After months of rehab and time off the court, Alaina Coates is set to return to competitive basketball ... as soon as she collects her college degree.
Coates, the former South Carolina women’s basketball great, made her first public remarks in several months Friday, signing autographs and posing for pictures with several dozen fans at a Chick-fil-A while wearing a shirt featuring the team that picked her second overall in the WNBA draft nearly eight months ago, the Chicago Sky.
According to Coates, the ankle injury that abruptly curtailed her senior season at USC and kept her from making her professional debut this past summer is healed.
“I’m done with rehabbing,” Coates said. “I’ve been cleared for a couple months now. ... It’s been doing really good. I’ll go out, I’ll play pickup games, get in the gym. It feels like it did before I injured it.”
In June, Coates was helping her old college coach, Dawn Staley, at her basketball camp in Columbia. At the time, Staley said her former star center would not play in the WNBA’s summer season but would likely play abroad in the fall, as most pro women’s basketball players do.
On Friday, Coates said she made the decision not to play overseas because of “a complication in regard to when I was going to leave.” Instead, she stayed close to her hometown of Irmo and finished the academic portion of her college career.
“I just decided I was going to finish up, get my degree and then just take the time before when training camp starts and just keep honing my craft and doing what I needed to do in the gym, workouts and all that stuff, so I could be an instant go for the WNBA season.”
A few months after Staley’s summer camp, South Carolina fans saw Coates again, as the celebrity starter for the Gamecock football game against Vanderbilt in October. At that same game, Coates received her 2017 national championship ring alongside Staley and her former teammates.
“I really didn’t expect them to ask me to (be the celebrity starter), but I was like, ‘hey, I mean, if you’re asking me to do it...’ It was cool,” Coates said. “I never thought I would be able to be in the position to be able to do something like that, so it was real exciting. Just for the simple fact that we got the rings that same day, it was just a real emotional, high-energy day.”
Since then, Coates said she has focused on getting stronger in the gym and completing her degree in sociology, so much so that she hasn’t had time to follow the current South Carolina women’s team all that closely. She said she will graduate on Dec. 18.
“It’s been a long road (to graduate), but I’m ready to get it over with,” Coates said. “I’m in good standing in all of my classes, and I’m just excited that I can finally close that chapter of school and I can focus on my career.”
And while her professional debut has been long delayed, she’s all the more eager to get back on the hardwood with elite competition.
“Playing pickup is one thing, but actually being able to go out there with my future teammates and do something now, it’s real exciting,” Coates said. “(Chicago) flew me out to a couple of games, and just sitting there, not being able to play, it was hard, but I’m just really excited to get started.”
Training camp for the WNBA begins in April, and Coates indicated that between now and then, she will likely be in the public eye a lot more often than she has been.
“I’ve pretty much been missing for so long, so now I’m just trying to resurface now that school is dying down and I have the time to be able to come out and see the fans,” she said.