Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports

Robert Cartwright's Long Way Back For Stanford Basketball

Robert Cartwright's road to starting at Point Guard for Stanford has been tougher than you think, and he didn't make it there by himself.

Robert Cartwright knew instantly.

The gruesome arm injury that ended Cartwright’s second season on campus has not faded from his memory in any way.  In fact, he remembers every detail.

“I just went up for a layup hard, I attacked the basket hard. I remember falling and I remember pain, immediately, and when I hit the floor I thought maybe it was a broken wrist or something, right when I looked at my arm I noticed that it was misshaped and it looked kind of like an ’S’.  There were parts in different places and there was some blood on the floor, so I knew right then and there that my season was over…..and when it happened I started screaming because it was pretty painful.”

For fans, news of the injury was tough because expectations were that Cartwright would be the Cardinal’s starting point guard last season.  Those were expectations that he himself shared.  The difference of course, is that fans hear a player is hurt, they see him on the sidelines not playing, and they move on to what’s happening on the court.  They don’t really even think of that word “hurt” and what it signifies.  In this case, an almost incomprehensible amount of pain that would leave a young athlete literally helpless at the onset of his recovery.

I asked Cartwright what his parents’ reaction was when he told them, and that’s when the severity and the depths of the trauma really hit home.  Cartwright was unable to call his parents in the aftermath of the injury.  He was taken off the court on a stretcher and taken to the hospital, all the while screaming in agonizing pain.

It would be months down the road before the pain subsided, in fact Cartwright even grinned wryly when I used that phrase because he could tell I had no idea just how brutally painful that fall really was. In the meantime, Cartwright was staring at the long road back, and the first legs of that journey were such that he readily admits he could not have taken by himself. Luckily he didn’t have to.

When Bob Cartwright heard the news, there was no hesitation.  He drove up from Pasadena to be with Robert when he awoke from the first of what would end up as three surgeries.

When Robert woke up the next morning, I let him know how much he means to all of us. I also told him that he is a really tough kid and that he would be okay,” Bob says. So began a long, dutiful period of shared care for Robert that involved routine trips up to Stanford from southern California, trips that may sound like the efforts of overly concerned parents but were in fact an absolute necessity to hear Robert describe it.

“I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t take my clothes off, I couldn’t take a shower, I couldn’t do anything by myself.  I had one arm taken away, and I really couldn’t operate on myself and I really was in so much pain.  And God bless them for taking time out of their lives to take care of me and love me and give me everything I needed.  I would not have been able to get through without them.”

This was more than just the story of a kid sitting on the bench in a sling.  This was as gritty and painful and vulnerable as a young athlete can be, and there were Bob and Patty, making the drive and taking the time to care for their son at a time when he simply could not do without them.

Once the physical realities of his situation had been defined, it was time to deal with the injury emotionally.  Robert is by his own admission an emotional player, sometimes to the point where things bother him more than they should.  In talking to him, you realize just how passionate he is about the game and about the chance to play it, so one could hardly blame him for wading in the disappointment for a while.  Instead, Cartwright knew there was only one way to go, and he wasn’t going to wait around.  It’s just not who he is.

“I just accepted it.  There were times when I watched games, and because I’m a pretty competitive guy I would have loved to be out there fighting with my team, but I really accepted it.  I knew there was nothing I could change about it.  The only thing I could effect was the future, to get myself as ready as possible for this season.”

To say it was a process that moved in painfully small increments would be an understatement, but it would also be very true.  Things got even more complicated for Cartwright as it became clear there would be a need for a second and a third surgery, plus a surgery on his knee.  There was also the matter of Stanford undergoing a coaching change and Cartwright having to re-establish himself with a brand new coaching staff.

“As Coach Haase has said when he first got the job, I couldn’t shoot any more than a foot or two away,” Cartwright says.  Keep in mind, Cartwright was in this spot in this calendar year.  Left in limbo while recovering from a major injury, he also suddenly found himself with a new coaching staff for whom he literally could do no more than shoot baskets from a foot away.  Fortunately, Cartwright had a past with Adam Cohen, who Coach Haase brought on board as an assistant. Even more fortunate was the attitude that the new staff brought onto campus.

“Coach Haase and his staff did an unbelievable job of ingratiating themselves with us right away right when they got the job and it really helped for me personally to have Coach Cohen on the staff. I’ve known him for years, and we developed a great relationship at multiple spots and we even kept in contact a little bit my first couple years here but I think when he (Haase) got the job they were a little bit concerned about where I was.”

However, says Cartwright, “As time went by and I started showing unbelievable recovery they started to develop some confidence in me and they’ve been very supportive.

“Every week basically I felt I could shoot a couple feet farther.  So every couple weeks I was able to shoot, get to free throw line, and then get to threes maybe a month or two later. I was probably playing really maybe in July, mid-July time, and that’s when I was able to really participate in summer workouts.”

Slowly but surely, Cartwright was progressing.  And while there were no silver linings in terms of things he learned while sitting out, there was a significant amount that Cartwright had the gift of rediscovering about himself and the game.

Cartwright readily admits that having to miss so much time, the longest he’d ever gone essentially in his life without playing, was the toughest part of his rehabilitation.  “That part killed me because I know how much basketball is important to me and when it was taken away from me it took away a lot of my identity so that was tough to cope with.”

That identity began at an early age, and it began inside Pauley Pavilion and thanks in large part to former Bruin coach Steve Lavin.  Bob Cartwright talks about a day they spent on the UCLA campus that had a huge impact on young Robert.

In 2002, after Robert’s seventh birthday, I took him to visit UCLA.  Outside Pauley Pavilion, Robert and I were guessing about what time basketball practice might start, and a player named Jon Crispin overheard us and gave us the information.  At practice, Crispin, who was temporarily out with an injury, introduced us to Coach Lavin, who invited Robert to watch practice from the floor.  Crispin basically took Robert under his wing, introducing him to all of the other players.  After practice, Coach Lavin watched Robert shooting and dribbling and gave him a pointer about his shot, before saying, ‘the kid's got game.’  Coach Lavin also had the manager give Robert some team gear along with a tour of the locker room.  On the car ride home, Robert proclaimed that this had been his ‘greatest day ever’."

From that kindness sprang a singular goal.  Despite playing a number of sports, especially soccer, basketball had won Robert over in a way that surpassed all the others.  He declared to Bob on that very day that he wanted to become a Division One basketball player, and he can hardly be blamed for having a preference for the Bruins at that point.

As he got older, that preference faded a bit, but the drive to play college basketball only intensified.  He progressed through middle school and then high school, and the form letters and inquiries signaled the onset of the recruiting process. Then one school sent a letter that managed to stand out from the others.

“I got a letter from Stanford and really when I got the letter even though you get form letters all the time from all different types of schools, the fact that I got one from Stanford actually was big for me.  I thought ‘Oh my gosh is there a possibility I could go to Stanford?’ From the moment I got a letter from Coach Schrage, that was a school I really had my eye on and if I had an opportunity to go it would be incredibly hard to pass that up and then I started getting recruited by them and then started a relationship with the Dawkins staff and it continued to grow.  I came on a visit, they came to my games, and they told me that they wanted me from my class to be their point guard of the future and then it was just about getting into the school, making sure I was ok with my grades making sure that I did well enough on the ACT and that’s ultimately what happened.”

The love of the game had fueled Cartwright to the precipice of fulfilling that promise as the Cardinal’s starting point guard.  Then came that horrific fall, and suddenly the precipice seemed miles and miles away.  To his surprise, the injury triggered a refueling of that love and a new perspective that Cartwright would need to get back to that precipice and beyond.

The injury and the process of coming back  “helped me rediscover my love for the game in a way that I never really thought that I would otherwise.  It made me realize how much I love the game of basketball and how important it is to me.  It reminded me that it’s a gift just to be able to play the game and health is a huge part of being able to go through life, and how fortunate I was and am to be healthy and to be able to play.  Also, “to not let little things bother me the way they might have in the past.”

We mentioned before that Cartwright is an emotional player, something you can see when he’s on the court, just in the way he guards, in his willingness to pick his man up as soon as possible, be that at halfcourt or anywhere else.  He’s also not one to shy away from expectations, and expressing those expectations. This is a player who saw Chasson Randle playing ahead of him, who freely admits how great Randle was, but….

“Randle was a special player here, all-time leading scorer, but he was playing my position.  The fact that I was playing behind him was tough for me personally. I’m a competitor I want to be out there.”  You have to admire the moxie of an incoming freshman who looks at a player of Randle’s stature with that combination of respect and competitive clarity.  And he would need that competitive spirit, especially after all the twists and turns his early career took.

Cartwright thought he’d established himself as a regular contributor his freshman season after a big win in Austin over the #9-ranked Texas Longhorns.  “That was a big win, they were number nine in the country and I played 28 minutes and I thought that was a turning point to where I was gonna play a huge role for the team because there’d been a couple of games prior where I’d been playing about twenty minutes and felt like I’d found a role for myself.”

Unfortunately, the rest of Cartwright’s first season on the Farm did not play out as he expected.  Then, that summer in Italy, Cartwright felt like he’d once again established himself and the launch point for his future as the Cardinal’s starting point guard.  “We played some really good teams out there (Italy) and I had a couple of good performances and I felt like I was ready to lead the team that last season.”

Of course, then came the injury.   Fast forward to this season, and the competition to be the team’s starting point guard with teammate Christian Sanders. “At the beginning of the season, Coach held it pretty close to the vest and I was told that Christian was going to start, and you know, obviously as a competitor I was a little disappointed in that but I was still playing a lot of minutes so it was hard to really feel sorry for myself or anything so I just didn’t really worry about it.”

And this is where Cartwright, with very impressive self-awareness, was able to take from the darkness that was his injury and lost time the perspective he would need to persevere.  “When I was younger maybe that’s something I would have thought about and something that maybe if I hadn’t had this injury I wouldn’t have seen it from this perspective but I just played and was happy with the time that I got, and really tried to do the most with it that I could.”

The wait finally ended in the Cardinal’s final game before tonight’s Pac-12 opener against Arizona State.  Cartwright started for the first time this year as Stanford’s point guard, and delivered a career high 13 points in a stirring win over Idaho that Cartwright maintains should not be underestimated in terms of its value to the team.  If you think he was satisfied after the game, you’ve not been paying attention.

One of the most admirable traits of Cartwright and one you definitely want in your point guard is that he is unflinchingly honest when assessing both himself and his team. And even in that assessment, there is a bite to his words that suggests even as he discusses areas of improvement, he is burning to get out on the court and fix them.

In talking about the expectations and performance of his team, Cartwright says “I saw some of the preseason rankings and I kind of just smile at them because you realize that they don’t really believe in you and I feel like we’ve had some good wins, but I feel like we’ve left some opportunities on the table.  We were really disappointed by our performance against St. Mary’s.  We really thought that was a game where we could win and we were right there before their barrage of threes in the second half. SMU was an embarrassing loss for us and really unacceptable the way we played. To be down the amount of points we were down in the first half, we knew that was unacceptable and we were very embarrassed. I was embarrassed, the coaching staff was embarrassed, the players were embarrassed…but I feel like we have pieces that can lead to a good season.”

When talking about the closeness of this particular group of players, Cartwright is very candid.  ““The coaching staff after SMU actually challenged us and challenged our relationships, but we feel that overall we are a close team, that we’re a bunch of really good guys that care about each other.  I’ve never been on a team where nobody dislikes anyone else (until now).  We care about each other, we care about our success and it’s overall a tight-knit group.  And that is something that hopefully will propel us to do some special things this year.”

Stanford’s struggles from the perimeter have not been lost in any way on Cartwright.  “I need to be a more consistent shooter.  I feel that my entire career that’s been one of the strengths of my game is to be able to knock shots down.  I really can’t…it’s been pretty frustrating for me…I’ve actually shot the ball very well in practice and it’s been kind of frustrating to me that it hasn’t translated over to games the way that I would like.”

There is no question that Cartwright feels hasn’t shown Cardinal fans his best.  “I feel like there’s so much more I can give to the team that I haven’t given yet and I feel like games like today (the Idaho game) are a good stepping stone for that.”

One of things that should be clear in the story of Robert Cartwright is that he’s not lacking for support, be it from family, medical staff, friends, teammates, even a Palo Alto native who may have slipped out of the Cardinal’s recruiting grasp during his own college playing days.  Cartwright counts Jeremy Lin as “...a pretty good friend. We stay in contact during the season, and he's been giving me some advice on things he’s seen from me and things from him that I’m trying to apply to my game.”

There is an earnestness to Robert Cartwright that can’t be faked.  When he talks about improving as a shooter, you can tell he means to improve right now. If someone had tossed him a ball, I have no doubt that he’d have leapt from the table and taken 1,000 jumpers that night. For all I know he did.  There’s also a toughness that he’s earned.  To go through what he’s been through and to cover the ground he has covered as quickly as he has gives a strength that will be with him well past his days at Stanford.

To watch Robert Cartwright now is to know the story of a mother and father’s love, the generosity of a former coach who never directly benefitted from his kindness to young Robert but who gave it anyway, and even the dedication of a mentor in the midst of his own NBA career taking time to counsel. And what ties it all together is the love Cartwright has for the game, one that has endured through pain and adversity most will never experience.

Think of these things when you watch Robert Cartwright this week against the Arizona schools and beyond.  We demand of these players and we criticize, and in their moments of glory we praise, but the moments we spend watching them play are still just that, moments in their stories.  Up or down, relish the fact that as this next chapter for Robert Cartwright unfolds, despite all that has come before, this is still just the beginning.

His best is yet to come.  Just ask him.


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