STORRS, Conn. — UConn’s guards are just getting started. It’s an early September morning, weeks before the 2023-24 women’s college basketball season opens. Loosening up just after 8 a.m., the squeaking of the players’ sneakers on the practice court at Werth Champions Center intensifies.
But something is missing. Someone.
Paige Bueckers is across the hall, alone in a quiet training room. Wearing a gray T-shirt and turquoise shorts with a bun collecting her blonde hair, she kicks off her white slides and sits on a yoga mat. Her eyes are fixated on her laptop, where a virtual Pilates session with her instructor is about to start.
Bueckers moves through her weekly session, progressing through stomach and sidekick series, plank work and one-leg standing exercises. Bueckers couldn’t do much of this when she first began practicing Pilates a year ago. She now has familiarity with the movements and follows along with ease but still checks the laptop frequently to ensure her form is correct.
Signs of fatigue set in — “fish again?!” Bueckers exclaims when asked to do another round of side sit ups, her breathing heavier in the subsequent reps. Even with the increasing difficulty, she never bows out before time is up.
“Pilates is the hardest form of workout that I do,” Bueckers told ESPN. “Harder than lifting, harder than rehab, harder than on-court, harder than cardio.”
The old Paige Bueckers would never have believed she’d be doing Pilates four or five times a week, and looking forward to it. That was before her August 2022 ACL tear, her second major left knee injury in eight months.
But as Bueckers makes her long-anticipated return Wednesday in the No. 2-ranked Huskies’ season opener against Dayton, she isn’t the same player who last suited up for UConn 584 days ago. She has overhauled her approach to the game and, in many ways, her life.
“I don’t believe her mindset has ever been ‘I want to be as good as I was,'” said UConn assistant Morgan Valley, Bueckers’ position coach who played alongside Huskies greats Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. “Since she started this process, it’s ‘I’m going to be better than I was.'”
Those in her orbit say she has succeeded: “Paige is a better basketball player now than she was when she was national player of the year,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said in late October.
That’s an eyebrow-raising statement. Deemed generational before she’d even suited up for her first college game three years ago, Bueckers became the first freshman to win the Naismith, AP and Wooden player of the year awards. Her transcendent play prompted comparisons to Taurasi, and it seemed only a matter of time before she’d propel UConn to its first national championship since 2016.
But Bueckers’ past 23 months have been defined by her absence from the game — first due to a December 2021 tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear in her left knee that sidelined her for 19 games as a sophomore. Then the unthinkable in August 2022: She tore her ACL in the same knee playing pickup and was ruled out for all of last season. The news had seismic implications for women’s basketball and UConn, which saw its streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances snapped in March.
Everyone can relate to Bueckers’ pursuit, Auriemma remarked one afternoon last month in his office.
“You’ve never had to fight for anything, because you’ve never had to struggle and you’ve never had to dig down deep and find what’s in your soul,” Auriemma said, “and then you’re forced to look down there and you find it and you get it out of you.
“You’re looking back up and saying, ‘Do I really want to go back up there?’ ‘Yes.’ And some people say no.”
Bueckers looked up from those depths, and decided to make the climb back up. Emphatically. Instead of asking “why,” she leaned into her faith. She pushed through nearly two years of rehab without giving up, often masking the pain of losing the thing she loves most. And, amid questions of whether she could return as the player she once was and fulfill her star potential, she never relinquished her optimism and confidence, or lost sight of the promise of what can still be.
“Part of me thinks it was God calling me to use this,” Bueckers said. “I feel like I’m just gonna have a great story to tell by the end of it.”
Paige Bueckers won nearly every national player of the year honor as a freshman in 2020-21. (L-R) AP Photo/Eric Gay, Alex Gagne for ESPN
BUECKERS SAT IN the waiting room alongside teammate Caroline Ducharme and the Huskies’ athletic trainer on Aug. 1, 2022, hoping for the best. An initial manual test after she’d suffered a noncontact knee injury earlier that day indicated her ACL might have been spared. But after two MRIs that evening, a doctor delivered the words every athlete is terrified to hear: Unfortunately, it looks like your ACL is torn. Bueckers and the others sat in silence trying to process the news.
Bueckers always tries to pull something positive out of a bad situation. But the first week following her injury was a self-described hell — complete with sleepless nights and panic attacks.
The questions — Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? — were unavoidable, not just after all the work she’d put in to return from her first injury, but considering what she’d done since. She’d spent the summer in Storrs to get into what she said was the best shape of her life.
“Before I didn’t really care about the science of anything. I cared about the science of putting the ball in the basket.”
Paige Bueckers, who has overhauled her training and approach to the game
Bueckers soon learned there were clues to what contributed to her ACL tear. One of the strongest predictors of future injury is previous injury, meaning her 2021 tibia and meniscus injuries in the same knee left her susceptible.
Some answers also laid in her right ankle. Bueckers had hurt the ankle in high school, an injury that was exacerbated when she rolled it her freshman year of college. Bueckers underwent offseason surgery to repair the issue, but full mobility in her ankle never returned, which likely predisposed her to knee injuries, multiple members of Bueckers’ recovery team said. According to UConn Institute for Sports Medicine’s Mike DiStefano, who bridged the gap for Bueckers between physical therapy and returning to play, 66-75% of his patients with noncontact ACL tears had previously suffered a serious injury in which their ankle was immobilized for a long period of time.
Physical explanations don’t always make things easier to accept. But Bueckers, who developed a deeper connection with her faith in high school, stopped striving to figure out the why, guided by the message in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and He will make your paths straight.” Bueckers laid her trust in God that everything would work out. But she also embraced science — going above and beyond in the training room and weight room, in the biomechanics lab and on the Pilates mat.
“When adversity hits, that’s when your true character shows,” Bueckers said. “I think I’ve really been huge on that and staying true to the person that I am and I was.”
Paige Bueckers is eligible for the 2024 WNBA draft, but could this be her final season in Storrs, Connecticut? “I love playing here and representing UConn,” she said, “and feel like I’ve barely gotten to do it.” Alex Gagne for ESPN
THE TEARS WOULDN’T stop. Sitting courtside in Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena during warmups, Bueckers rubbed her eyes with her fingers, then knuckles, before she pulled up her black “We Back Pat” shirt to wipe them away. It was late January, and the Huskies were about to take on Tennessee. Bueckers was wearing her patent gameday braids but, just under six months removed from her ACL injury, was stuck watching from the bench.
Tennessee’s Jordan Horston — Bueckers’ former USA Basketball teammate — stopped to hug Bueckers and squeeze her shoulder. Her eyes still watery, Bueckers nodded as Horston told her to keep her head up, but the tears kept coming. Azzi Fudd — on crutches beside Bueckers, sidelined with her own knee injury — reached over to wipe away a tear as Bueckers bowed her face into her shirt once more.
Over the course of UConn’s 2022-23 season, Bueckers managed to avoid publicly breaking down — until then. It was the first UConn-Tennessee game in Knoxville with a full crowd since 2007. When the Huskies played there in January 2021 amid the pandemic, 3,500 spectators saw then-freshman Bueckers hit a dagger 3-pointer to lift the Huskies over the Lady Vols, catapulting her onto the national scene.
This game was the real deal. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was on-site. Orange-clad fans booed UConn well before the game started, and over 13,800 filled Thompson-Boling by tip. It was the sort of game Bueckers came to UConn to play in.
“Paige has always lived for the biggest moments,” UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said. “When the lights are the brightest, that’s when she’d shine.”
“Paige is a better basketball player now than she was when she was national player of the year.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma
Coming back from injury is a cocktail of emotions. But more than anything, Bueckers just wanted to be on the court, playing basketball again with her teammates.
“It’s just a form of torture almost,” Fudd said, “not being able to do the thing you love.”
Game days tended to be the most difficult for Bueckers, and by the postseason she became more introverted and quiet. But typically she hid her pain. The team was already going through so much with an injury-plagued season, and she didn’t want to bring down morale.
“You don’t want it to be like, ‘I’m jealous of my teammates.’ But that’s how it feels sometimes,” Bueckers said. “And it’s just an awful feeling because those are my sisters. I love them so much … it’s more like, ‘I wish that was me, too.'”
Those around her at UConn said Bueckers kept a relatively positive attitude the whole year — “at least outwardly,” Auriemma qualified. “I don’t think anybody ever knows exactly what somebody like that goes through.”
He said Bueckers’ ability to compartmentalize her emotions, to drown out negativity, helped her scale the hurdles of rehab and recovery.
That positive mentality feeds her trademark confidence, which was apparent well before her injuries. Such as early in her freshman year, when, despite shooting poorly for three quarters, she hit that 3-pointer to ice the Tennessee game, and then took the sport by storm.
“I think that confidence level, most of it is real,” he said. “Some people, they’re faking it. She’s not faking it.
“There’s that other voice” — the one of questioning and doubt — “she keeps locked in the back of the house, somewhere in the back of her head,” Auriemma continued. “She keeps it locked up.”
Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd were friends long before they became UConn teammates, but they’ve both struggled with injuries and played just 15 games together for the Huskies. (L-R) G AP Photo/Jessica Hill, Fiume/Getty Images
BUECKERS KNEW SHE couldn’t approach this knee injury like the one her sophomore year. “I look back at it now and I kind of forced [coming back to soon],” Bueckers said. By the time fall 2023 came around, she didn’t just want to feel 100 percent healthy, but 110 percent.
From a biomechanical standpoint, what leads to ACL tears is correctable and boils down to “heels up, hips down,” DiStefano said. Ideally, an athlete’s heels are up with their weight through the forefoot, making it easier for them to change direction, and they are lower to the ground, flexing and using their hip musculature.
Bueckers took several trips to Southern California — including a month-long stint last fall — for rehab and testing at the Meyer Institute of Sport, which works with local pro teams. Bueckers had been the type of player who laced up her shoes and went to work. But her recovery team instilled how little things that seem inconsequential end up making the difference, not just in coming back from an ACL injury but in setting herself up for the lengthy pro career she aspires to have.
|Odds by ESPN BET|
Bueckers became more serious about creating tissue density — increasing the strength and durability of muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones — in the weight room. Her freshman year she could barely bench a 45-pound barbell, but now she’s lifting more weight than ever. Andrea Hudy, UConn women’s basketball’s director of sports performance, said Bueckers constantly asks how her body works and how to listen to it by engaging with force plate metrics and player-load data, which show whether an athlete is responding in a positive way to the demands of her sport.
“Before I didn’t really care about the science of anything,” Bueckers said. “I cared about the science of putting the ball in the basket.”
Bueckers also began working with Susan King Borchardt, a performance enhancement specialist whose WNBA clients include Bird, Kelsey Plum and Nneka Ogwumike. Her company, The Athlete Blueprint, develops personalized daily routines specific to their athletes by taking a holistic approach, and in Bueckers’ case, coordinated the different elements of her rehab and return-to-play.
Before, Bueckers never wanted to stretch or do activation exercises to get her nervous system and muscles firing before starting to move dynamically. Now, she prepares her body for everything she does, incorporating bike warmups, band work, various methods of self-myofascial release (which relieve muscle tightness and can boost circulation), and yoga, while constantly addressing previous injury issues or physical deficits, like ankle dorsiflexion and quad strength.
Bueckers has especially embraced Pilates, which helps athletes connect the strength and range of motion of their legs, hips and arms to their deepest abdominal muscles as well as hips and obliques.
Bueckers has changed her diet and nutrition, too. Gone is the old drawer full of candy, chips and hot Cheetos in her apartment. She no longer skips breakfast, or just downs Skittles before practice; she eats three meals, plus healthy snacks and supplements to fuel her body.
Top stories of the week from
Get exclusive access to thousands of premium articles a year from top writers.
• Post-Week 10 CFB bowl projections »
• Predicting surprise NFL cut candidates »
• 10 MLB teams chasing Shohei Ohtani »
More ESPN+ content »
Bueckers used to stay up so late — “I don’t know how she functioned some days,” teammate Azzi Fudd said — but now is getting to bed and waking up earlier, sleeping 8 to 10 hours each night. The new rhythm has her feeling more awake and alive.
Once nicknamed “Olive Oyl” by her high school coach because she was so skinny, Bueckers has put on 15 pounds since her freshman year — now confident she can play through physicality.
“We all know Paige is a basketball player; before and now, she’s the best,” teammate Nika Mühl said. “Now she’s the best at it off the court, too.”
Auriemma still holds his breath at times when Bueckers plays. It’s only natural, he said, as a player returns from injury. King Borchardt reminds Bueckers there’s no such thing as true injury prevention, all an athlete can do is minimize the risk by addressing the controllables.
Bueckers can sleep well at night knowing she’s done that.
“I’ve worked so hard. I’ve changed who I am as a person, as a player, and I have extreme confidence,” Bueckers said. “There’ll be times in practice where I’m still a little second guessing, going into the paint, going into crowded areas. But overall, the confidence in my body and the way I feel right now is at an all-time high.”
Paige Bueckers said she “thought a lot about Kobe” Bryant and read his book after her injury, drawing inspiration from the way he persevered after an Achilles injury in 2013. Alex Gagne for ESPN
AFTER MULTIPLE GAMES last season, Fudd realized Bueckers had disappeared, ultimately finding her locked in her room. Fudd knocked on the door. “Leave me alone,” Bueckers responded. “I’m focused. I’m in my mecca right now.”
Bueckers was watching old highlights of herself, not wanting to forget who she was before the injury.
The 2023 NCAA championship game drew a record 9.9 million average viewers as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese became household names. All as the Huskies and Bueckers watched from Storrs after losing in the Sweet 16, the program’s earliest tournament exit since 2005.
“You sort of feel forgotten, like your impact isn’t as great because you’re not doing things on the court,” Bueckers said. “People don’t remember who you are as a player, who you are as a person, and you feel in the background.”
“She’s not leading a crusade here. She’s not Joan of Arc. She just has to be Paige.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma
All eyes will be on Bueckers as she makes her return, including those who might not believe in her. She sees the comments about her being injury prone, questioning whether she’ll be as good, saying she hasn’t done anything since her freshman year.
“She has just more of an edge now than she had back then,” Auriemma said. “She played just because it was fun. Now she plays for a purpose: to win.”
Her maturity is noticeable, too. Bueckers is more of a vocal presence, guiding freshmen and paying close attention to the coaches.
“She’s embracing every second that she has on the court, because now she knows how quickly it can all go away,” Mühl said. “She plays like she’s so thankful, which is scary.”
But everyone in Storrs knows that even a healthy Bueckers won’t be the magic pill guaranteeing a championship.
“She’s not leading a crusade here,” Auriemma said. “She’s not Joan of Arc. She just has to be Paige.”
Geno Auriemma, Paige Bueckers and the Huskies reached the 2022 national championship game — in her home state, no less — but lost to South Carolina in Minneapolis. It marked UConn’s first loss in 12 NCAA title game appearances. AP Photo/Jessica Hill, Alex Gagne for ESPN
BEFORE SHE CAME to UConn, Fudd often called Bueckers, only to find her on the Werth practice court at 1 a.m. Bueckers could spend hours there getting shots up or just messing around, spinning the ball off the backboard or heaving it from half court.
Bueckers won’t use a shooting machine, and politely declines team managers’ offers to rebound. Those moments alone, with nothing more than a basketball and music playing from the speakers, are Bueckers’ therapy, especially when she was limited during the early stages of her recovery.
Looking down on Bueckers from the three of the four walls in Werth are the banners defining the past 30-plus years of UConn women’s basketball. Fifteen for each All-American. Eight for the Huskies’ national players of the year. Eleven for their Olympic gold medalists. And, of course, 11 for their national championships.
She already achieved the first two distinctions. But Bueckers and Auriemma know they have something left to prove.
“It’s funny,” Auriemma said. “Our story is her story and her story is our story in so many ways. … hopefully the story ends where she gets what she wants by giving us what we want.”
When you come to UConn, you come to win championships.
“There’ll be no greater feeling than going through all that I’ve gone through,” Bueckers said, “and winning that national championship is the only thing on my mind, on our team’s mind.”
Paige Bueckers has averaged 18.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists over 46 career games at UConn, shooting 53% from the field. Alex Gagne for ESPN
Paige Bueckers’ hair and makeup by Lindsey Trop.