Nov. 9, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - You know by now that Abdul Gaddy has recovered from his torn ACL and is making his return this weekend when the Huskies open their 2011-12 season.
The smooth maestro of Washington's offense is stronger and faster since his last game. That was last New Year's Eve at UCLA, days before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a practice.
What you don't know is how much Gaddy went through to return Saturday against Georgia State at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Simply put, the 19-year-old was scared.
Scared of the pain. Scared that his college basketball career and his realistic NBA dreams had been shredded like his knee ligaments. Scared that, unlike his knee, he would never be able to repair that career, and that the rehabilitation would never end.
"It was tough - harder than I thought," Gaddy told me on the eve of his return this weekend against Georgia State, then Florida Atlantic on Sunday and Portland on Monday.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever been through."
See, Gaddy didn't just tear his ACL. He also tore his lateral collateral ligament in the knee on a hard but routine drive to the basket in practice Jan. 4.
"So it was a little bit more complicated than just an ACL reconstruction," Huskies athletic trainer Pat Jenkins said Tuesday, as we watched Gaddy zoom past teammates with a dribble during practice in the Marv Harshman gym at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Recovering from the LCL tear limited Gaddy's range of motion in the knee during the initial months of rehabilitation more than just a singular, ACL tear would have.
"There were days I was like, `Man, I'm scared to go into rehab today,'" Gaddy said. "I mean, that stuff was kind of painful."
Gaddy spent the first weeks after surgery in a fog from pain medicine. Then, once those clouds lifted, storm clouds rolled in as the rehabilitation intensified. Gaddy was in such searing pain trying to get his knee to bend father in the first months following the surgery, team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Chris Wahl had to literally knock Gaddy out to get progress.
Four months after the surgery, in April, Wahl put Gaddy under general anesthesia. Wahl then manipulated the knee himself, without Gaddy conscious to resist or scream. The doctor straightened, flexed and turned the reconstructed knee to an extent that Gaddy could not have endured had he been awake.
When Gaddy woke up from the manipulation in April, his knee and his recovery were liberated. They went from frustrating to fantastic.
"He was struggling before that," Jenkins said. "After that, the strength in his leg really started returning. His confidence really started coming back. He could see progress. When he started to see the progress, he really started to work even harder.
"Those first eight weeks for him were probably the most painful of his life."
The pain was so great, Gaddy often bucked from the training table and sometimes tried to leave it. At times, Jenkins said, "I sat on him, pretty much seat-belted him to the table" to complete exercises.
Those 2 ½-hour therapy sessions five days each week often left Gaddy in tears. When it did, Jenkins would put Gaddy in a private room away from fellow UW athletes in the training room. And he would throw the point guard a towel for his sobs. Then he would continue the therapy.
"He would tell me that he hated me," Jenkins said.
"For as much tough love as I gave him, when we were done he thanked me for that," Jenkins said. "It made his exercise later so much easier. He knew we were doing it for a reason, so he could come back better.
"I think," Jenkins said with a smile, "that is why he kept coming back."
Gaddy agrees with Jenkins, the man who through dedication to his job and to Gaddy's return may end up making the biggest assist of UW's season.
"It was just the fact that I knew it was going to make me better in the end. That's the thought that kept going through my mind," Gaddy said. "The trainers kept putting that in my head - `You are going to come back better. Just keep doing it every day.'
"I had the support of my teammates telling me that, too. `Just keep doing it, every day.'"
BETTER. OLDER. WISER. SMARTER.
"I feel like I'm better, older, wiser," Gaddy says after a month-plus back at practice. "I feel quicker. Coaches have told me I look quicker. I'm smarter."
The point guard with the uncanny ability to calmly direct his teammates and eliminate everyone's mistakes is a better overall player. And that's saying something. When he got hurt in January, he was leading the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio (3:1) and shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
"Right now, someone would have to remind me that he had an ACL surgery done to him. He's just as quick, if not quicker," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar says. "He already played with a lot of poise. You can just see - he's been in college a little bit - you can just see experience. It's just on his sleeve. He's wearing it. He makes good decisions. He knows where he is supposed to be. He is just playing with a lot of confidence right now.
"It's something. He's only been back playing for (less than two months), and he's playing with as much confidence as he's ever played with."
It took a while to restore that.
Gaddy's 9 ½-month road back began seemed endless, and he was discouraged for much of it. It began Jan. 5 with Gaddy seated next to Romar in the Huskies training room and listening in disbelief as the UW doctor explained the severity of his injury.
"I was shocked, surprised, all in one," Gaddy said. "I didn't know about everything else. The main thing I was upset about was him saying that I wasn't going to be able to play the rest of the year.
"I didn't really know what it meant. He said, `You tore your ACL.' I was like, `What does that mean?' And then he explained it, what part of the knee it was. And I asked, `How long will I be out? Am I going to be able to come back for the Pac-10 tournament?"
The doctor told Gaddy he would not play until the 2011-12 season.
"After that, I just broke down," he said. Surgery was set for Jan. 17. And a teenager's dream was seemingly shattered.
Gaddy had come to Washington the year before as a McDonald's All-American from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash. He averaged 25 points a game as a high school senior and 23 points as a junior, and his signing was a coup for Romar and the Huskies.
Gaddy was committed to signing with Arizona. But after coach Lute Olson retired from the Wildcats in 2008, Gaddy came home to UW.
Now, with Gaddy crying at being told his knee and sophomore season were shredded, Romar began leading his prized point guard back right there in the training room.
"Coach Romar was there to support me, talking to me for a while after it happened," Gaddy said. "He talked to me about taking the right approach. He was saying that `you've got to attack rehab hard. You've got the opportunity to play again. A lot of people don't get that opportunity.'"
Such as Tyreese Breshers.
Romar had sat next to Gaddy's best friend on the team a few months earlier while a doctor told Breshers his basketball career was finished after just one UW season because of a medical condition. The former power forward helped motivate Gaddy to seize rehab as the second chance he, Breshers, doesn't have.
"Take advantage of it," Breshers, who still comes to practices and games, repeatedly told Gaddy through the spring and summer.
"Because of him, I don't take anything for granted," Gaddy said. "He was pushing me. He was in there watching me go through my rehab -- even when it hurt.
"He motivated me a lot. ... I just took that approach of, `You know what? I've got the opportunity to play again. So I am going to make the most of it. Really.'
"I mean, I had to move on."
`IT SEEMED LIKE FOREVER'
But that moving on came at a glacial pace.
The rehabilitation went on. And on. And on. For 9 ½ months, Gaddy grinded in that training room that is a chest pass away from his team's practice floor on the south side of Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
"It seemed like forever," Gaddy said. "I'd never even sat out a game before. Not ever."
He sat out 22 last season, on the bench watching Isaiah Thomas take over his point-guard duties. Thomas led the Huskies to another Pac-10 tournament title, an opening win over Georgia in the NCAA tournament and then a lead late against North Carolina in the third round. Gaddy was helpless on the bench in Charlotte and watching a few feet away as the Huskies squandered a lead and trip to the Sweet 16 with late turnovers and misplays against the Tar Heels.
Gaddy gained a coach's perspective from watching the last half of last season on the bench. No wonder. During games, Romar walk to him and go over finer points of what they were seeing. That mentoring has Gaddy now seeing even more of the floor and understanding better what he and each teammate should be doing in any situation.
That interaction was also part of Gaddy's rehabilitation - the one of his psyche.
"It helped a lot. Coach Romar, he's a great role model. He was there for me. He was there for me through the whole season," Gaddy said. "When I was sitting on the bench he would talk to me. He kept me engaged with the team. He kept me with the team. He never kept me away from the team. He always wanted me at team functions as much as possible.
"He's a big reason I was able to keep myself into it, all the way."
Yet while the rest of the Huskies did offseason conditioning drills and pickup games last spring and summer, Gaddy kept trudging solo into the training room each weekday around 10 a.m. He worked on strengthening his quad muscles to support the new knee.
"The main thing was to get range of motion back in it, slowly but surely," he said. "Later on, after I started building strength and getting more motion back into it we started getting into the jogging. The strength was to enable me to absorb the contact of running and jumping and landing.
"When it got really intensive that when I started to pick up speed. Try to explode off the leg as fast as I could. Try to cut as hard as I could. Change of direction. Running lines, getting back in shape."
In August, he sat glumly in the first row of seats along the west baseline inside Alaska Airlines Arena as his teammates joined Spencer Hawes, Nick Collison and other local NBA players for another pickup game. The knee felt fine. Gaddy felt ready. He had a ball under his arm and wanted to play. But he told me that day UW trainers were still taking it slowly. He sounded as frustrated as he looked.
But Jenkins and Huskies strength and conditioning coach Matt Ludwig were working to get him back for preseason camp's start in October, not pickup games in August.
"He kept me at the right pace," Gaddy says now of Jenkins. "He pushed me to my limit, but not too far.
"I think that helped."
Romar credits Jenkins' and Ludwig's work for Gaddy being able to go full go with two-a-days and whatever else his teammates were doing from the day he was cleared for practice Sept. 7. There have been no setbacks and no braces, though Gaddy still does extra stretching and treatment to keep his reconstructed knee maintained.
"He's really come back early, at 9 ½ months," Jenkins said. "We were thinking 11 or 12 months. "It's a testament to his determination and his mental toughness. And his physical toughness, battling range issues and his fear.
"And it does hurt. For somebody who has never had an injury of any kind, it hurts to come back from what he had."
In UW's lone preseason exhibition Friday against Seattle Pacific, Gaddy was nearly flawless. He pushed the ball up the floor then calmly ran the offense. He set up teammates and got them into offensive plays during possessions in which they looked like they'd rather run amok in the front court.
In short, Gaddy looked like he did last season: In charge. Calming. Steady. Invaluable.
He had 15 points, four assists and - coach Romar's favorite part - no turnovers in 29 confirming minutes.
"It was great to be back out there again," he said Friday night, with a small smile that belied all he'd been through to reach the milestone.
When Gaddy's exhibition was done, he got to the end of the bench and spotted the trainer with whom he'd shared tears, fears, pain, love and hate for up to three hours a day, five days a week for the last 10 months
Gaddy lunged into a chest bump with Jenkins.
"It was nice the other night after the game to say, `Welcome back,'" Jenkins said.
I asked Gaddy what he's learned about himself through this. His answer tells me the benefits of his experience will last far beyond his final two seasons as the Huskies' point guard.
"I just learned to keep pushin'. I learned to push through a lot of things, really," he said. "Sometimes you have to push yourself until you are out of your comfort zone. There are a lot of things in life you have to push through your comfort zone - and just do it. And this was one of those things. Every day I had to come in and just push it, no matter what.
"I found a stronger will in myself."
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.