Jan. 17, 2009
By ALEX PAVLOVIC, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
It's not at all surprising that Sha'Rae Gibbons lists "Love & Basketball" as one of her favorite movies. After all, her heart has always been intertwined with the game.
With her UCSB career winding down, the senior guard is putting aside injuries to play a game that helped her overcome tragedy and introduced her to a bright future. As the movie says, "all's fair in love and basketball."
Gibbons knows that better than anyone.
Early in her high school career, she lost both of her parents within a span of five months, leading to a move to Sacramento to live with her aunt and uncle. The Utah native turned to studying and sports to deal with the pain, excelling in the classroom and standing out as a five-sport star at Valley High School. With a 4.0 GPA and a plethora of all-league nods on her resume, Gibbons won the Wendy's High School Heisman Award, becoming one of just 51 athletes nationwide so honored.
Following a recruiting trip to UCSB that included a visit to Campus Point and a slice of coach Mark French's famous cheesecake, she began her career as a Gaucho with a freshman season that culminated with an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. On the surface, Gibbons appeared to be excelling in all phases of life, but internally she was still trying to deal with the death of her parents, an emotional battle that led to her taking a leave of absence from school and basketball prior to her sophomore season.
"I put all of myself into school and sports in high school," she said. "And then I got to college and did the same thing and after freshman year. I think it all just finally came crumbling down. Being gone was huge for me in terms of healing my mind and my body."
Gibbons' return was facilitated by the fact that French, who retired after her junior season, held her scholarship while she was away, an act that she credits with helping her readjust to school and basketball.
"I don't know any Division I coach that would sit back and hold a scholarship for someone," she said. "I wasn't his top player or top scorer but he did that, and it helped me a lot to know that I had a place to come back to. I truly believed that if I just stuck with it, things would work out."
Following an injury-filled sophomore season in which she played in only 10 games, Gibbons finally got back on track by scoring 19 points off the bench in a come-from-behind win over USC last season, a performance that she calls her "breakthrough game as a player."
Ironically, it was the win over the Trojans that caught new coach Lindsay Gottlieb's attention while she was interviewing to be French's replacement.
"The first game I watched on film during the interview process was the USC game," Gottlieb said. "Sha'Rae took over. She hit big shots and you could see her getting fired up on the sideline. I looked at the roster and said 'is that kid coming back' because she's a kid you look at and say I want her on my team. She was definitely someone I was looking forward to coaching."
Gottlieb's enthusiasm to coach Gibbons would have to wait however, as the senior was forced to undergo preseason surgery after breaking her left pinkie. The early prognosis had her out anywhere from 6-to-12 weeks, leading the former All-Big West selection to contemplate using a medical redshirt.
Gibbons, who says she tries to focus on "thing she can control," practiced endlessly on side courts to stay in shape, all the while hoping that her hand would heal in time to play this season.
"She was always being productive," Gottlieb said. "She wasn't always with us because with the hand injury, it's not like you can run plays, but she was working out here on her own and working on staying in shape. Sometimes you're injured and you can get out of the flow of things but she never lost touch, and she never lost that relationship with the coaching staff.
"She was very involved even when she was injured."
While her coaches and teammates gush about her dedication to get back on the court, Gibbons admits that it was another thought that kept her running, despite the discomfort that came with working out in a cast.
"I was scared, that's what kept me motivated," she said. "I was scared that once I got back on the court I'd be run up and down by the other teams. (The cast) was nasty but it worked out pretty well. I tried to keep it clean as much as I could, but it was gross."
Doctors cleared her two and a half weeks earlier than expected, and after convincing Gottlieb to let her bring her jersey on a trip to Kentucky, Gibbons played 20 minutes against the Wildcats, just two days after she started practicing with the team again. Her return was a welcome addition to a UCSB squad that was 3-5 at the time.
"When she was gone it was tough because coach would be asking for energy, but I'm not a ball of energy," senior guard Lauren Pedersen said. "She's the most emotional (player) on our team. I don't have to feel bad about being calmer because she's the opposite of me -- yin and yang, you know. I love having her back because I know somebody is going to be celebrating on every play."
The Gauchos have gone 6-1 since Gibbons' return, leading Gottlieb to make an example of Gibbons' fire and passion on the court.
"I love it, I'll stop the film and I'll show her little celebrations in a positive way," she said. "It gets herself going and it gets the team going. You have difference makers out there and Sha'Rae is a difference maker with her mentality and her energy level. Sha'Rae is one of the most influential and important players on a team that I've ever been around, in terms of her presence.
"We were trying to come into our own while she was out, but her stepping in has given us a bit of an emotional lift and her teammates feed off of that."
Gibbons has always turned to basketball to get through tough times, and in turn she got more than she bargained for.
The self-proclaimed "Miss Independent" always thought it would be years before she settled down, but after meeting fellow athlete Noah Mitchell at a teammate's birthday party, that all changed.
Mitchell, a former baseball player, is now Gibbons' fiancè, as well as one of several men who practice with the women's team. It's a dynamic that's led to some interesting exchanges in front of teammates and coaches.
"She's pretty intense, so she'll just get on people and chirp when we're playing pickup games," Pedersen said. "Me and (Gottlieb) were standing on the sideline and Noah was on her team and she was yelling at him because he missed a pass and coach turns to us and says, 'See, nobody should ever feel bad if she yells at you because she yells at him worse than anybody, and she's about to marry him.'
"Relationship doesn't matter, she's going to get on him if he misses a pass."
Gibbons has no qualms about getting on her future husband, saying "when they're on the court, everyone get's the same treatment."
The sociology and black studies double-major plans to marry Mitchell a week after graduation, but for now she's grateful for the time that they get together at practice.
"He works and I have basketball and school so we don't have a lot of time, so it's good to just be around each other" she said. "The team means so much to me and he means so much to me, so for them to be able to interact and know each other is huge. It worked out perfectly, I wouldn't have written it any differently.
"It's one of those things that's when you're sold, you're sold -- and he sold me."
Gibbons credits Mitchell with helping her recover from her injuries, saying that he was always willing to go to the gym to rebound for her or play pickup games. They regularly go head-to-head in shooting contests, including after a recent practice, when Gibbons fell behind early before storming back to beat Mitchell on her final shot.
"She always beats me," he said. "She's the better shooter. When I do beat her, which is rare, she'll take the next three or four in a row."
It's been a long and challenging road to get to this point, but with her mind and body at peace, the 2008 All-Big West Tournament selection is looking forward to trying to lead the Gauchos back to the NCAA Tournament. After that, she hopes to get a shot at playing in Europe, before eventually trying to get into coaching, a profession that Gottlieb says she was made for.
Gibbons jokes that Mitchell wants their first child to be a left-handed pitcher, but just like she does on the basketball court, the fiery point guard is already thinking several steps ahead.
"We're going to have a starting five," she said. "A starting five and maybe a left-handed pitcher, that's what we're going for and we'll be good to go."