Didi Richards had been starting to lose her excitement for basketball when she considered giving up the sport, as her WNBA career wasn’t how she envisioned it would be and a devastating cycle of injuries making life feel like an endurance test.
This had gone on for a while, but it’s over.
It ended “three or four months” into the former New York Liberty guard’s decision to leave the sport, actually.
At the time, she had only just been coming to terms with being waived from the WNBA. Even with the fast-paced environment behind her, she was still dealing with injury months later. It was during this time that the Houston-born basketballer was forced to confront her new reality.
“I was at a loss. I had no idea what was next, what I was going to do because I was injured. I had been injured for the last two, three years,” Richards told The Inner Sanctum.
The 24-year-old is currently in the midst of a campaign with the Sydney Flames. It’s the first that she’s played overseas so far in her entire career.
If you were to ask her how she has been settling in Sydney, she would be more than happy to tell you.
“It’s been really easy honestly. I feel like it’s seamless whenever you have players who are just [vying in] to someone as smart as Coach Guy Molloy. I’m very grateful to be playing under him,” she explained.
“I think it’s been real easy and real seamless actually for it to be my first season overseas entirely.”
Upon reflection of the rollercoaster of a journey she’s been on so far, Richards is thankful for her arrival in the Harbour City. It was only three years ago that those in circle weren’t sure if she would ever be able to walk again – let alone return back to the court.
“It means really everything. It was a humbling moment for me and one of the things I learnt was resiliency and determination,” she said.
“Also, by the grace of God. Honestly, there’s a lot of things I could kind of pin that on. But I think me just being embodied faith-wise was just a huge deal in that. Honestly, I just try every chance I get to give all glory to God in whatever I can, because at the end of the day I’m not supposed to be playing this game. But I am. I’m playing it at a really high level and having fun with it,” she confessed.
Richards’ persistent troubles with injury began three years ago after an accidental collision during a training session left her temporarily paralysed from the waist down. Media had reported in 2020 that Richards, who was a senior at the time for Baylor University, slammed into a teammates’ hip and then fell onto the ground after attempting to intercept a pass.
The result of the collision left her with a spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality.
The outlook at the time was dire. An article from ESPN, one of the many that detailed the incident, revealed that several people in her circle were concerned about how the spinal shock would impact her future.
“It’s like ‘to heck with basketball, let’s get her back to normal Didi, being able to walk and dance around and be happy,” Kim Mulkey, Richards’ head coach at the time, said following the aftermath of the incident.
38 days later, Richards had made a miraculous recovery. She made a return to the court, making 10 points and four points. It helped guide Baylor to a thrilling season-opening win against South Florida. But amid the headlines which celebrated her as a walking miracle, the transition back onto the court wasn’t as seamless as the articles painted it out to be.
“It felt weird. I was a little timid and I didn’t want to get hit at all. So just pushing my body was a really hard hurdle for me to really endure,” she confessed.
“Just to trust myself, trust the work and trust that I was ready [to get back into playing] was really hard for me. But once I was able to do that, it was just like riding a bike again. It got really easy and fun to just, you know, to take charges again and get those big plays that I’m really known for.
“It was a lot actually. It was kind of mentally taxing if you ask me. But honestly, I’m just really proud of myself and it sounds weird to say that, but I am really proud of myself and just the fact that I’ve shown over the years.”
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A memorable collegiate career with Baylor University, which included a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award and a NCAA championship, eventually led to Richards being picked up as the New York Liberty’s 17th pick at the WNBA Draft in 2021.
At the conclusion of her first season in New York, her star was on the rise. The league leader among rookies in three-point field goal percentage (45.5 per cent) and a 31-game appearance for New York led to Richards receiving recognition from the league with a selection to the WNBA All-Rookie team.
However, what once was a childhood dream achieved had quickly ended in disappointment for Richards.
Heading into her second campaign with New York, she was hit with a hamstring injury that left her on the sidelines for major of the season. It eventually led her to getting cut from Liberty just 45 games into her WNBA career, leaving her in limbo.
“I was devastated. I can honestly say that I was genuinely devastated,” she said.
While initially the news was hard for her to take, one positive experience for the former second-round pick was the “relationships [that were] made in New York”. She shared that to this day she is still in contact with a variety of staff from Liberty – everyone from the GM and right through to the players.
She went to explain that it’s important to “get good relationships” no matter what the situation since, as she points out, that “you never know” when you’ll see those people again.
“I[‘m] able to pat myself on the back. I think that [getting drafted] was a huge goal of mine growing up. I mean, who doesn’t want to get drafted to the WNBA? So I think that was something I could really commend myself on,” she said.
“Although I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted, my body didn’t love me as much as it needed to.”
The waiving proved overwhelming for Richards. With just being drafted and an All-Rookie team selection backing up her tenure in the WNBA, she didn’t feel confident if she would be able to move on from the setback. Returning to the court seemed out of the question at the time for Richards.
“I was a little nervous and not healthy [at the time]. Whatever team did reach out to me, I really couldn’t go play for them,” she confessed.
“I was really concerned, and that’s when I feel like I decided basketball [was something] I didn’t want to do anymore. I was in the mind space that my body couldn’t take basketball anymore. I was getting beat up. I was injured all the time.
“I went home and finally told my parents ‘I think that was it’. Like I think it’s time to hang up the shoes.”
In the months following her decision to step away from the sport, Richards received a surprise phone call from veteran head coach Guy Molloy. During this time, the Flames were in the midst of finalising their playing group. She admits that she had her doubts about the offer to play in Sydney.
“I got this call from Guy three or four months into [leaving basketball], and I’m still kind of injured. I was like ‘I have no idea what dice you’re rolling here but you’re taking a real chance on me’. He’s like ‘it’s gonna be worked out I promise,” she said.
“Guy was very persuasive. He really believed in me and the fact that he could groom me into who he thinks I can be, which is a really effective player on the defensive and offensive side.
“He’s detailed orientated and he’s a great player development coach as what I’ve heard from players like Bec Allen and Ezi [Magbegor]. So it was really easy for me to say yes to him [when] I knew how detailed orientated he was with the player development side.”
The odds are paying off immensely for the Flames, with Richards proving to be a crucial part for their 2024 season campaign.
At the time of writing, she’s Sydney’s leading import and third overall on the team for points per game (11.7). Richards also is in the top three in the team for average total rebounds (6.2) and steals (1.2) per game.
More recently, she was named as part of the WNBL’s Team of the Week for round nine following an impressive performance against Townsville Fire at home (21 points, eight rebounds, four assists).
“I’m very grateful for [Guy] persuading me to signing on here and pick up the shoes again and do this again because I was really over it and he really pulled me out of it from down under I feel like. But like I said, without Guy I wouldn’t even be in my life right now. Like I don’t even know how it happened.
“I know that he knew Sandy [Brondello] and I played for Sandy, but it was just the odds of it all was kind of really insane.”
There aren’t any hard feelings she has towards her old team. In fact, she is thankful that she was waived from New York. She even admits that the cut was a long time coming, as she had been on “a really high horse” for a “long time in [her] life”. The setback had led her to the Flames, which she can’t imagine herself being anywhere else.
The experience has allowed her to be able to “redirect” and “refocus” her life.
“I think with the way it ended, I feel like everybody has to go through something like that. I feel like I was on a really high horse for a really long time in my life around that time. Getting cut was kind of bringing me back down to life and getting my feet back to the ground. It was really important for in my brain to deal with that and I think I wouldn’t be the person I am without being cut or going through the injuries I went through when I was in New York,” she said.
“Without being cut, I probably wouldn’t be here at all. I know I wouldn’t here. So I’m actually very grateful for that situation how it did end.”
With the WNBL regular season rapidly drawing to a close, Richards shared a major hope she had for Sydney.
“Of course to win [the championship],” she says.
Though for Richards, she is also wanting to make a lasting impression on not just the Flames, but the wider WNBL community too.
“I’d like to leave my mark here. Not just in Sydney, but the WNBL. I want to be remembered here, and I want to be welcomed back here because it’s a really great country. I just want to do well in this league. Not just for me, but for the team. For Sydney, for the Flames and just the organisation [too],” she said.
“It’s a great organisation and they deserve to have a great season. I know the history of the Sydney Flames and I just really think they took the time to really build the team this year, whether that be from inside or out, from the GMs to the coaches and to the team. I think they did a really good job building this team together this year and so I really hope they want out of this season.
“They deserve it and I’m really excited to help them get to that this season.”