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19 months after being shot, Aaliyah Gayles is ready to return to the court

Updated November 7, 2023 - 11:21 am

Southern California women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb pivoted away from the pandemonium of an 83-74 victory over Ohio State on Monday at T-Mobile Arena, beelining instead toward redshirt freshman guard Aaliyah Gayles for a celebratory embrace.

“I wanted to go hug all of them, but that was the first person I thought of,” Gottlieb said from the bowels of the venue, referring to Gayles, a native Las Vegan. “This isn’t her endpoint, but it’s a really important moment.”

The beginning of the rest of her basketball career.

Shot several times in the arms and legs at a house party in North Las Vegas 19 months ago, Gayles, a Spring Valley High graduate and former McDonald’s All-American, was in uniform for the 21st-ranked Trojans for the first time. She didn’t play against the No. 7 Buckeyes but she participated, completing a lengthy pregame warmup alongside her Trojans teammates before cheering them from the bench alongside Gottlieb.

In the stands behind the USC bench sat family members and friends, employing the enthusiasm Gayles embodied throughout the course of her grueling recovery.

“Seeing her warm up, just seeing her with the team … knowing where it was 18 months ago — God almighty,” said her high school coach, Billy Hemberger, now leading crosstown rival Liberty.

“She’s still got a ways to go, but when you sit back and see where she was at and where she’s at now — Oh, my God, man. It’s incredible.”

Gottlieb remembered visiting Gayles in the hospital, seeing in her eyes an everlasting twinkle — complemented Monday by cascades of triumphant tears that flowed freely during the postgame news conference from her warm, brown eyes.

Said Gottlieb with a quivering voice and eyes as misty as the hometown hero’s: “Her suiting up being an incredibly important part of our team, coming out and warming up — it’s important to acknowledge it’s not her endpoint.”

Instead it’s a de facto inflection point for Gayles, who relearned through resilient rehabilitation to walk, run, shoot, dribble and pass. She has impressed at practices — Gottlieb recalled some pick-and-roll wizardry at one of USC’s first this fall — as she works to reassume the speed and strength that underscored her ascent.

While preparing to play Monday, Gayles said she felt the nerves that would naturally accompany an eventual return.

“I know my time is coming, but I just went out and wanted to see how I felt,” Gayles said. “I love being home, playing in front of (friends and family). When I came out for warmups, I was like, ‘This is what I dreamed of. This is what I wanted.’”

Gottlieb had hoped the score and situation would afford Gayles a pressure-free opportunity to play, but a 19-point lead early in the third quarter morphed into a two-point deficit by the time it was over.

All the while, Gayles remained engaged, greeting her teammates as they trotted to the bench during stoppages, listening intently during Gottlieb’s coaching huddles — and waiting patiently for her inevitable return to play.

“I’ve never had so much belief in a human being’s ability to get through something because of who she is,” Gottlieb said. “All the work she does, she spent a ton of time in rehab and physical therapy and on the court — her presence every day is so positive. You have to believe because of how she carries herself.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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