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A golden debut: Former UW star Kelsey Plum, 26, reflects on winning the first-ever 3-on-3 Olympic basketball event in Tokyo

By Chris Kudialis For The Spokesman-Review

Kelsey Plum stood in front of a microphone with a glass bottle of champagne in hand sipping from it as she answered questions about being an Olympic champion.

It was less than an hour after the former UW women’s hoops star and college basketball’s all-time leading scorer had willed her team over a persistent Russian squad in Tokyo with five points in the gold medal match – a back-and-forth slugfest that ended with the Americans on top, 18-15.

“It’s just an incredible feeling and a culmination of all the hard work we put in,” Plum said. “It’s such an honor, and I’m so happy.”

Anyone who watched Plum’s four years with the Huskies knows the Poway, California, native can score unlike any player to grace the hardwood in recent decades. She was a regular on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” for her dazzling plays at UW from 2013-17, an unforgettable four years highlighted by the team’s first-ever Women’s Final Four appearance in 2016.

But few could fathom the incredible comeback she’s made during the past 13 months.

The same sport that led Plum to the top of the podium with a gold medal hanging from her neck and “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing in the background on July 28 had nearly derailed her basketball career last year.

Practicing with the 3-on-3 Olympic squad in June 2020, Plum heard a pop, then felt a gut-wrenching pain as her left ankle collapsed underneath her. She had torn her Achilles just a couple months before the Tokyo games were scheduled to begin last year.

The career-threatening injury ended her 2020 professional season in the WNBA and was severe enough to leave Plum wondering if she’d ever play basketball again.

“As an athlete, you need to be explosive,” she said. “I was worried about losing that and not getting it back to the level I needed.”

But then fate turned in her favor. Officials postponed the Olympics to 2021 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Plum’s doctors were able to repair her Achilles.

Plum still faced an uphill battle and at least six months of intense rehab before she could even think about stepping on the court again.

The former Husky watched in awe as fellow U.S. basketball Olympian and longtime friend Breanna Stewart led the Seattle Storm to the 2020 WNBA championship and earned the league finals MVP award. Stewart, 26, had torn her Achilles in 2019, and Plum reached out for tips while she was rehabbing.

“(Stewart) was a real inspiration,” Plum said. “She was proof to me that it was possible not just to get all the way back, but to be better than ever.”

Seven months after her injury, Plum returned to practice. By April, she felt good enough to commit to this year’s Olympics. And by the end of July, she wore the gold medal.

An ideal format

Plum’s Olympic debut came as her professional career in the WNBA is flourishing. In her third season with the Las Vegas Aces, she’s averaging a career-best 13.8 points per game – a big improvement from the 2018 and 2019 seasons in which she scored 9.5 and 8.6 points per game. She’s shooting an impressive 44.7% from the field and nearly 40% from behind the arc through 17 games for the first-place Aces.

But through four years in the world’s top women’s basketball league, Plum has yet to play in a WNBA All Star game. To say Plum, who was the first selection in the 2017 draft, hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations after her college career would be a bit of a stretch, but she’s still not yet one of the league’s premier players.

American basketball officials pick the country’s best players for the traditional 5-on-5 team, which won gold in Tokyo for the seventh consecutive Olympics. Plum hasn’t yet reached a level in her professional career to compete as a member of that squad. Instead, she’s carved out a niche as a crafty 3-on-3 player.

The 3-on-3 rules are completely different from 5-on-5. The 3-on-3 game is just 10 minutes long and can also end early if one team reaches 21 points before time expires. Teams use only half the court, and the game is played outdoors.

The free-wheeling, fun and open style of play at Tokyo’s Aomi Urban Sports Park was more like a pickup game than an international competition featuring premier professional players. And it fit Plum’s game perfectly – she was the Olympic tournament’s leading scorer, averaging 6.1 points per game.

“She’s a nightmare for other teams trying to defend her,” said U.S. 3-on-3 coach Kara Larson after Plum hit a game-winning shot against China on July 26. “She’s so creative and skilled in open space, she can get shots wherever she wants.”

Staying focused at ‘subdued’ Olympics

Plum’s U.S. teammates included a pair of WNBA rivals in Stefanie Dolson and Allisha Gray as well as fellow Las Vegas Ace Jacquelyn Young. The four said putting their professional affiliations aside to represent the Red, White and Blue together was “a no-brainer.”

Once they got to Tokyo, though, they realized the importance of staying focused and composed. With COVID-19 measures in place that essentially turned the host city into a bubble, Plum couldn’t go out to see any of Tokyo’s world-class tourism sites. She also couldn’t enjoy the traditional Olympic experience of meeting athletes from other countries.

Instead, she spent her two weeks in Japan training, relaxing and watching other Olympic events on television. Unlike her 5-on-5 compatriots whose teams consist of 12 players and at least four coaches, Plum had only Dolson, Gray, Young and Larson to share the experience.

She said a visit to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, a ride up the towering Tokyo Skytree or a walk through the picturesque Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden would have been “cool.”

But none of that would have contributed to her reason for being there. After another swig directly from her glass bottle of champagne, Plum smiled and pointed the bottle outward.

“Mission accomplished,” she said. “We did what we came here to do.”

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