By BRETT MARSHALL
Shalee Lehning's professional basketball career didn't end exactly on her own terms.
The former Sublette and Kansas State standout, a household name in Kansas basketball circles, announced just a week ago that she was retiring from the Women's National Basketball Association.
Lehning, 25, suffered her second major injury on July 31, 2011, when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in the 18th game of the Dream's 30-game schedule.
Six months later, the rehabilitation she had hoped would result in her return to the court in June has not gone according to plan.
When she sustained her injury and then had the surgery to repair it in mid-August, she looked at her calendar and determined she had nine months to undergo rehab and then begin the arduous task of conditioning for the 30-game WNBA schedule.
"I also had an infection early after surgery that set me back some," Lehning said. "Then, one of the screws that had been put in came loose, and I had a space, like a tunnel, that needed time to heal. They said it would take a couple of months before I'd be able to start working out. So they just shut me down completely."
It would have been mid-March before Lehning would be able to return to her rehab program. That would leave her about 45 days to prepare for the 2012 season with the Dream.
"Everything just pointed to the fact this would be the end of my playing," Lehning said with a sense of sadness. "Dealing with the change has had its ups and downs. I have a great support base from family, friends, coaching staff. The number of people who have expressed their thoughts has been overwhelming to me. I'm so fortunate, so blessed to be where I'm at."
Playing professional basketball for the past three seasons after being drafted in the second round in 2009 by the Dream allowed Lehning to realize her lifelong dream. Her basketball accomplishments have been well-documented and success has been her teammate, from back-to-back undefeated state championship teams at Sublette (2004-2005), a Big 12 Conference championship (2008) while starting at point guard for Kansas State. She also helped transform the Dream from the worst WNBA team (4-30 the year prior to her arrival) to one of the best, the team making two consecutive appearances in the WNBA Finals.
While the public announcement is still just a week old, Lehning said she had told the Dream in early to mid-January that she would not be returning for her fourth season.
"It was one of the hardest things, just to go there (mentally) thinking about not playing again, that I've ever had to make," Lehning said. "The decision was made by my knee and the injury that I sustained. It was what I had to do, not what I wanted to do. It was a hard thing to swallow, a hard place to be."
The phone call to Sublette to her parents — Steve and Jane — was one of the hardest she could recall having to make.
"They've been my most ultra supporters," Lehning said. "I knew there would be emotion because they've been there for every part of my journey. As parents, I knew they would share my pain. They've been unbelievable in helping me achieve my dreams."
Lehning said that as early as December, she knew things were not progressing in her rehabilitation program and she began discussing options with her former coach, and now mentor, K-State women's coach Deb Patterson.
"Coach P has been there for me in so many different ways," Lehning said. "She's been through these things with other people. She knew the severity of the injury, and she knows what the WNBA requires and how physical a game it is."
Lehning was hired in January 2010 by Patterson to become an assistant for the Lady Wildcats. In retrospect, it is a decision that has returned many dividends to both Lehning and the KSU program.
Lehning said Patterson helped her come to the realization that there was more to basketball, and life, than just playing the game.
"I've always been known as Shalee the player, and now I've got to create something else. I love coaching, and I love coaching at K-State," Lehning said. "This is my alma mater, I love the people here, they've treated me extremely well and I want to give something back because they've given me so much."
Lehning, who spends the majority of her coaching duties as one of two principal recruiters — Kelly Moylan is the other — said she has enjoyed her duties and considers herself still on the learning curve of coaching at the collegiate level. She hits the road as much as three to four days a week, sometimes more, but is on the bench for all K-State games.
"The U.S. is a big, big map to cover," Lehning said with a laugh. "I've found more places than I could ever imagine where we'll look at a player. We get tons of tips from all over, so we want to make sure we don't overlook a player from anywhere. That was me at one point, being from a small town. I'd be more than happy to find another Shalee, but I'd want them to form their own legacy. I had people comparing me to other great players, but I just wanted to be me."
Lehning said she has appreciated how much hands-on coaching Patterson has afforded her thus far.
"When I'm around practices, I take the guards and Coach P just lets me run the drills," Lehning said. "She trusts me, and it's pretty cool. I'm trying to learn new things that will allow me to help make our players better on the court, and it allows me the chance to help these girls become better students, better persons off the court."
While Lehning is closing the door on her first basketball dream, she knows there are others that await.
For now, the one dream that she had in her heart since she was a little girl — playing professionally — has been completed.
"I think in looking back on the three years, that I was able to be part of a puzzle that made a group of players better, both on and off the court," Lehning said when talking about her legacy with the Dream. "It was the right fit for me and for the Dream. We had unbelievable chemistry.
"We got the right pieces of the puzzle to fit. But I was just a piece of that puzzle, and it took a lot of the right pieces to make it work. I'm leaving with my head held high."
Her next dream is still evolving, and she can't wait to see how it will unfold.
"It's a little sad to have one chapter end," Lehning said wistfully. "But my main focus now is to coach, and it's something I hope I would be doing for a long time."