Updated Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Editor's note: Jayda Evans will follow the progress of UW freshman basketball player Katie Collier this season in an occasional series as the high-school All-American rehabs her injured knee and watches the Huskies from the sideline.
Washington sophomore Aminah Williams made a post move during a recent practice and a leg twitched on the baseline seats at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Teammate Katie Collier sat in Huskies gear, fiddling with a ball, sometimes moving along with the Huskies players as if playing Kinect basketball. For now, it's the closest she'll get to playing the game she has loved since being handed a basketball at age 4.
On July 30, the first day of UW open-gym practices, Collier made a move along the baseline similar to the one made at practice by Williams. Collier's leg straightened, making a loud pop. Collier, the first McDonald's high-school All-American recruited to UW, fell to the court, screaming in pain. She had torn the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus in her right knee.
"Are you serious? Why?" Collier said of her first thoughts after the injury was diagnosed. She won't play for Washington until the 2013-14 season.
And seriously, why Collier? In September 2011 she was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Treatment included daily arsenic drip chemotherapy.
It looked like Collier, a 6-foot-3 forward, would miss her senior season at Seattle Christian. But she was cleared to play in December, continuing to undergo chemotherapy throughout the season. Collier became the school's all-time leading scorer and averaged 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in 18 games, leading her team to the regional playoffs.
She cut one chemo session short to play in a game that night. She collapsed after other games, dehydrated and exhausted. Once, a tearful opponent told her after a game it had been an honor to play against her.
She was named the girls state player of the year by The Seattle Times. By March, she was cancer-free, and played in the McDonald's All-American game — two weeks after her final treatment.
The best player in the state was looking forward to starting school at UW and beginning her Huskies career. Instead, she will spend the season sitting and watching. Or she'll shag rebounds for teammates and watch. Or listen to breakdowns of game film with the team and watch. And, to mix it up, she'll ride a stationary bike next to the court. And watch.
Watching a practice last week, Collier sighed.
"I'm learning to be patient," she said. "I mean, I did have to wait and be patient during chemo and everything last year. But I still was stubborn and kind of like pushed myself through that because I still played last year. This is ... it's almost like God is saying, 'No, you really need to take a breath and just stop.' With chemo and everything, I could go to class and go play games or whatever. It was hard, but still doable. This is literally, I can't. It's hard, but I just need to learn how to be patient and take a break. As frustrating as that is, that's what I have to do."
Collier is off crutches now but probably won't be able to run on the court until spring. She looks to redshirt senior Kristi Kingma as a blueprint in the recovery process.
Kingma, an All-Pac-12 guard, tore her ACL during the team's Scandinavian tour in August 2011. She has returned this season and is averaging 12.9 points for the Huskies, who are off to a 6-1 start. Kingma is playing 39.3 minutes per game.
"I trained as if I was going out for the Olympics," Kingma said after playing a career-high 44 minutes in an overtime victory over Seattle University in November. She scored a season-high 22 points in the matchup.
Training won't be a problem. Collier was already an exercise enthusiast, a regular at LA Fitness near her Covington home, where she did the same lunges and squats she does now to regain strength in the lost muscle in her knee.
She has company on the sideline. Redshirt freshman Deborah Meeks is returning from a right ACL tear, and freshman Heather Corral, Collier's best friend on the team, is rehabilitating a broken right wrist.
The injuries have shrunk the UW roster to eight available players.
"It's contagious. It's ridiculous," Collier said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Heather has had lots of injuries before this, even her knees. But at first we're like, 'Are you serious? What is happening to us?' Eventually we just ended up joking about it — 'How's your body doing today? Is yours fine? What's wrong now?' You've just kinda gotta laugh about it."
There's no joking on game days. Collier's perpetual smile is dimmed by not being on the court with her team. Collier stayed home from a recent trip to Wisconsin because of her class schedule, and tracked the Huskies' gritty 60-55 victory online.
"It was kinda weird because my team was playing and I'm still here," she said. "I just wish I was there."
Collier's voice drifts when a loud whistle blows at practice.
Her head snaps back to the arena court.
"Stop!" coach Kevin McGuff bellowed during a run-through of a defensive set.
"Who are you guarding?" he yelled at the players. "Who are you guarding?"
"I feel bad for them," she said quietly. "But I figure I'll be there at some point ... and I'm sure I'll mess up, too."
Until then, Collier can only watch.
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DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Freshman forward Katie Collier, in black, will spend this season on the bench for Washington while she rehabs from a knee injury.
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
"I'm learning to be patient," Collier says. "I mean, I did have to wait and be patient during chemo and everything last year. But I still was stubborn."