Heart-felt reaction

With 14:13 left in the first half Saturday night, Duke Crews knelt at the scorer's table. Virtually everyone else in Thompson-Boling Arena was standing.

Crews' first game action since doctors discovered a heart condition six weeks ago was the highlight of Tennessee's 85-69 defeat of Georgia. He got a standing ovation just for checking in at the scorer's table. Clearly feeding off the crowd, he produced nine points and eight rebounds in 14 quality minutes of action.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl called the fan response "heartwarming." Crews clearly was moved by the ovation.

"Oh, man, it was great," he said. "I love the fans and the fans love me. I'm just glad they welcomed me back."

Crews, a 6-7, 230-pound sophomore from Hampton, Va., said he tried to remain optimistic during his lengthy layoff, refusing to seriously consider the possibility that the heart condition might end his career.

"It was a slim thought," he said. "It wasn't really nothing I thought was going to happen. I knew I was going to play again; I just didn't know if it would be this year."

Former Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers died at age 23 when his heart simply gave out during a 1990 game, so Tennessee's administration took an ultra-cautious approach when a mid-December echocardiogram revealed an abnormality in Duke Crews' heart. After exhaustive testing, however, doctors cleared him to return to action.

If Crews had any concerns about his heart they weren't evident Saturday night.

"No, they cleared me to play, so I'm going to play," he said. "I've been waiting to play for a month and a half, so I just went out there and played as hard as I could."

Still, he admitted that the layoff affected his stamina a bit.

"You're kind of tired when you first start your rotation," he said, adding that he was fine "after you get into the flow of the game and your adrenalin starts pumping."

Seconds after inserting Crews into the lineup, Pearl called a play designed to give him a chance to score.

"As soon as I got in the game, Coach Pearl called my number," Crews recalled with a smile. "As soon as I got in the game I got fouled."

After missing the first free throw, he grinned sheepishly.

"JaJuan started messing with me," he said, referring to teammate JaJuan Smith. "I made the second one (free throw) and it felt good to get those first points on the board."

Pearl showed no favoritism, screaming just as vehemently at Crews as he did the other Vols.

"Nine points and eight rebounds, and I'm all over him," the coach said, grinning. "It's like ‘Welcome back, Duke.' I'm in his face and still trying to charge at him till the very, very end."

Crews conceded that his coach was just as demanding as he had been before the heart condition was diagnosed.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Same way. When I'm out on that court I'm a regular guy."

Asked what Pearl was screaming at him during the game, Crews replied: "Rebounding, defense, sprint back, sprint in transition. It felt good to have him on me again instead of ‘How you doing? Everything all right?'"

When asked if he ever grew weary of people asking about his health, Crews shook his head.

"No," he said. "I kind of enjoyed it. If they're asking about you, that means a lot of people like you."

As a show of support during his absence, Crews' teammates wrote his number, 32, on their shoes. The gesture touched him deeply.

"It meant a whole lot," he said somberly. "It helped me get through the process. They basically played for me, and that made it a whole easier for me."

When asked if teammates should remove the 32s from their shoes now that he's playing again, Crews shrugged.

"They can keep it," he said softly. "You really don't know when this can all be taken away from you. That can be a reminder for them, as well as for me."


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