That’s exactly what Christian James, a 2015 Oklahoma men’s basketball signee, had to endure as he watched his high school basketball team and the fall league. He could barely even move, unable to put pressure on his left leg after suffering a stress fracture in his tibia.
James, a 6-foot-5, three-star forward, had to sit and wait, just watching as his senior year slip by with every passing practice; every game. The realization that his final season in high school might be lost to injury was difficult for James to comes to grips with while his leg was still wrapped in a cast.
“It kind of hit me hard when it did,” James said.
Maybe that’s why Sunday, when he dunked on someone in a workout, he grabbed the ball and threw it as hard as he could against the wall. He took off from almost eight feet away – primarily off his sleeved left leg – and threw down a heavy dunk with his right hand.
He grabbed the loose ball and slung it against the brick wall – all without a noise, a yell or a scream.
James’ face said it all: A mix of raw emotion. “To know that I can do it, it’s just confidence,’ said James, who had dunked before then but never like he did before the injury. “It took me a couple of tries to get to that point where I had dunked it. It was nothing but emotion and confidence.”
Then one day later, he returned to the court for the first time this season as Bellaire High School opened the playoffs against Strake Jesuit. Bellaire won, 55-30, and James finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
“It was very emotional for me just to hear the announcer call my name again,” James said. “I wasn’t worried about getting numbers. I just wanted to win.”
The stress had been building around James’ left knee all summer, until the final tournament before the start of school. Driving down an empty lane, James’ knee just gave out. There was no contact, but James said it felt like somebody stabbed him in the knee with a knife.
He heard a pop and knew it was broken right away.
Surgery came two weeks later and then three months before he could put any kind of pressure on his left leg.
Everything became a struggle. Emotionally, he had to watch his friends play and practice. Physically, it was difficult just to get food or water. Things that he once took for granted became incredible demanding.
But James had a support network: His mother and father for constant support and Oklahoma assistant coach Lew Hill, who suffered his own serious injuries during a playing career that was ended after a car accident, to be a sounding board at least once a week.
“It was just talking about different things, talking about what we’re doing,” said Hill, who thinks that James’ time off would help him see the game in a different light. “. . . When I talk to kids, if it’s just basketball, I’m doing them an injustice. I talk to them about anything and everything.”
All along, James always thought he would return to the court – almost immediately stating that he would return in January. Two different sessions of physical therapy brought him to his doctor on Jan. 22: His first set back exactly five months after surgery.
He wasn’t cleared.
“It kind of felt like the season would be over but there was no point in coming back,” James said. “As the month went by, I started talking to my dad a lot – debating whether I should come back or not and fight for a state championship. He said it was up to me. I feel like we have a legit chance of going to states. I felt like I could help my team a lot.”
As he went out on the court Tuesday for Bellaire, which plays Cyprus Lakes tonight in the second round of the playoffs, he played with a new understanding – a new appreciation for the game. He was back to his old self but couldn’t forget what he had gone through.
“I feel like I put in the work to get back to where I need to be. That’s just a great feeling.” James said. “To know that your dreams can be gone with the snap of a finger, don’t take anything for granted.
Now that James’ injury is in the past, it will always be a part of his future. He said it. Hill agreed with it.
The injury has changed James. Not physically because Oklahoma still expects him to be a contributor off the bench and, as Hill said a “physically gifted kid,” very early in his career but mentally.
“I just think he’ll appreciate his gifts more,” Hill said. “To me, he’s a physically gifted kid. I think he’ll be very cerebral. . . . I think now, every time he steps on the court, he’ll have a killer mentality.”