Jan. 5, 2011
SEATTLE - Abdul Gaddy is one impressive 18-year-old man.
Don't call him a kid -- not after the poise and maturity I witnessed outside the Huskies' basketball locker room on Wednesday, the worst day of Gaddy's athletic life.
Hours after UW team physician Dr. Jonathan Drezner told Gaddy and coach Lorenzo Romar that the starting point guard and the Pac-10's leader in assists-to-turnover ratio has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Gaddy dragged his swollen left leg onto the edge of court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
His chin was as high as his goals for a triumphant return next season.
The Huskies' calming maestro vowed to remake himself into an even better, more efficient floor leader than he was before he crashed to the floor driving for a layup on the last play of practice Tuesday.
"I'll definitely come back. And I'll probably be even better. That's my goal," Gaddy said.
His eyes were as bright as his future.
It's another example of how college athletics includes powerful lessons that resonate far beyond the court or field and carry into life.
This is the No. 2-rated point guard recruit in the nation two years ago, the starting point guard on the favorites to win the Pac-10 and perhaps advance past last spring's appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Most heady teenagers in his situation would have seized self pity, maybe gone into hiding, maybe proclaimed Wednesday for all to hear: Why me?
Yet Gaddy graciously said he'd be happy to talk about his sudden athletic about-face the second he walked into the arena.
Asked how he planned to attack his recovery, which can last from six to 12 months, he said confidently: "With a full head of steam. After the surgery, get right into rehab. Rehab as much and as hard as I can.
"Really it's kind of like a learning experience," Gaddy said, sounding beyond his years. "It kind of humbles you a little bit. You don't take a lot of stuff for granted any more after this type of injury."
It's is the first huge challenge to a UW team that is 10-3, back in the national polls at No. 23 and off to a flying, 2-0 start in the Pac-10 following its rare sweep in Los Angeles last week.
And it's the biggest challenge of Gaddy's career, obviously.
"I thought it was fake," he said of the doctor informing him of the injury.
Romar, at his side, told him "the natural thing is to think, why me? But the best thing to think about is, God just has something better in plan for you."
I'm impressed Gaddy has any perspective on anything right now. His teammates had a hard time finding some.
"I wanted to cry," Huskies star Isaiah Thomas said.
He is Gaddy's close friend. The two spent countless summer hours at Tacoma Community College and other gyms rebuilding Gaddy's shot and his psyche.
Thomas was the first one Gaddy called with his news early Wednesday. Thomas then took Gaddy to morning classes. He said at that point Gaddy was "not good."
"For somebody that young to be hit with this, especially when you're having a good season, it's like, `Man,'" Thomas said, shaking his head before the final full practice for Thursday's game against Oregon. "You can tell he's trying to be strong, but it hurts. It even hurts me, man -- and I'm not the one who gets injured."
Senior co-captain Justin Holiday was still processing the news Wednesday afternoon.
"It's tough, losing your point guard and your friend," Holiday said. "You don't want to see him every day like this."
Thomas called Gaddy "like a brother, like family" to him.
"It's just sad that it happens to a great person like that. He's just so unselfish. The last thing he's worried about is himself," Thomas said. "You feel the pain and (it) just humbles you that much more."
It is indeed humbling that an athlete seemingly in his prime - the guy who runs the loaded Pac-10 favorite, still three weeks from turning 19, playing a game he loves while getting free college for it -- can have his world changed with one, exaggerated step on an otherwise routine takeoff to the rim.
Two years ago, Gaddy was a 25-points per game scorer at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, the Washington Class 4A state high school player of the year. He was headed to Arizona until coach Lute Olson retired there, and it was a coup that the Huskies got him to come back home.
He played through his first struggles of his athletic life last season at UW. Despite starting 29 of Washington's 36 games as a freshman, Gaddy didn't even average four points a night. He had almost as many turnovers (81) as assists (62).
Yet Romar stuck with him - just like he did Wednesday morning when he joined Gaddy in the Huskies training room with Dr. Drezner and asked what the shocked sophomore could expect now.
"Sometimes people would criticize me for playing him," Romar said before getting the stunning news on Gaddy. "He was shooting 15 percent from the field and sometimes he looked uncomfortable - `Why was he still in the starting lineup?'
"Well, there are some you can play 35 minutes and they are only going to improve so much. There's some others that you feel like if you give them that opportunity, they are really going to flourish.
"That's how I felt about him."
Gaddy proved Romar right. He had 49 assists and just 16 turnovers this season, somehow corralling the wildly racing Huskies. He was the calm amid their manic, purple-and-gold blur.
Gaddy told me two weeks ago coaches were coming up to him after games and marveling at how much he'd improved from last season.
"The last few games (before Christmas), actually, the opposing coaches have come up to me saying `You've gotten a hundred percent better,'" Gaddy told me. "Texas A&M's coach and San Francisco's coach at the end of the games said that, and `It's great to see you out there playing like that.'
"It's just great to see that the hard work pays off."
Then - poof! - one drive into the lane Tuesday, and Gaddy's jackpot found snake eyes.
If you can't feel for him, you don't have a heart.
"It's tough to sit there in front of him and the doctor and watch him hear the news that he's not going to play basketball anymore this year," Romar said. "It's hard for everyone. It's hard for me as a coach go through that. He worked so hard during the season to get to where he was having a really good year this year. He was having fun doing something that he loved. It has been temporarily put on hold because of that injury.
"He'll be back ... as strong as ever. Thank goodness, the way things work now, medicine allows kids to come back and be healthy. We have one of the best medical situations in the country. He's going to be in good hands. It's just hard to see him have to go through something like this."
Indeed, the Huskies will move on in this test of the depth they've been touting for months. Senior Venoy Overton is primed to move out of his sixth-man, defensive hawk role and into the starting lineup now. New sharpshooter Terrence Ross figures to play more, along with Scott Suggs. Either Thomas and Overton are likely to be on the floor at all times, to handle the ball and run the offense in Gaddy's absence.
And Gaddy will move on. Perhaps more quickly than people expect.
The Huskies' medical staff has recent experience with torn ACLs, which can include up to a year of rehabilitation. UW trainers had former center Artem Wallace back running in a straight line five months after he had reconstructive knee surgery from an ACL tear in the spring of 2008. Wallace played in the season opener at Portland that November , seven months and one day after he shredded his knee.
Gaddy said he hopes to be running in straight lines in 4½ months. Making cuts will be the true test, but he and Romar expect him to be able to do that by the time next season begins in November.
"I'll be on the side cheering so it's not like I won't be there or it's not like I'm done forever," Gaddy said, again taking the higher, sunny road on the gloomiest day of his life. "I'm just going to be out there cheering my teammates on, and I think they'll just go even harder.
"This is another bump in the road. I'll just comeback and start from where I left off."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.