Less than two years after closing out her college basketball career, Fleetwood Park grad Harleen Sidhu is back banging under the rim with the UBC Thunderbirds.
The lanky forward suited up for Nebraska after high school, but a lingering knee injury forced her to call it a career after just three seasons.
“It was the same injury I had back in high school,” she said. “I finally had surgery on it after my third year at Nebraska and unfortunately it took too long for me to get back out there and I ended up sitting out my fourth year. With graduation coming up and my knee still bothering me, I thought it was probably time for me to hang up my shoes.
“I thought I was done and then I came back home and, well, things changed…” Sidhu enjoyed her time as a Cornhusker. She played three seasons and was a part of a talented squad that made school history in her sophomore year.
“That was one of the best teams in Nebraska history,” Sidhu said. “We had a lot of seniors that year and we ended up finished 31-2 and going as far as the Sweet 16 (nationally). It was something that was really cool to be a part of and I’ll never forget it.
“Everything you see on TV about the hype and the craziness about March Madness was exactly what it was. The intensity and the atmosphere was amazing and we averaged something like 10,000 fans for our home games. To play in front of that crowd was definitely surreal.”
In her junior year, Sidhu struggled with knee pain but managed to start several games. The pain got steadily worse to the point where she decided to have surgery on the wounded joint at the end of the season. Sidhu learned that a partial tear of her ACL in high school never really healed and in subsequent years, the ligament sustained a series of smaller tears. The surgery ended up being a complete ACL reconstruction, leaving her with a much longer recovery time than anticipated.
“I was on crutches for a long while,” she recalled. “All I wanted to do was be able to walk around, but they kept telling me I couldn’t. It was really frustrating to be in that situation.”
With basketball out of the picture, Sidhu focused on her studies. She graduated with a degree in food nutrition in the spring of 2012 and then returned home to Surrey. With her degree complete, Sidhu put school aside and joined the working world. She earned lifeguard and swim instructor certifications and took a job at a YMCA pool in Vancouver. She also worked as an office assistant and volunteered with the B.C.
Cancer Agency in Surrey.
She also helped coach hoops at the regional training centre and as well as with a U-15 provincial B team in the summer. While hanging out at the gym, Sidhu began to get the itch to return to the court.
“I wasn’t surprised that I was interested in playing again,” she said. “In my mind, I had unfinished business to take care of. That’s just the mentality I have. I didn’t want to go out with a knee injury and that’s it, call it a career. I wanted to do something more and I wanted to finish my career in a way that I was happy with.”
With that in the back of her mind, Sidhu was quietly pleased when she ran into UBC Thunderbirds coach Deb Huband and
assistant coach Shaun McGuinness while attending a Trinity Western University game in November of 2012. McGuinness and Huband asked Sidhu if she was interested in playing again. With two years of eligibility remaining, the UBC offer was enticing.
Sidhu stayed in touch with the UBC coaches over the next several months before deciding that she was ready to make a return to the court.
While her transfer paperwork was sorted out, Sidhu jumped back into the game by participating three days a week in the TBirds off-season training program. “I was just so out of shape,” she said with a laugh. “It had been a while since I had stepped on the floor, but my knee felt great. I was pretty surprised and pleased with where I was at when I took part in friendly games.”
She returned to the court for real when the Thunderbirds’ season began last fall. Her knee was fine and she was thrilled to be able to play in front of her parents, who never miss a UBC home game. Best of all, the transition from U.S. college to Canada’s CIS game has not been much of a problem.
One week ago, Sidhu earned first star honours for Canada West schools when she led the T-Birds to important wins over Lethbridge and Calgary. The 6-foot-two forward scored 20 points in each game and averaged 11 rebounds per outing. Her performance moved her into ninth in Canada West scoring at 15.1 points a game and fourth in rebounding at 8.7 boards per match.
Off the court, she is taking classes to prepare her for UBC’s nursing program, a lifelong dream of hers.
Despite the long road she took back to basketball courts in B.C., Sidhu said there’s not much she would do differently.
“I have no regrets at all,” she said. “The only thing I wish was different was the injuries. I’m happy that I was able to graduate and come back home with a degree and give them the three years that I could give. I have no regrets and I’m happy to be where I am now.”