Not many can top the real-life answer of senior Theairra Taylor.
Taylor, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward from St. Paul, Minn., is entering her fifth season with the UI program. From 2009-13 she has averaged 6.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 knee surgeries per season.
“She is an inspiration to coaches as a kid that wants to be on the floor so badly, and she is going to work so hard to wear the Iowa uniform,” UI head coach Lisa Bluder said. “She is an inspiration to players on what a teammate will do to be part of this team and this basketball program.”
During her final game in high school, Taylor tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. As a freshman at the UI, she played 10 games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury to her right knee. In preseason practice as a sophomore, Taylor experienced a third ACL tear in 20 months and missed the entire season. Since 2009, she tore the ACL in her left knee, tore the ACL in her right knee, re-tore the ACL in her left knee, and had a left knee scope
“Immediately after my third injury it was up in the air whether I would continue to play, but once I saw basketball again, I was like, ‘Nope, I’m going again,’” Taylor said. “You work so hard in rehab and you put all this time and effort to get back, and then you do it again and again and again.”
Casual fans who don’t know Taylor’s injury history wouldn’t be able to tell by watching her on the court today. The last time Taylor played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena she started, scored 10 points, and pulled down seven rebounds in 28 minutes against Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The last two seasons she has played 65 games and scored 390 points (6.0 points per game) with 246 rebounds (3.8 rebounds per game).
“I told myself, you’re either going to play and forget about it or you’re going to tear it again,” Taylor said. “You can’t play in this gray area or you’re going to be coasting and you’re not going to be any good.”
As remarkable as Taylor’s return to athletics is from a physical standpoint, she still needed to win the mental battle. Before every practice or game, Taylor’s mind and body sparred to the point of nausea. Bluder stepped in and reminded Taylor that going through that strain was serious and wondered if it was worth the distress.
Taylor sought help from a sports psychologist on campus and success followed.
“I was nervous, it was fear of re-injury,” Taylor said. “Every time I would step on a court I was nervous it was going to happen again.”
Those days have passed. Magnifying Taylor’s resilience is the fact that when she returned from each surgery, her opponents weren’t high school or AAU players, but some of the best women’s basketball players in the country.
“Anytime you come back from an injury it’s tough mentally. Then when you come back from as many as Theairra has, it is incredibly tough mentally, and she has overcome that,” Bluder said. “She has worked hard to overcome it; it wasn’t easy. She sought help, worked on it, and now she is there. That speaks volumes about her mental toughness as well as her physical abilities.”
The 2012-13 season as a redshirt junior was the best to date for Taylor who averaged 8.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 34 games. She finished her sophomore season with a flurry in the NCAA Tournament against California, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field with six rebounds.
“It gave her confidence going into the training session during the summer that, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can compete at the highest level possible and be very, very successful,’” Bluder said.
Last season Taylor scored in double figures 12 times, including 22 points against Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference Tournament. She had double-doubles in points and rebounds against Illinois State (10-11) and at Purdue (15-11).
As the only senior on this year’s 11-player roster, Taylor has been called Mama Hawk, a moniker she said spread quickly, even without her approval.
“I’m experienced and I have seen and played a lot,” Taylor said. “When you get to college, everyone is uptight and scared. If anything, I tell the younger players to play how they play. If we can do that then this team is going to be awesome, I can feel it.”
For Bluder, the experience Taylor brings to a team with seven underclassmen is vital.
“She has been through so many seasons and she has played in almost every environment,” Bluder said. “She has seen highs and lows; she is going to be somebody we rely on and the team is going to look to her on how to handle different situations.”
While Taylor credits teammates for getting her through the injuries, she has another support system in Iowa. Michelle and Theodore Taylor — Theairra’s parents — moved to Iowa City from Minnesota to be with their daughter while she completed college.
“My parents were the reason I started playing basketball,” Theairra said. “I said I would either stay home or I would choose a college I wanted, and they would move with me since I’m the youngest child. They said they would move.”
Taylor is pursuing majors in recreation and sports business and human relations. She hopes to become a coach after her playing days are over.
But playing basketball is something Taylor wants to continue.
“If my body lets me,” she said.