OKLAHOMA CITY — The fact that it has been two years since he last played a competitive game hasn’t dulled the competitive fire that burns ever so strongly within Adam Allen. If anything, the desire to play basketball again is greater than ever before. Before the knee injury that has taken three surgeries to repair, the game came so easily to him. He will never again make the mistake of taking basketball for granted.
“It’s really tough when something you love so much that you’ve done all your life you can’t do it,” Allen said in the Florida locker room after the Gators saw their season come to an end with a 99-92 loss to Brigham Young in the first round of the NCAA West Regional Thursday afternoon.
In that loss, the Gators were 10-32 from the three-point stripe, which was tough to take for a shooter with a stroke so pure it could be used for teaching videos. During his freshman season with the Gators back in 2008, Allen hit 42.1 percent on his threes.
He likes to think he could have been a difference maker, not just in Thursday’s loss to BYU but in an entire season of close encounters with victory. The Gators lost 13 games during the season and 10 were by eight or fewer points. In eight of those 10 losses, the Gators shot less than 40 percent from the three-point line. In five of the losses, 30 percent would have been a huge improvement.
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Allen spent the summer of 2008 working on ball handling, passing and defensive skills that limited his role to designated shooter as a freshman. A week before the 2008-09 season began, he had shown such improvement in all phases of his game that he was expected to play major minutes off the bench. As a 6-8, 225-pounder with deep range on the three, he figured to give the Gators instant scoring punch off the bench from the wing.
A couple of days before the Gators were to play their first exhibition before the real games began, Allen went down with a knee injury that was initially diagnosed as a bone bruise. When that didn’t heal, it was re-evaluated and re-diagnosed as an MCL injury.
When there was no improvement, Allen was once again evaluated and this time it was determined he had to have surgery.
“It was misdiagnosed at least two times,” Allen said. “They didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know what it was, either. They told me it was a bone bruise for awhile and then they said it was an MCL sprain. It turned out to be this big ordeal.”
The big ordeal was about to get bigger.
The first surgery didn’t correct the problem. If anything, it made things worse so there was a second surgery and this one was more complicated. When it was over, doctors told Allen there was every good chance his basketball playing days had reached a premature end. Unwilling to accept that diagnosis as final, Allen sought another opinion.
He went to the renowned clinic of Dr. James Andrews in Gulf Breeze, Florida where the doctors determined his problem was correctable with more surgery.
“The doctors here [in Gainesville], before I had the third surgery, were telling me there was a pretty good chance I probably couldn’t play basketball again, at least not competitively,” Allen said. “I went to see some other doctors and Dr. (Lonnie) Paulos at the Andrews Institute said he could probably do some stuff to it. I had the surgery and after the surgery he was pretty confident that I would be able to come back.”
Allen’s description of the knee injury, the first two surgeries in Gainesville and then the third surgery in Gulf Breeze to correct what went wrong the first two times is not those with a weak stomach.
“My kneecap hit my bone and caused my cartilage to get all messed up,” Allen said. “Then my kneecap was tracking left to right and the second surgery I had was a medial reefing to tighten up my kneecap to try to align it straight up and down but they ended up making it too tight. So the third surgery was to fix that and then take cartilage from other parts of my knee and put in there where the cartilage was all messed up to try to get it grow. Then they cut my bone where my shin connects to it and raised it up and put some screws in there so my tendon is like looser over my kneecap so it doesn’t grind.”
He always knew the surgery was serious but it wasn’t until he peeled the bandage away and got a look at the lasting reminder of the third and final surgery that he fully understood what he had gone through.
“I didn’t know how big a deal it was going to be until I peeled off the bandage and looked at how bad it is,” Allen said. “I have this nasty scar that’s about 10 inches long. It’s really nasty.”
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The third surgery and rehab meant Allen spent a second straight year sitting on the bench helplessly while his teammates battled and fought their way to an NCAA bid but it wasn’t a complete loss. In this ordeal that goes far beyond anything he ever expected when he signed with the Gators out of Milton following an outstanding prep career, he’s done a lot of soul searching and learned a lot about himself.
“I went through the whole thing last year and then this year, too, and it was the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through,” he said. “Basketball’s what I’ve done my whole life and then I couldn’t do it. What I’ve gone through hasn’t been fun but it’s taught me a lot about life and a lot about me. Life’s not all about basketball. I’ve got everything else in order and taken care of.”
Life isn’t all about basketball, but basketball will be a big part of his life once again if everything goes well when he can start running again in June. He says the knee feels better than it has since the injury so he feels positive that he will be able to play with a minimum of pain.
Although he’s limited in what he can do until June, he is making every effort to prepare for a comeback.
“I’m trying to get myself ready mentally and physically as best I can,” he said. “I’m hitting the weight room hard and hopefully when I come back I can stay in the gym 24/7. I’m really rested so I’m not going to be tired.”
Allen has his academic house in order so there is every good chance that he could win a hardship appeal to the NCAA if he’s able to come back and play. Since he’s missed two years with the same injury, he could be declared a sophomore and still have three to play.
“I’m a junior in school so I can get my degree in spring of 2011,” Allen said. “If I come back and get a medical hardship for next year I’ll be a sophomore again [in basketball eligibility] so I could get another degree or maybe get my masters. If I can’t play again I’ll have the medical scholarship so I’ll get my degree and move on with life. I feel like I’ve done a lot of coaching from the stands now so that might be something I could do.”
If he does make it back to play basketball again, the scar on his knee will be his constant reminder of what he’s been through, how he endured and how he triumphed in the end.
And, he hopes that someday it will be a conversation piece for his kids and grandchildren.
“I hope I’ll be able to say I was hurt and this is what I came back from to play again,” he said.
KENNY KADJI UPDATE: Like Adam Allen, Kenny Kadji watched helplessly Thursday as the Gators lost their final game of the season. Plagued by back problems since he was a sophomore in high school, Kadji had to have surgery after a bulging disc in his lower back wouldn’t respond to treatment. He saw action in nine games but he was limited to 45 minutes total due to pain and numbness that ran up and down his leg.
The surgery was quite similar to what former Gator Adrian Moss had between his junior and senior seasons. Moss came back strong to be a big body off the bench in Florida’s 2006 national championship run, capping his career with nine points against UCLA in the NCAA title game. Moss now plays basketball with Bremerhaven in the German League.
Asked how his rehab is coming along, Kadji responded Thursday, “I’ll be able to start running again in April … maybe two more weeks. I feel really good. It’s been a long time since my back didn’t hurt.”
At 6-10, 250, Kadj has always been plagued by a lack of conditioning but that can be attributed in good part to the nagging back problems that never would go away. Now that he is pain free for the first time in years, he wants to get in the best condition of his life and help the Gators make a substantial leap next season.
“We’re going to be a really good team,” he said. “We only lose Dan (Werner) and everybody else is back. I want to work really hard so I can help the team. We can be really good next year.”