The inner demons were winning.
They came in whispers and flashbacks. They came when Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince saw other players grab their knee. They came when reporters asked Prince about her right knee, the one she had surgically repaired in December of 2015, one month after tearing her ACL in Russia.
The New York Liberty guard knew her knee was healed. The doctors had said so. The trainers had said so. Her coaches had said so.
But the insidious voices kept interrupting, kept threatening that the next step could be her last.
Don’t go out there. I’ll be waiting.
Prince returned to action last August 26 against the San Antonio Stars and while she played well, emotionally she struggled.
She scored five points on 2-of-3 shooting with one assist and one steal in seven minutes. But San Antonio’s Alex Montgomery crumpled to The Garden court with a sprained knee.
Prince headed to the Liberty bench in a zombie-like trance.
“I’m watching her and she started crying,’’ said Liberty Director of Franchise and Player Development Teresa Weatherspoon. “I went over to her and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ She said, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me again.’ I understood.
“This is not only a physical injury, it’s a mental, emotional injury.’’
Those that have known Prince since her days growing up in Brooklyn, to her career at Rutgers, know she is a fiery, emotional player although she doesn’t always show it on the court.
Spoon calls her a silent assassin.
Internally, the assassin is a roiling tumult of passion. It’s what separates Prince from most players. Her skill is boosted to a higher level by her relentless will to win. The fear of another injury was holding her back.
Spoon stayed in Prince’s ear. They had worked out five times a week in the offseason. Spoon pushing Prince when she needed it, reassuring her that was the Rx. Twice a week they went to yoga sessions together.
“The pain was a little scary for her,’’ Spoon said. “I think it would be for anybody. A player so great, you start to wonder, ‘What do I have to do to get back? Am I going to get back to where I used to be; play at the level I want to play?’
“We started to speak about those things. But she’s so mentally tough. Everything we went through on this floor, she did it because she wanted to get back.’’
Prince was making significant progress. By September 9, Prince scored 13 points in 21 minutes in an 89-82 win over the Connecticut Sun. She went 3-for-4 on threes, 4-for-4 from the line.
And then the emotional bottom fell out.
Prior to the September 13 home game against the Washington Mystics, Prince felt a twinge in the knee. She was dealing with tendonitis, a common ailment when one is recovering from ACL surgery.
But this twinge traveled from her knee to her psyche. She told the training staff she wasn’t feeling well. Spoon went to check on her.
“She was so afraid she would not come out of that locker room,’’ said Spoon. “She sat in the training room the whole time. She wasn’t feeling like herself. She couldn’t do it.’’
To understand the torturous nature of this fear, one has to understand the hardscrabble life Epiphanny Prince had to overcome to arrive as one of the best women’s basketball players in the world.
Her world, the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, is a place where just as many dreams are shattered by drugs and violence as are realized.
Prince saw her share of trouble, but basketball was her personal Sherpa out of the projects.
She mastered the street look, that hard-eyed glare that carries a warning, like a chain link fence with a ‘Beware of Dog,’ sign. No, Prince does not scare easy. Now a knee was that dog.
“You’re talking about one of the toughest kids you’ll ever run up against,’’ Spoon said. “Very silent. She’s a silent assassin.’’
The assassin was afraid to pull the trigger. Here she was, the prep school player that once scored a national record 113 points in a game at Murry Bergtraum High School, was sitting on a training table, seeing ghosts.
She missed the following game as well, the regular season finale. The Liberty were to host the Phoenix Mercury in a one-game playoff, the loser’s season would be over.
Prince had more on the line. If she didn’t play, if the demons took control of her basketball soul, would her career as an elite player be over at the age of 29 when most player’s careers are peaking?
“She knew she had to play,’’ said Spoon. “Nothing needed to be said. She had to play.’’
Prince scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting from the field including 2-of-3 on threes. She had three rebounds and three assists. The Liberty lost, 101-94, but Prince had looked the demons in the eye and didn’t blink.
She left for Russia, where she played for power Dynamo Kursk. The last of Prince’s warm healing took place in a country known for its suffering and cold winters.
“Overseas, I played a couple of games, worked my way back into shape and I guess I started to have fun again,’’ said Prince. “I wasn’t thinking about my injury. I was just playing basketball, having fun.
“And I wasn’t having any tendonitis pain. Last year when I came back, I had tendonitis pain so that kind of gets you to think about your knee. I just played.’’
Prince came off the bench the first two games this season. That could change as soon as Tuesday night’s road opener in Phoenix against the Mercury (2-1).
The Liberty (1-1) lost starting point guard Brittany Boyd with a torn left Achilles tendon suffered in Thursday night’s 90-71 loss to the Minnesota Lynx at The Garden. Boyd had surgery on Monday, but is out for the season.
Prince or Bria Hartley will likely take over the starting point guard role.
Prince hasn’t shot the ball well, making just 3-of-18 field goal attempts. But the twitchy quick dribble and cunning probes into the lane are back.
She’s gone to the line 11 times – tied for the team lead – making nine, which leads the Liberty.
“I feel like I’m 100-percent, but I also feel like I don’t have a lot of the explosiveness that I used to,’’ Prince said. “I think that comes with my legs getting stronger and just playing more. But I think I can have an impact on the game like I used to.
“I want to be the player I used to be, and better. For me, that would be a goal.”
Spoon said she is certain the WNBA will see that player, the one that averaged 15 points per game or more every season from 2012-15.
Prince seems poised for that as well. She wants her interviews going forward to focus on her game, not her knee.
“On media day they were only asking questions about my knee and then asking me if I was thinking about it,’’ Prince said. “And honestly I don’t until you just asked me about it.
“I guess I should expect it. People are just being nice. They care. I shouldn’t be upset. But they weren’t trying to get over it. Luckily I’m over the part where I’m afraid it will happen again.’’
The demons have lost. Prince is back, precisely when the Liberty need her the most.