Amid Personal and Professional Tragedy, Fever Guard has Persevered
On April 6, 2011 Jeanette Pohlen was on top of the world. One week after leading the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Basketball team to a school record 4th consecutive Final Four, another dream was fulfilled: WNBA first round draft pick, going 9th overall to Indiana.
“It was just surreal,” Pohlen said. “You look at all the time and effort and minutes, hours that you put into the game, it just all kind of comes together on that day. It’s my opportunity, it’s my chance, it’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I’ve been young, and getting to share that with my family and friends, it was an amazing day.”
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Pohlen had long been a target for the Fever who were in need of youth in the back court.
“Her IQ, her understanding of the game, she comes from a really strong program at Stanford so we knew she was well coached. The ability for her to put the ball in the hole, her size, her strength at the perimeter position, and really her understanding of the game,” head coach Stephanie White said.
For Pohlen, the list of mentors is long, but it begins with her father, John.
“He wasn’t one of those parents that was always like ‘you need to be in the gym, you need to be doing this, you need to be doing that.’ He was very hands off and just kind of let me do my own thing. But then I would play a game and he would talk to me after the game about different things that he saw that a lot of people might not see because he has a coaches perspective,” Pohlen said.
As Pohlen’s rookie year got under way in the WNBA, she showed the Fever that same leadership, IQ, and shot-making that made her name in college. And when the 2011 season concluded, she finished first in 3-point field goal percentage in the WNBA.
“She showed us that she was ready to step up to the challenge. She showed us that we could put her into multiple situations and she was ready to deliver,” White said.
But inside of the player blossoming into the WNBA, was one also struggling in her personal life. Her father had his own battle, with the potentially deadly disease Pulmonary Fibrosis.
“Early in my senior year at Stanford, he went to the hospital there coming up for a game at Stanford,” Pohlen said. “I don’t think we knew then it was as serious as it was, and that to me was him trying to keep it under wraps, that it wasn’t as bad as everybody thought it could be. Then as things progressed in the next couple of years after that, we just noticed that something wasn’t completely right.”
But on the court, Pohlen’s storybook career kept writing itself all the way to the 2012 WNBA Finals, where Indiana matched up with the Minnesota Lynx. The Fever stole Game 1 in Minnesota 76-70. But in Game 2, everything came to a screeching halt.
“I think I was guarding Maya Moore at the time and she kind of made a move as I was coming around, and I really just twisted my knee awkwardly. At the time I didn’t really think it was an ACL,” Pohlen said.
“I just remember thinking: please don’t be as bad as we think it might be,” White said.
“They took me back into the locker room, and right off the bat they were like ‘yeah, it’s an ACL,’” Pohlen said.
The torn ACL was not just a significant blow, but also a sign of foreshadowing. That the roughest waves were still to come.
On December 23, 2012, Jeanette’s father John Pohlen passed away after a three-year battle with Pulmonary Fibrosis.
“For me it was more shock because he didn’t feel as good as he let on and let other people think. I think maybe he knew it was worse than what we thought, so I think that was just tough. And obviously you just want more time with that person, and he just played such a huge role in my life,” Pohlen said.
“To lose a parent is something you never recover from, but you certainly really feel for Jeanette as a young person and for her family because they are such a great family and you really want to help insulate them through a process like that,” White said.
For Pohlen, basketball was her escape. But her injury was keeping her sidelined. After missing the first half of the 2013 season, Pohlen was finally ready to go back on the court, playing in the Fever’s final 13 games. And heading into 2014, Pohlen was poised to return back to her old form.
“I felt great, I probably felt the best I’ve ever felt,” Pohlen said.
“She came back in the best shape of her life, she was moving so well,” White said.
When once again, a moment that appeared innocent turned to familiar heartbreak.
“I was just doing a simple zig-zag drill that I’ve probably done a million times in my basketball career. I just planted my foot and heard a pop, felt a pop. And went down immediately. I knew something was wrong for sure. And right away they were pretty sure it was an achilles,” Pohlen said.
“You absolutely feel for a kid like that. Mentally, how are they going to be able to come back from that? Physically, she’s limited a little bit physically anyway and to be able to come back from two injuries, how would she handle that?” White said.
The only way Jeanette Pohlen knows how.
“I just wasn’t ready to be done, I don’t know, I couldn’t give it up yet,” Pohlen said.
Pohlen went through the grueling rehab again, and following 2015 training camp made the team. Her first game back in an Indiana Fever uniform: Jeanette was starting. In Chicago. On June 5th. Her father’s birthday.
“It was a little overwhelming, just the coincidence of it all. But I just always say a prayer before the game and just know that he’s watching down on me. It was a great coincidence.,” Pohlen said
After three episodes of heartbreak in under two year’s time, Pohlen has emerged from a situation many couldn’t, and found success on the other side.
“She’s put herself in a position to be successful, not just in basketball but in life,” White said.
“It’s been a roller coaster, definitely. Physically and emotionally. But I’m just excited for the future, what the future holds,” Pohlen said.