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Perseverance pays off for Liberty draftee DiDi Richards

DiDi Richards of Baylor looks on during the

DiDi Richards of Baylor looks on during the first half against UConn in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on March 29, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas.  Credit: Getty Images/Carmen Mandato

She wasn’t supposed to be here.

DiDi Richards wasn’t supposed to be sitting in a hotel in Brooklyn last week, talking with the media via Zoom about starting her professional basketball career with the Liberty.

Less than six months ago, Richards was sitting in a neurologist’s office in Texas, listening to a doctor tell her that he wasn’t sure she would ever be able to play the game she loved so much.

"I just cried. I really did," Richards said. "He was like, you need to figure out what you want to do outside of basketball and find a new plan."

Instead, what Richards did is double down on her rehab and find a new doctor. Six months after suffering a scary injury that left her temporarily paralyzed, Richards was taken by the Liberty with the No. 17 overall pick in the WNBA Draft this month after leading Baylor to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

"When you talk about the perseverance that DiDi Richards had to go through this year, and the trials and tribulations, for that to culminate tonight, being drafted into the WNBA, it’s a special night for us," Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said after making the pick. "We couldn’t be happier."  

Richards’ world was turned upside down on Oct. 24. The 6-2 guard was looking forward to a big season after winning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year honors for Big 12 champion Baylor in the 2019-20 season. She was going hard during a practice and had gone airborne to intercept a pass when she collided with teammate Moon Ursin.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey recalled in an ESPN interview that the impact sounded like "a football collision without pads."

Baylor director of athletic training Alex Olson was one of the first people there. Richards was unconscious and an ambulance was called. At the hospital, Richards regained consciousness in the emergency room but couldn’t feel her legs.

"The doctors were poking her legs with needles and sharp instruments and saying, ‘DiDi, do you feel this?’ " Olson told ESPN. "DiDi couldn’t feel anything."

As the night progressed, feeling began to return between her ankles and knees. Tests revealed that Richards had suffered a spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality, which causes temporary impairment. It was a non-structural injury, but Richards initially dealt with paralysis from the hips down. She left the hospital the next day using a walker.

Soon after, she met with the neurologist who suggested that she find a plan that didn’t involve basketball.  

A million thoughts went through Richards’ head in the coming days. She thought about medically retiring. She came close to redshirting. Then one morning she woke up and decided to attack her rehab the way she had attacked everything else in her life. She also found a second neurologist who was far more optimistic and gave her the green light to push herself.

"Hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through," Richards said. "I tip my hat to myself, so to say. There’s no explanation to it. It was an undeniable want to play and an undeniable want to get back on the court. It’s just the ability to compete. And that’s what I wanted to do.

"So every day, I took it within myself to compete with myself and my rehab. Whatever I did yesterday, I wanted to do better the next day."

Richards returned to playing just 38 days after the collision, scoring only 13 seconds after checking into a game against South Florida on Dec. 1. She went on to average 6.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.2 steals to help lead Baylor to the Elite Eight, a controversial final play away from knocking off UConn.  

Richards is thrilled to be drafted by the Liberty and have the opportunity to play with Sabrina Ionescu. It was Richards who was largely responsible for eliminating Ionescu and Oregon from the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago, when she helped hold the Wade Trophy winner to 0-for-7 shooting in the final quarter.

"I think that was one of the games that put me on the map. That’s for sure," Richards said. "She’s a great player. She hit some crazy shots on me . . . Right now, I am excited to play with her."

Excited and thankful to be playing, period.

New York Sports