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Tears of disbelief: Kristy Wallace on her return from injury and elevation to the Opals
"I can’t describe that feeling. Then the tears started coming.”
When Kristy Wallace found out she had made the Opals team for a World Cup qualifying tournament in Serbia, her first response was one of disbelief. “I was confused and thought they’d made a mistake,” she tells The Pick and Roll. “I went into the room [with Opals Head Coach Sandy Brondello] fully expecting not to be selected, but she said I was in. I can’t describe that feeling. Then the tears started coming.”
The tears kept falling as she made calls to family members and supporters. The outpouring of emotion is understandable. Earning selection to a national team must be an overwhelming feeling of achievement at the best of times. In Wallace’s case, it’s the culmination of a ton of hard work and determination to fight back after a truly wretched run with injuries.
Long considered one of the best talents of her generation, Wallace had suffered her first anterior cruciate ligament tear in the final year at Baylor. The injury brought a storied college career, where she earned all-conference defensive honours, to a premature end. The Atlanta Dream liked what they saw, taking her with the 16th pick in the 2018 WNBA draft even knowing she would not be back on the court for some time.
After a lengthy rehabilitation process, she made it back to WNBL level with the University of Canberra Capitals for the 2018/19 season but suffered a cruel blow when she was again injured in just her second game back after the knee reconstruction.
“It was really challenging,” Wallace says of her second spell on the injured list. “I questioned whether I wanted to play the sport again.”
During her time away from the court, it was difficult for Wallace even to watch the game she loved. The lengthy, gruelling process brought with it a time of soul searching. “I just found it hard because I was so unsure what I wanted to do and who I was without basketball,” she recalls.
“I did need to step away from the game to find out who I was without basketball. I think that was healthy for me, and I needed that separation.”
An outdoorsy type who enjoys cycling and ocean swimming in her downtime, Wallace often longed to simply get her freedom of movement back.
The 26-year-old credits lead physiotherapist Steven Hawkins and physical preparation coach Ben King, both at the Victorian Institute of Sport, as her “rocks” during the three-year recovery process.
Under their guidance, she finally began to approach full fitness, and last year she made her way back into the NBL1, putting up 14.2 points per game (53.49% field-goal percentage) with the Melbourne Tigers. She showed enough in her five games to earn selection for the FIBA Asia Cup, putting in a star turn against China with 14 points in 19 minutes.
This WNBL season she has been part of a Southside Flyers team stacked with talent and proven scorers, but has taken every opportunity afforded to her, playing well enough to force her way into the regular rotation. Wallace has been particularly effective in providing points when the team needed someone to step up with key players missing; she put up 16 against Perth Lynx with Jenna O’Hea missing and equal top-scored for her team (with 14) against the same opponent when Bec Cole was out.
Her efforts with the ball have been eye-catching. She’s quick, skillful and has been shooting well from deep, going 46.7% from three (7 of 15) so far. While some players are understandably somewhat apprehensive when returning from a long injury, Wallace throws herself around the court. She hustles hard, as seen in this spectacular effort to keep a loose rebound in play.
She’s also adept at getting to the basket and has a nice hesitation move to shake defenders. Finishing through contact is a particular strength; in this clip, she takes a bump from University of Sydney Flames guard Funda Nakkasoglu but stays balanced to make the basket and go to the line.
Wallace has been even better on the defensive end, showing every bit of the grit and determination that saw her win Baylor’s Melissa Jones Hustle and Courage award during her college years.
She often makes the kind of defensive plays that don’t necessarily show up on the box score but are invaluable for a team looking for stops. In this passage of play against Melbourne Boomers, she finds herself in a mismatch with Opals big Cayla George, but doesn’t let her opponent get the easy catch in the post. She does just as well as an on-ball defender, not giving George an inch and forcing the bigger player into giving up the ball.
She’s got physical tools like footwork and speed to stay in front of drivers and the length to bother shooters. She’s also prepared, watching every WNBL game and scouting those she may have to guard. “I like to pretend like I’m guarding [potential opponents] when I watch, just seeing what their tendencies are and what their moves are. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I like doing that.”
In conversation, Wallace humbly deflects credit for her Opals selection and WNBL form onto her more experienced peers. “The seniors [in the Opals] have taught me so much and taken me under their wing,” she explained. “Cayla [George], Sami [Whitcomb] and Tess [Madgen] have all been so incredible and helped me with the on-court stuff but also the off-court stuff, the culture and who we want to be as a team.”
She’s similarly full of praise for the Southside set-up and the influence of veteran players in the group who have overcome their own injury woes. “They’re just amazing people,” Wallace says. “They’ve been instrumental in making me feel comfortable. They’re not just knowledgeable about basketball; they’re good people. To be around good people is really special.”
While there’s no doubt truth in this – leadership is everything in sport - a mountain of credit has to go to Wallace herself for overcoming a cursed injury run to climb into the upper echelon of Australian basketball.