Before Aug. 7, 2018, Angel McCoughtry had been one of the few lucky ones who could say she had dodged the kind of serious injury that can threaten a career.
That all changed on that date, in the fourth quarter of a WNBA game between McCoughtry’s Atlanta Dream and the Las Vegas Aces, when the Baltimore native tore the ACL and meniscus in her left knee and sustained a bone bruise. In the aftermath, in her darkest moments, the 33-year-old McCoughtry contemplated the unthinkable: retiring and leaving basketball behind.
“Oh my God, I was just like, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” she recalled recently. “I had moments where I felt like I wanted to quit. But that’s just natural from being frustrated with the injury and the process. But if it crossed my mind, I never meant it. It was just out of frustration.”
The nearly 14-month-long process of recovery has been an exasperating time for the usually ebullient McCoughtry (St. Frances), who was forced to sit out the Dream’s eventual loss to the Washington Mystics in the WNBA semifinals.
The injury to her left knee was so extensive that she had to wait a month before she could undergo surgery to repair it. Doctors informed the five-time WNBA All-Star and two-time scoring champion that the leg had to be straightened first before any work could begin.
After being limited to crutches for about a month, McCoughtry began the tedious work of rehabilitating her knee. Even the simplest of tasks seemed Herculean.
“It was just different,” she said. “It was not being able to walk up the steps, not being able to go downstairs to get a glass of milk like you’re used to. You really learn how to not take things for granted, the little things that you’re used to.”
The physical pain she was forced to endure was almost matched by the emotional struggle.
“Mentally, I went through a lot of moments of just crying and confusion and different things,” she said. “So I took the liberty of getting a sports psychiatrist because that stuff is needed. We talk about always being busy and playing all the time and being active and on the go, and then all of a sudden, your life just comes to a halt, like you just can’t do anything. It was a shock to my whole system. So it was hard.”
Those who know McCoughtry well were surprised to hear of any retirement talk, but pointed out that an extended healing period requires an abundance of fortitude.
“It does not surprise me that the healing process for Angel has been frustrating,” said New York Liberty center Tina Charles, who played with McCoughtry on the U.S. teams that captured gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. “Any elite athlete with their first major injury will struggle with their new norm and rehab process. It will take time to get back to competitive form.”
Jeff Walz, who coached McCoughtry at the University of Louisville, said his former student has one gear.
“Angel wants to go,” the former University of Maryland assistant said. “If you’ve ever watched her play, she plays at 100%. So it takes a little bit of patience to get yourself back to where you’re prepared and your body is ready to do that again. I think for her, it was just the fact that she couldn’t go at the speed that she wanted to, and with that type of rehab, it’s very tedious. It’s not something where within two months, you’re back running and playing.”
Just before she returned to the basketball court in June when she could finally begin some light jogging, McCoughtry said the fog around her lifted.
“Your mind tricks you into thinking that your leg is never going to get stronger, that you’re going to be like that forever,” she said. “But once it started getting stronger, I was like, ‘OK, my leg is getting stronger, and I can come back.’ I talked to other people and they said the same thing. ‘Oh yeah, you think you’re never going to come back, but you’re going to get strong again, and you’re going to be the same like you used to.’ ”
In August, McCoughtry announced via Instagram that she would play in the Dream’s regular-season finale Sept. 8. But the team released a statement on Sept. 4 ruling that she had not yet been medically cleared by doctors to play in the last game.
McCoughtry said her contract with Atlanta has since expired, making her an unrestricted free agent for the first time in her career. She acknowledged she will have to deal with potential employers scrutinizing the health of her knee.
“I was [worried] at first, but I was like, ‘You know what? I have nothing to prove,’ ” she said. “You’ve just got to let your game and your actions speak for itself. People are going to of course say that when you’re coming back from an injury, but you’ve just got to go out there and let the game speak.”
Charles said she would not put it past McCoughtry to return to her previous All-WNBA status.
“Angel is capable of regaining the form that we all know she’s worked hard to get to,” she said. “It will take patience, but with this time of adversity, it will also allow her to build character and hope to trust the process.”
Added Walz: “I think she has the drive to want to be great, and I fully expect her to be right back at it here within weeks.”
Leaving Atlanta might be as heart-wrenching as the knee injury. McCoughtry opened an ice cream parlor called McCoughtry’s Ice Cream in January 2017, and she said running the business was a welcomed outlet for her during her recovery. But she acknowledged that the idea of starting a new chapter is enticing.
“I’m anticipating just a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m embracing the unknown. Sometimes in life, change is good. So we’ll see. I just want to go to a team and win a championship. I would love to be on a team where I could come in and fit in and help them win.”