Aaliyah Gayles returns home after shooting

Less than a year after being shot 10 times at a party, Aaliyah Gayles returned home when USC played in the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS – It’s opening night of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament and the third of four first round games has just wrapped up with Washington State defeating Cal.

Michelob Ultra Arena, the site of the tournament inside Mandalay Bay, is abuzz. The Cougars are idling near their bench, celebrating a first-round win, while tournament officials attempt to clear the court in preparation for the final game of the night: USC vs Oregon State.

The stands are just as disorderly as fans simultaneously begin exiting the arena while a new crowd begins locating their seats to settle in for the night cap. It’s your typical chaotic postseason tournament scene. 

In the midst of all the chaos, the Women of Troy emerge from a tunnel jogging in a single-file line onto the court to begin their warmup routine. They are greeted by a few scattered cheers as loud music blasts from the arena’s speakers and the USC band begins to play “Fight On!”. 

Near the end of this Trojan train, sporting grey sweatpants and casually walking is redshirt freshman, Aaliyah Gayles. She breaks out into a slow, nonchalant jog, high-fiving a couple of young fans as she nears the court and then proceeds to plant her Nike Dunk Low sneakers, one after the other, onto the hardwood and follow her teammates to the opposite basket. 

This sequence of seemingly unremarkable events went unnoticed by almost everyone in the arena at the time but for the Las Vegas native this moment was monumental.

“It’s very exciting, because I would have never thought about this process,” Gayles said. “It’s like I’m supposed to be here.” 

It marked the first time the ex-Spring Valley high school star stepped onto a basketball court in her hometown since her life changed in the blink of an eye last April. 

This time last year Gayles’ basketball career was picture-perfect. The 5-star recruit, who was ranked 8th nationally by ESPN, had just put a bow on her senior year by earning both McDonald’s and Naismith All-American nods and, not to mention, was committed to her dream school. 

Everything was going as planned until that fateful day, April 16, 2022, when the unthinkable happened.

Gayles was shot 10 times in both the arms and legs while attending a house party in North Las Vegas. For the first time in her life, basketball became irrelevant and the sole focus was her survival. 

After a courageous fight that included three surgeries, Gayles was miraculously on the road to recovery and her return to the basketball court.

The milestones started racking up. On April 25, just nine days after the horrific incident, Gayles signed a National Letter of Intent to USC. Two months after that, she took her first steps and in late September she was cleared to return to basketball activities.

“Just seeing people inspired by my story and my journey I know I can do more with that. I just want to be great,” Gayles said. “It’s like God said, he gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”

The past eleven months have not been easy. Aside from the obvious physical hurdles she’s had to overcome, Gayles explained that the biggest challenges she’s had to battle are in her own head. “Sometimes it can be a little hard mentally, but when you overcome all these negative aspects of your life it gets easier so I just feel like it’s another life lesson for me.” 

The 19-year-old knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without the unwavering support she has received from her family, friends and teammates. 

“Everyone has helped me a lot. They all have their own parts in my journey. My teammate Destiny is like my go-to,” Gayles said, describing her relationship with graduate transfer Destiny Littleton. “I talk to her daily about things and Coach Lindsay (Gottlieb). I feel like me and Coach Lindsay had a spark and a bond even when she first recruited me out of high school. I have so much support and so much love here. They care about me, not just as a basketball player.”

While Gayle’s freshman year has not played out the way she had always envisioned it, she is still trying to find the positives and remain focused on her ultimate goal.  

“I learned a lot about patience. Patience really is the key. You can’t rush it,” Gayles said. “My next step is to be able to run. I can jog right now and I want to fully get back on the court. Right now, I’m working out and lifting and then the next step is to get my legs back to where they were before and be there for my teammates.”

Almost a year after this arduous journey began, Aaliyah is still defying all the odds and checking milestones off her list. No matter how big (taking her first steps), or how small (stepping on a basketball court for the first time in her hometown), the comeback of Aaliyah Gayles continues.  

But next year, when Gayles returns to Las Vegas for the 2024 Pac-12 tournament, Gayles doesn’t just want to step onto the court she wants to be playing. 

“Oh, for sure! Better! Stronger! Healthier!” Gayles loudly exclaimed, already bursting with excitement at the thought of her return to playing the game she loves in the city where she discovered it. 

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