Commander in Chief: Lindsey Harding

A little over halfway through her first season with the Minnesota Lynx, point guard Lindsey Harding was averaging 11.7 points and 3.9 assists per game. After graduating from Duke as just the second Blue Devil to register more than 1,000 points, 500 assists, 500 rebounds and 250 steals, the 23-year-old was the odds on favorite for WNBA’s Rookie of the Year. Then, during a game last July, something popped in her knee. “I was able to walk, I was able to flex my muscles,” recalled Harding, “but I knew something was wrong.”

She was right. The league’s No. 1 draft pick had torn her ACL – the anterior cruciate ligament – a season-ending injury that has become all too familiar to female athletes. “When I heard [the diagnosis] I broke down and cried,” she admitted. “And then I stopped and thought of every other well-known basketball player that had torn it: Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird, Katie Smith. And they were all on the phone with me and all said, ‘You’re fine.’ Players on my team have torn their meniscus, and they said, ‘Your knee looks so much better than mine did.’ So, when you’re around that and you know you’re doing better, and it’s so ‘routine,’ you feel better.”

Harding knows that 20 years ago such an injury meant you were off the court for at least a year – if not forever. But these days, surgery plus an intense and structured rehab will have her cleared to play by January, though she’ll make her return slowly. “I’m impatient,” said Harding, “but I’ve been very patient throughout my career. I think it says a lot about someone who waits their turn. Hopefully, this is still my turn to be playing.”

Her unwanted exile from the court has given Harding time to admire basketball at the professional level. “You don’t really get a chance to sit and appreciate it when you’re playing. But actually watching, you see we have so many amazing athletes,” she noted. “There were so many athletes that came before us, but the game is growing, and it’s evolving. It’s just really, really good basketball. The shooting is better and further out. The athleticism is getting stronger and stronger – because we have been watching them play for years and years, so we’re starting to play harder and harder at a younger age.”

Intriguingly enough, basketball wasn’t Harding’s first choice. There was gymnastics, but “my love was track. That was my sport. I started playing basketball when I was 12,” she explained. “I was living in Houston and the WNBA was just coming, and my Dad bought season tickets.” The timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Behind the play of such stars as Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, she saw the Comets win four consecutive championships. The games and the atmosphere just got Harding hooked. “I just saw strong, independent women who’d finally broken though that wall saying, ‘Men did it all these years, now we’re going to do it.’ I wanted to be a part of this. I saw my future.

“Some people’s career is their family,” she continued. “Some people it’s their job, their friends. Basketball is what I believe is mine. When I was a little kid I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life. And I saw these women, and I was completely inspired. I said I want to do it, and I’m going to do it. So, as far as being an athlete and being a part of the Women’s Sports Foundation, I think the biggest message is that we as athletes need to inspire, teach and help our community – help women, help anyone.”

Of course, Harding doesn’t need her major in sociology or minor in women’s studies to understand that there will always be doubters – her experience will suffice. “When I was at Duke,” she remembered, “a guy would say, ‘So you play basketball? I could take you.’ And they’d never say that to a guy.”

“I could be stubborn and say, ‘Why do I always have to prove myself?’” said Harding with a shake of her head. “But then you learn sometimes you might have to. Sometimes you may have to lace up those shoes and beat them on the court to prove your point. That’s what the generation before us did, and now we have to do it. We’re still going to continue to have to prove our point, maybe for years to come. To prove to someone that I am that good and I can do this. I’m starting to learn – because I’m a stubborn person – no matter what it is, whether it be me lacing up my shoes on the court or me educating someone about what I do, I’m going to continuously prove myself. I am here. I am an athlete. This is what I do.”


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