Basketball has been a major part of Jamie Russell's life since she was 4 years old. She's not about to give up on her first love, no matter what doctors say.
After a successful professional rookie season in the Czech Republic, Russell received devastating news upon her return to the United States: her knees were so bad, it was recommended that she give up playing basketball for good.
"It hasn't been easy; I'm still coping with it every day," said Russell, who is now living in Peoria and working two jobs, at Menards and a local fitness center. "The last half of the season, I wasn't even practicing, just playing in games; sometimes, I even had to pull myself out of games because they hurt so bad. I got back in April, I saw the doctor in May, and he said my knees are shot, and it's time to hang it up."
At first, the news seemed too surreal to be true. Then, as the thoughts of retirement sunk in, it became so real that it started torturing her.
"I'll see a basketball court and it will hit me that I might be done," Russell said. "The two jobs through the summer was only supposed to be temporary, until I went back to the Czech Republic; now, it's kind of like 'What's next?'"
As fierce a competitor as Russell is, the thought of her sitting out willingly is shocking. She even hated missing practice; she says she did everything she could think of to talk her coach into letting her take the court.
"I told him I wanted to earn my playing time at practice, but he wasn't having any of that," Russell said. "It was tough to watch the team practice and stay motivated. I also felt a little guilty; it didn't feel right to put the game jersey on when I hadn't been practicing. But my coach told me they needed me on the floor in the game, not at practice, and that was that."
Russell was the lone point guard for Kara Trutnov, a team in the highest Czech pro league. The team is based out of the city of Trutnov, population 31,000, located about 2 hours northeast of Prague. There were 12 teams in the league, and Russell's squad played every team in their league twice, plus some early season tournaments and the playoffs following the regular season.
Russell averaged 9.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game for Kara Trutnov, leading the team in assists and steals, while finishing fourth in rebounding and fifth in scoring. She averaged 23.7 minutes per game over the 35-game season, which saw Trutnov (17-15) win eight of its last 10 regular-season games before falling to eventual champion IMOS Brno in a three-game sweep to open the playoffs.
"People watching the game would probably say it's a lot different, but as a player, it's still basketball," Russell said. "I started the season as a 2-guard, and the coach wanted me to shoot the 3, which isn't my strength; midway through the season, we got a new coach, and he put me at point guard. That let me become the type of player I really am, coming off ball screens, penetrating the lane, and distributing the ball."
And, of course, play stellar man-to-man defense, something she was known for throughout the Missouri Valley Conference while playing at Illinois State. But she said there wasn't any more emphasis placed on defense in Europe than there is in the U.S.
"They talk about defense a lot, but everything we did in practice was about the offense," she said. "We had a handful of plays, but we kind of ended up running high ball-screen plays every time down the court. The players there are so much more finesse, and they're older and more experienced and really smart.
"When I first started out, I didn't understand a word they were saying, and I was thinking to myself, 'I don't think they get how to play basketball.' Once I had been playing with them a while, I started to understand their ways, and I realized that they really do get it."
What it took time for Russell and her fellow American teammate Morgan Johnson, a former all-Big Ten center at Iowa, to adjust to was the lack of concern the Czech players had when the game was over, win or lose. Unlike in the U.S., when teams hash out all the things they could have done differently in a loss, there was none of that in Trutnov.
"Morgan and I were bummed when we lost, but it didn't even faze them," Russell marveled. "Other times, before games, Morgan and I would try and pump everybody up, but they would just smile at the crazy Americans who took it all so seriously."
Russell found that the cultural differences off the court were just as minimal. While Czech is a hard language to learn, it turned out Russell became more of a teacher than her native teammates.
All Czech students are required to learn English in school, so instead of learning Czech from her teammates, she helped them work on their English.
"Three days after I got there, we had a 15-hour bus ride to play a tournament in France," Russell recalled. "The other girls were trying to teach me basic Czech words, but I just butchered everything, and I think they gave up on me then and there.
"But I turned the tables and helped them with their English; we had a notebook with words and practice sentences, and I helped them all with their homework. Even now, I keep in touch with some of them, and they still ask me to help with their homework."
Her coach, however, spoke no English whatsoever, and referred to Russell as "Jane" for the first 4 months.
"I didn't have the heart to tell him it wasn't Jane," Russell said.
The language barrier came into play most often involving Russell's hair. Before leaving for Europe, she did something she had long wanted to, chopping off her long blond locks in what she figured would be a more European style.
"Turned out I was the only one on the team with short hair," she said.
But her hairstyle changed throughout the year, basically because her stylist barely spoke any English, and she and Russell could not communicate effectively.
"I had some crazy hairstyles, because she basically did whatever she wanted," Russell said. "It was bright red for a while, then pink for a while, then I had flowers shaved into it for a while. But the fans and my teammates liked it, and I love the short hair; I'm keeping it, and I might never grow it long again."
She spent 8 months in Europe, arriving in August 2013 and returning home in April. In a sign that her agent assured her was impressive for a foreign rookie, Russell was asked back to Kara Trutnov, and signed a contract for the 2014-15 season before heading home.
"They cut half the team, but asked me to come back," Russell said. "Getting asked to come back to the same team as a rookie, my agent said that was really, really good. I wish I was going back, because the team and the city and the fans were awesome, and I was really comfortable there."
The teaching aspect opened Russell's eyes to a potential future in coaching. With a degree in criminal justice from Illinois State, Russell is looking toward a future career in law enforcement.
But the pull of coaching will be ever-present from now on. She was already offered the varsity head coaching position at IVC High School in Chillicothe, but turned it down – "I thought I needed at least a year as an assistant to have enough experience to be a head coach," Russell said – though she said that if her alma mater, Rock Falls, offered her the same position, she'd probably take it.
"Tell Craig [Mammosser] he better watch out, because I'm coming back," she joked.
But for now, she's still putting all that on the back burner. The diagnosis she got on her knees was from the ISU team doctor, and she's willing to get second – and even third and fourth – opinions.
While surgery is not a really viable option – "The problem is I have no cartilage in my knees, so it's just bone grinding on bone," she explained – she's still holding out hope that a year off and some physical therapy and rehab will allow them to heal sufficiently to play again down the road.
She strongly believes Kara Trutnov would welcome her back after some time off to honor the contract she signed for next season at a later time, and knows she still has some gas left in her basketball tank.
"The end of my career is more real now than ever, and I'm going to be more logical about this, and do what I've got to do to keep playing," Russell said. "I'm still passionate about the game and feel like I have a lot to give; I'm just not ready to walk away yet."
Czech-ing in with Jamie Russell
• Played pro ball for Kara Trutnov of Czech Republic League from August 2013-April 2014
• Averaged 9.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists & 1.9 steals per game in 23.7 minutes over 35 games
• Kara Trutnov finished 17-15, winning 8 out of final 10 regular-season games, before being swept out of the playoffs in 3 games by eventual champion IMOS Brno
• Signed a contract to return to Trutnov for 2014-15 season before coming home
• Will likely take a year off to try and let knees heal properly before continuing pro career