Lehning announces retirement from WNBA

Former K-State All-American plans to focus more on coaching career

By Joshua Kinder

She won at every level.

From her days as the go-to, all-everything player at Sublette High School, to Kansas State where she directed the Wildcats to a Big 12 title, to the WNBA when she helped guide the Atlanta Dream to the Finals, all Shalee Lehning did was win.

And now, the dazzling point guard, whose name hangs in the Bramlage Coliseum rafters, is retiring from basketball.

Lehning, who was drafted in the second round of the WNBA draft in 2009, announced her retirement on Facebook Monday night after three seasons with the Dream.

“For those who might be wondering, due to complications with my knee injury, I won’t be returning back to the WNBA,” Lehning wrote to her friends, fans and supporters. “I want to thank the Atlanta Dream for three amazing years. And to all of my faithful supporters, thank you for all the sacrifices you made to support me thought the years. It truly was an experience of a lifetime.”

Lehning, an assistant coach with K-State, suffered a torn ACL last summer and has undergone multiple procedures to repair the injury. But the latest surgery marked the end of a career that started back at Class 2A Sublette where she carried the Larks to 52 straight wins and back-to-back state championships on her way to becoming one of the most decorated high school basketball players in state history.

As a player at K-State, the fiery competitor finished ranked first in school history and second in Big 12 history with 800 assists — including a school-record 229 during her senior season. Nobody at K-State has played more minutes in school history (4,271), as Lehning finished fourth in rebounds (914) and 19th in career points (1,189). She’s the only player in Big 12 history to record 1,000 points, 900 rebounds and 800 assists in a career.

“During a time like this, I’m having to hold on to those accomplishments,” Lehning said Tuesday. “I’m very proud of everything I’ve been able to be part of — it’s just the ultimate blessing — and I’ve reflected a lot in the last couple of weeks when I decided this is what I needed to do and I just think of all the people who helped me get here. I didn’t get to where I am alone and I had an amazing support system that started way back in Sublette, Kansas. It was an amazing journey.”

The 5-foot-9 former K-State All-American, started 53 games for the Dream and averaged 3.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game during her pro career, helping Atlanta to the playoffs three straight years and the WNBA Finals in 2010. She finished in top 10 in assists as a rookie in 2009 with 127 assists, followed by 159 her second year.

Last season, though, Lehning played only 18 games before going down with the knee injury — one that she fully expected to come back from in time for this summer.

But after complications following her initial surgery in August, which included an infection and a screw that came loose recently, Lehning said her body told her it was done.

“I knew it would take eight months or so to get ready for WNBA shape and I counted it out, thinking if I had it done in August, I should be ready to go by June,” Lehning said.

And though Lehning battled high-ankle sprains her entire career, she never missed a game. But her time in the WNBA was vastly different, as she missed the playoffs in 2009 after suffering a shoulder tear, followed by her career-ending knee injury this past summer.

“I played through a lot, and anyone who’s gone through this knows one of the worst parts of tearing the ACL is when you get the news that its an ACL tear — the stigma that comes with it,” said Lehning, who recorded 10 assists in a game three times as a pro and scored a career-high 15 points as a rookie. “But even with my shoulder injury, which they compared to an ACL tear in the knee, everything went smoothly.

“And if everything had gone smoothly this time, I have no doubt I would have recovered from it. I have the willpower, the work ethic, and the desire, but my body just can’t do it anymore.”

Lehning speaks a lot about finding the right fit. And throughout her career as a player, she was able to find that right fit each time, starting with her four years at K-State when some questioned her ability to play at the Big 12 level after coming from a 2A high school. She wasn’t the fastest, the strongest and not always the most athletic. Yet she found a place and a coaching staff in Manhattan that gave her the opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I’ve always had a lot of critics and somebody asked me the other day what it was that motivated me,” Lehning said. “It was those people who doubted me, but I had a great support system that lifted me up and supported me, and that motivation to keep me going.

“K-State was one of those programs that took a chance — they saw what I could bring.”

As Lehning did in Manhattan, she found a home in Atlanta when the Dream drafted her 25th overall three years ago, again taking a chance on a basketball player that didn’t “fit” in the WNBA, despite the gaudy numbers and her success at K-State.

Making a WNBA roster in 2009 became more difficult too, as that was the season the league rosters were cut from 13 players to 11 players. Another change that season was that teams could only invite 15 players to training camp — essentially meaning 39 less jobs available in the league. Yet Lehning stuck.

“In Atlanta, like K-State, I was able to go to a place that saw what I could bring to the table,” Lehning said. “I’m not the fastest player, I can’t score, I can’t do a million things — but based on everything I can do, which is being a great teammate, an encourager, coming to practice everyday and working harder than almost anyone, a willingness to run through a wall, they decided to take a chance on me.”

That’s her message now to the young players coming up, one that she carries with her on the recruiting trail for K-State.

“That’s the best advice I can give anyone — if you aren’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest, the best scorer, you can do the little things,” she said. “Do the little things nobody wants to do and be great at those little things.

“A lot was working against me, but it just shows if you work hard and do those little things, it will pay off in the end, and it really did. It’s been a journey of a lifetime.”

Lehning will direct more of her attention to coaching now after joining the staff three years ago, but having to leave for several months in the spring and summer for the WNBA.

“I’ve been on the road almost every day for the past two weeks straight and the exciting thing is that I’ll be able to do more now,” she said. “It was a disadvantage before because I’d recruit and try to get kids to come to our camp, really invest in them, and then I wouldn’t be around. But now, I’ll be able to evaluate and help build those relationships.

“I have to thank Coach (Deb) Patterson and the staff picking up my slack when I was gone in the summers and allowing me to go chase this dream in Atlanta.”

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