Sabrina Haines’ two-year journey back to the basketball court


Kentucky redshirt senior guard Sabrina Haines drives to the basket during the exhibition game against Southern Indiana on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 80-44. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Mohammad Ahmad

UK women’s basketball guard Sabrina Haines is shooting around and practicing in the Joe Craft Center practice gym. She’s going through her different workout routines. One minute she’s doing planks, lunges and throwing exercise balls. The next minute she’s transitioning to shooting and passing drills with her coaches.

Haines is calm, collected and focused. She listens earnestly to head coach Matthew Mitchell and his assistants. There’s a noticeable drive on her face. As soon as she goes down, she gets right back up. When the drills stop, though, she dances around and laughs with her fellow teammates. The juxtaposition perfectly describes Haines: fierce and bustling on the court, yet cheery and lax off the court.

Haines knows what lies ahead. She’s just days away from something that she’s been wanting for almost two years. It’s so close, yet so far.

She wants to play basketball again.

“Oh man, words cannot explain,” Haines said.

This long, grueling journey to get back on the court began back on Dec. 3, 2017. Haines, then a member of the Arizona State Sun Devils’ women’s team, was playing in a game against the UC Riverside Highlanders. A quick pop in her knee came out of the blue. After being helped off the court, her official diagnosis was an ACL knee injury. Haines was averaging 10.2 points-per-game before her potential-filled season ended after just nine games.

“It was just so early in the season. I was like, ‘How could this happen?’ Just, the typical kind of questions where everything is running, running, running. I’m already an overthinker, so I was overthinking times 1,000,” Haines said.

Things got rougher for Haines. While recuperating from her injury, she still had to bear the weight that student-athletes deal with on a day-to-day basis. Aside from her regular basketball duties, she had to go to class like everyone else. The clouds of five-page papers, all-nighters, early morning workouts and balancing a social life hung over Haines’ head.

It can be easy to forget that, as glamorous as being a college athlete might be, it can also be more difficult than the average student’s workload. Thus, her stress manifested into something worse.

“It all just kind of hits you like a cannonball, you know, like the Indiana Jones thing where it’s all tumbling down,” Haines said. “I do think I suffered from some type of depression, like, of course anxiety and everything, but my biggest regret is that I never went to see an actual mental health professional.”

Challenge accepted.

Haines said that she shifted her perspective. Rather than seeing her injury as a challenge, she saw it as a growth opportunity. Admitting that she’s “not the most patient person,” she says she practiced patience and perseverance. Whether that came through cheerleading for her teammates or giving them a shoulder to lean on, Haines was right there on the bench.

When the 2017-18 season came to a close though, Haines reflected. She wasn’t sure if she should return to ASU. The combination of wanting to start over and move on from her recent hardships pushed her to make a big decision. Wanting a “fresh start” and a change of scenery, she decided to transfer.

After Haines entered the transfer portal, a familiar face recognized her: Mitchell’s assistant coach Niya Butts. Butts, who was the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats during Haines’ freshman season, had already coached against Haines. Haines said she believes that Butts’ recognition of her led Mitchell to take a chance.

“Luckily Kentucky saw something and decided to bring me in. I don’t know, I’m just super lucky that they brought me here and took a chance on me,” Haines said.

But the new Wildcat still had to sit out for 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Frustrating? Yes, she said. Completely distraught? Nope.

“It’s weird being in my fourth year at the time and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have to relearn this all again.’ And so, it was a challenge. But it was a fun challenge,” Haines said.

Another challenge accepted.

Aside from cheering on her teammates and letting her knee heal, she still kept her eye on the prize. She worked with Mitchell and others to get back into her prime form. One new teammate she struck a bond with was center Nae Nae Cole. Cole transferred over from North Carolina State University and is also looking for a fresh start. Haines says she started seeing stronger confidence and body language from herself.

“Last year [Haines] practiced with the practice guys. But she was here early. She stays late. I think she’s ready. I’m not worried about her,” UK forward KeKe McKinney said.

She’s not the only one that’s seen that.

“Offensively, she’s a great shooter and has one of the most beautiful shots on our team, it just looks great leaving her hands. She makes a bunch of shots,” Mitchell said of Haines. “She is very hungry. That hunger and that competitive drive really moves her toward a positive place.”

“I’ve learned a lot about both myself about how I want to treat people and how I want to be in society,” Haines said. “I know this year is definitely going to be a special one.”

Game on.