Alana Beard, left, poses with Mystics teammate Crystal Langhorne. Beard, a four-time WNBA all-star, is trying to work her way back from an ankle injury that cost her all of last season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Fourteen months ago, Alana Beard’s athletic future seemed bleak. She was 27 years old, a four-time WNBA all-star and the cornerstone guard for the Washington Mystics. But all that seemed jeopardized after Beard suffered a rare, serious ankle tendon injury not even her doctor was sure he could completely fix.

Two days after her surgery, Beard sat with her left leg encased in a cast and splayed across the back seat of Mystics vice chairman Sheila Johnson’s SUV as they were driven to lunch.

From the front seat, Johnson turned to Beard: “No matter what, I am going to support you. But people are saying you won’t come back from this.”

If Beard takes the court Saturday night in Washington’s season opener at Connecticut, she officially will have done just that. Aside from lingering stiffness, Beard said the pain in her ankle is gone. On Friday, however, she sprained her left foot. Coach Trudi Lacey said the injury is unrelated to Beard’s ankle problem, but her status for the game is questionable.

 Despite this setback, Beard possesses a basketball career that has been sustained for the near future and a long-term plan for life after basketball.

“I don’t put a time limit on anything, as long as I do what I need to do and take care of my body,” Beard said of how much longer her professional playing career might last. “It just depends on stuff after basketball, when and if that starts to take off.”

A random injury

Beard used to videotape all of her workouts, which meant she had visual evidence of the awkwardness — and seeming randomness — of the fall in early April 2010 that necessitated her lengthy rehab process. She was striding sideways near the top of the key on the Mystics’ practice court at Verizon Center with a basketball in her hands when her left ankle rolled over.  

The team’s trainers initially treated the injury as a sprain, another of the many Beard has suffered during a life of basketball. But whereas normal ankle sprains occur on the outside of the foot, this tear — to the posterior tibial tendon, the primary tendon that holds up the arch of the foot — took place on the inside. James Nunley II, who performed Beard’s surgery, said such tears normally are found in soccer players.  

Nunley, chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at the Duke University School of Medicine, said the exact origin of Beard’s tear — which occurred above the ankle — has been diagnosed in only two or three other professional athletes. It’s a degenerative tendon injury typically found in overweight women in their 50s. Beard also had some loose pieces of bone in the back of the tendon, which Nunley believed was the irritant that caused Beard’s ankle to sprain atypically.

Regardless, Nunley had no previous practice fixing such injuries.

“I had huge concerns,” Nunley said. “If you don’t have experience with something because it’s so uncommon, then you can’t give somebody a realistic expectation as to whether they’re going to get back or not.”

And so Nunley told Beard what became a common refrain during that month: “This is bad. This is very bad. You may never play again.”

“If she loses speed and can’t be a really great guard, then she’s not going to play professional basketball,” Nunley said. “She might be able to play pick-up basketball, but that’s what I was trying to say. ‘Yeah, I can fix your tendon so that you can get back to some activity level, but are you still going to have that step? Are you still going to be as quick? It’s a shot in the dark.’ Fortunately, it worked out.”  

Family and faith

For Beard, the surgery — the injury, really — worked out in more ways than one. She’d had significant hamstring and shoulder injuries before, but those hadn’t fazed her. She acknowledged even a torn anterior cruciate ligament would not have made an equal impact. Those are setbacks people commonly are expected to overcome; hers was not.  

And so, for the first time that Beard could remember, she stopped and reflected on basketball’s place in her life. Prior to the surgery, the sport had consumed her, and that drive helped her earn a free education at Duke and a legacy as one of the most accomplished women’s basketball players in the program’s history.  

That drive propelled her to successful WNBA and overseas careers, which in turn have made her financially secure for the near and long term.

  But that drive also constructed a figurative divide between Beard and the people she loved, which included family members like her 11-year-old niece, Keagan Summage.

“She loves coming to D.C. and hanging out with me,” Beard said of Summage. “But it was kind of like I put a limit on her hanging out with me because I had to get back to work at basketball. I wouldn’t let anything interrupt my workout schedule. And now it’s like [basketball] is not as serious anymore. I mean, I love it. I love the game, and I’m passionate about it. But it will never again get in the way of the most important things in my life.”

Last summer, while Beard sat out the 2010 WNBA season, Summage visited her favorite aunt in D.C. for three weeks. Beard went to rehab, and Summage tagged along. Beard attended the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado on behalf of Johnson, and Summage came with. Summage traveled with Beard on a road trip to watch the Mystics play at New York, as well.

And though Beard’s schedule will be fuller and more structured this summer, the plan is for Summage, who lives in Shreveport, La., to return to D.C. for another extended stay.

“For so long I put basketball before my family and my faith,” Beard said. “Basketball is so small compared to everything else in my life. But at the time, basketball was the biggest thing in my life. And I think the Man Upstairs has a way of slowing you down, sort of getting your attention. . . . I vow to never put basketball before my family and my faith again.”

Beyond the court

During a gathering at the White House in February of 2010, former WNBA president Donna Orender approached Beard and asked the player about her post-basketball plans. This was before the injury, before Beard thought she’d lost everything, only to discover her definition of “everything” needed readjustment.

But even then, Beard knew she did not want to go into coaching after her playing career ended. She told Orender she wanted to own smoothie franchises, and Orender put Beard in touch with the chief executive of Jamba Juice, a smoothie retailer with which the WNBA later came into partnership.

Beard turned that connection into a three-month internship last winter, and she plans to open a franchise location in D.C. in April 2012.

Johnson, the Mystics’ vice chairman, has provided Beard pointers on how to open a business. This, she believes, is an extension of the promise she made to support Beard on and off the court.

“I’m very concerned for a lot of our players,” Johnson said. “They’ve got to think beyond the court. And Alana is about the only one that has really taken the business side of it seriously.”

Beard the basketball player is preparing for her eighth season as a pro. She still has range of motion issues with her ankle, but nothing that keeps her off the court. Whether her ankle remains healthy enough to compete on is a mystery; whether that matters as much as it used to is not.

She has other high priorities now, be they fawning over a visiting niece or constructing a strategic plan for life after basketball.

“I’m doing my due diligence, and I’m just soaking up as much information as possible,” Beard said. “I’ll be fine.”