

"I just want to contribute," she said. "I want to see how I fit in. I want to play hard for my teammates. Both my knees feel great, better than they ever have. My weight is where I want it to be, and I'm lifting a lot. I feel phenomenal. I feel that time is going to heal everything, and when that eight-month mark comes, I'll be ready to get out there."

In the meantime, she has to look no further than her own team to see someone who really does know exactly how she feels.

"I think since our adversities are similar, so it's good we have one another to help us get through it," Gemelos said of Stefanie Gilbreath. "Because we've gone through the same things."

Wardell and Audrey Gilbreath had their first daughter on Valentine's Day 1989. A year and a half later, in August 1990, came their second little girl. Both would grow up to be 6-foot-1 basketball standouts.

All parents try to stress that "family is everything" sentiment to their children, but sibling rivalries are hard to prevent -- especially when the siblings are so close in age and play the same sport.

However, the message got through early to Stefanie and Briana.

"The last time we 'competed' was probably in elementary school," Briana says, laughing. "Since then it's been a duo. We always do everything together. We don't compete like people would think, we're just best friends."

As Audrey Gilbreath put it, "I only had one sister as well, and my mom always instilled in me, 'You only have each other if something happens to me and your dad.'

"I have to say that I'm very proud to see how they automatically support each other. When it's all said and done, when the basketball and school are over, it's about your life: who you're going to have in your life, who you can rely on and who can depend on you."

The Gilbreath sisters, who grew up in the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, have always depended on each other. When basketball became important to Stefanie, it did to Briana, too. From childhood, they attended Houston Comets games, and marveled at former USC stars Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson.

When it came time for college, Wardell -- a former track standout at Arizona -- wanted them to stay in the state of Texas. But Audrey knew why they were drawn to going to USC, where they now share an apartment.

"I understand kids needing their independence and spreading their wings. So I was more open to them leaving," Audrey said, adding with a chuckle, "My husband wasn't very open to that.

"All parents want to be there and take care of everything for their children. But they need to be able to make some mistakes, recover from those and know how to deal with it. I feel like they're still close to us. And they have each other."

That has especially helped as Stefanie has been plagued with knee problems. Her first ACL tear -- to her left knee -- actually came when she was 12 years old. Surgery had to be delayed until she grew more, and she has not injured that knee since.

However, then she had another ACL injury -- to her right knee -- after her senior season in high school, which she suffered while practicing for the 2007 McDonald's All-American game. She missed her freshman season at USC. The following summer, she tore that same ACL again -- this time in a pickup game -- and she had to sit out the 2008-09 season.

She was prepared to play this year, but it happened again during individual conditioning workouts in September. Once again, the right knee. Another season gone.

"It wasn't a major movement: I had my brace on, but something in my knee just slipped," Stefanie said. "I didn't think it was that bad again, but it was."

Briana was perhaps even more upset than Stefanie, who has taken a philosophical approach to it. Something good can come from everything -- that's what their mother has always said.

In Stefanie's case, her experience and familiarity with rehab has helped her decide to become a physical therapist.

"I've seen it all," Stefanie said. "I've really become interested in how the body works and why things happen.

"And whenever I do get down, I can talk to my sister. She lets me know how I help her now by staying positive in my rehab. And she lets me know where I will fit in on the team and how she needs me out there. Whenever I do get to play, she is going to help me get back into shape. Because she's been through all this with me."

USC has a 6-4 record, with Briana (12.6 ppg) and fellow sophomore Ashley Corral (16.2 ppg) leading the way. Earlier this month, the Trojans were in Durham, N.C., playing a tight game against Duke in a loud and raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"I almost started crying on the bench, because that Duke atmosphere is unbelievable," Gemelos said. "It's what you live to play for. I so badly wanted to be out there to help my teammates.

"But this whole process has helped keep me level-headed and very much mentally stronger than I ever have been. You have your good days and bad days, but I think playing again is going to take care of all of that. I've learned a lot. I think I know the true meaning of patience."

During games, Gemelos and Stefanie Gilbreath keep a close watch on things from the bench. Then they view film. They imagine what it will finally feel like to step onto the court in a real game wearing a USC uniform.

"We've commiserated a lot," Stefanie said. "We talk about the injuries and what we're thinking about and help each other stay in shape. Most of the time, we can tell when the other is having a bad day with rehab, like, 'Gosh, I'm doing this again.' We just keep each other positive.

"I really think it's just our passion for the game that keeps us going. We love it so much, and it's just something you never want to quit. When the [injuries] have happened, you say at first, 'I don't know if I can go through this again.' But then you'll go out and do something like just shoot a little bit. And you think, 'Am I ready to give it up?' And we know we're not ready. We're still young. We can get over this."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.