How a childhood friend helped Indiana's Ali Patberg find her A-game again

Ali Patberg, a 5-foot-11 redshirt junior guard, is averaging a team-high 15.2 points and 5.4 assists for Indiana (23-7). Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Even at lowest ebb, Ali Patberg believed better days were ahead.

When it had been two years since she played a college basketball game in which she felt like herself -- and it would be another year before she had the chance to change that -- she never lost faith in her journey.

To be fair, she had a lot of people in her corner. You earn faithful fans when you're a high school basketball star in Indiana, as Patberg had been in Columbus, a small city about 40 miles south of Indianapolis.

But it meant something more that one of the believers was Josh Speidel, her former classmate at Columbus North High School. Like her, Speidel was an all-state basketball player who had signed a Division I scholarship. That was before a car accident in 2015 on Super Bowl Sunday their senior year at Columbus North effectively ended his career and nearly took his life.

After all of that, he believed in her. More than that, despite a world that had been unfair to him, he kept a positive enough view to care that she knew he still believed in her.

"The way she is, the way she works and who she is as a person, I know she won't quit until she achieves her goal," Speidel said recently from Vermont, where he is finishing his degree and on Tuesday registered the first points of his collegiate career in a prearranged moment on senior night in the Catamounts' final regular-season game. "You can't write her off. That girl can do anything she puts her mind to. Knowing her since second grade, you can't write her off."

Still, three years is a long time to wait. It's a long time to wonder. Time enough to doubt.

The Indiana Hoosiers have a chance to host NCAA tournament games this month in no small part because Patberg found her way to them and is doing to the Big Ten what she once did to all those opponents that came to play Columbus North High School. She is second in the Big Ten in assists, seventh in scoring and tied for first in assist-to-turnover ratio. Patberg, whose fourth-seeded Hoosiers play Rutgers in their Big Ten tournament opener Friday, was one of 20 players in the nation on the Wooden Award late-season watch list.

It took her a long time to get there. She spent almost three full seasons away from the court, first injured, then sick. But when she goes back to Columbus, to the church gym where former Columbus North players hold a weekly pickup game, and sees the friend who never stopped believing in her, she understands she is lucky to have basketball.

A 5-foot-11 guard who grew up around the game as the daughter of a coach, Patberg was the national high school player of the year as a senior in 2015. She was Indiana Miss Basketball and won a state championship, the first for Columbus North in girls basketball.

The Indiana program now is not the program it was then. Curt Miller, who led the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals last year, had only begun the monumental task of turning around a moribund program as Patberg began her high school career. Teri Moren, who succeeded Miller in Bloomington when Patberg was a senior in high school, needed time to nurture that into full bloom. So Patberg chose to go slightly farther afield, signing with Notre Dame. Then she tore an ACL on the first day of practice as a freshman.

"You can't write her off. That girl can do anything she puts her mind to." Josh Speidel on childhood friend Ali Patberg

Irish coach Muffet McGraw still saw Patberg as part of the future, half of a backcourt alongside Jackie Young that would carry the Irish beyond the Arike Ogunbowale era (that neither Patberg nor Young is in South Bend this season explains some of Notre Dame's struggles; the Irish's run of 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is expected to end). But while Patberg made it back on the court as a sophomore, she was dogged all season by what turned out to be mononucleosis.

Having played fewer than 300 minutes, she decided she needed a new start and decided to transfer.

"Honestly, my confidence was really low -- really, really low," said Patberg, who's averaging 15.2 PPG and 5.4 APG. "I never had in the back of my mind that I wouldn't be the player I knew I could be starting out going into college. But my confidence was definitely low, and I knew how much work I had to put in to get back to where I wanted to be."

She entered the transfer portal and heard from Moren, who faced her own personnel conundrum as she tried to maintain the momentum created by Tyra Buss, Amanda Cahill and a group of players who led Indiana to its first NCAA tournament win in 33 years in 2016 and a WNIT title two seasons later.

The Patberg whom Moren saw from afar in high school was exactly the kind of quick fix who could do that. There was a little less certainty about the Patberg who reached out to her.

"She was about as low as she could get," Moren recalled. "When you'd talk to her on the phone, you could just hear it in her voice. She was searching for a place where she could find, not just playing time, but she was trying to find herself again as the player that left Columbus North, that was a McDonald's All American, that had all these accolades, that exuded confidence.

"She didn't have any of that."

It helped that not long after Patberg announced she would transfer to Indiana, she convinced Brenna Wise to do the same after the former ACC standout decided to transfer from Pitt. The two met on a visit to Indiana during the transfer process and formed an immediate bond. As Patberg sat out the required redshirt season in 2017-18, her third season in a row either off the court or at far less than 100 percent, she had someone to work out with and with whom she could share what can otherwise be a lonely limbo year.

"I wouldn't say that her confidence was shaken or that it was wavering," Wise said. "I would say that she hadn't found herself yet. I think there is a different in that statement.

"It was only a matter of time until Ali found herself."

But she also found a reflection of her old self, and continues to find it, in Speidel's eyes. They have been friends since Speidel and his family moved from Pendleton, Indiana, to Columbus when he was in grade school.

"I didn't even know how good she was at basketball," Speidel said. "We were just friends before basketball was even a part of our lives."

He laughs now at any comparison of their local fame in high school, quickly correcting you that she was a much bigger deal than he ever was. But as the stars of their respective teams in a basketball-obsessed state, they understood each other. They were the ones who would run into each other in the basketball gym before school, trying to get extra shots up before dawn.

Speidel recalls his mom telling him that Patberg was among the first to reach out after the accident and that she visited him in the hospital. He doesn't remember. He was in a coma. He had to learn to walk and talk again.

It isn't that the two of them talk every day. They have the sort of comfortable friendship that is often born in childhood, with bonds secure enough that they can go about their busy lives for weeks or months and pick up right where they left off when the world brings them back together. That is often in summer, at those weekly pickup games that span all ages in the church gym.

Both he and Patberg played in those games even before they were in high school. And still now.

"He can play -- he gets up and down," Patberg said. "It's not, obviously, the same yet, but it showed me that no matter what you go through, you can keep going. That's the most important thing I learned from him. There's no obstacle you can't work around -- whether that's being strong yourself or leaning on others and everyone around you for support. I've learned that sometimes being strong means leaning on other people, people who love you."

And when they would talk, through the years when she wasn't playing and now that she's back to a starring role, he always offered the same message.

"He'll say he believes in me," Patberg said. "Coming from him -- those are easy words coming from people who haven't been through stuff. But he's been through so much. So hearing it from him -- if he can do it, I can get back from an ACL injury or I can sit out a whole year.

"Because I'm still playing the game I love."