Macon Overcomes Biggest Hurdle

Elijah Macon's path to the court at West Virginia has been filled with obstacles. And just when he finally thought he had overcome them, the most devastating blow of all fell on him.

Macon, who twice committed to the Mountaineers during a recruitment process that stretched back to the eighth grade, had to fight to make it to Morgantown. Some admittedly lazy approaches to academic work left him behind the qualification eight-ball, leading to seasons at Huntington Prep and Brewster Academy. While attending the latter, he suffered a wrist injury that required surgery, then learned that he would not be allowed to practice or play at WVU during his initial season.

That year in hoops purgatory was tough on Macon. Teammate Jonathan Holton was also not allowed to play, but the Rhode Island transfer could practice, while Macon could not. That made it difficult for him to feel like a member of the squad. To combat that, both coaches and players reached out to Macon to keep him on track.

“There's been times when they've come over to my house and got me out when I didn't want to go out,” he said of his teammates, who made sure that he worked on his own while including him in activities. “They did their job and they have been good teammates.”

This past summer, Macon finally got to play with some of his teammates in an organized setting, competing in a handful of games in the Pittsburgh Pro-Am Summer League. The sheer joy of being able to get back onto the court was apparent, and so too was the feeling a a new start, buoyed by his and Holton's presence on the court and the departure of some players who didn't appear totally committed to the team process. After being on the receiving end of care from some of the stalwarts on the squad, Macon knew the value of support across the board.

"It's really important. We have meetings about it before any new guys come in," Macon said during July. "As teammates, it's our job to greet everyone when they get here and make them feel at home, we have to get everyone on board. This is a family, this is all about the team. No more personal things, no more individual things, it's all about the team because we want to do some big things."

Just when things appeared to finally being going right for the big man, it all fell apart. His mother, Renai Payne, fell ill and passed away as the season was just getting underway. It was a blow that would stagger anyone, given its suddenness. For Macon, who had faced so much adversity over the past three years, it could have been a knockout blow. His mother was the motivating force in getting him into basketball in the first place, was his first coach and his biggest supporter and confidant. With that gone, how would he move forward. Once again, his support system was there.

“[Coach Huggins] talked to me and told me to call him if I needed anything. We have known each other since 2009, so we have that good relationship,” Macon related. “It's not really anything different than we would have been doing. I appreciate everything that he did.”

Teammates and assistant coaches also again helped, either by just being there for unspoken support or talking with him when it was needed.

“This is my second family really, and it's a big reason why I chose to come to West Virginia,” he said. “It's the family feeling I get around here. Everyone has been really great.”

One of the most overused terms in the recruiting and collegiate arenas is “family atmosphere”, but it's easy to see that it applies in this case. Not every team bonds in such a manner where they truly care about others, but its apparent this one has. From the “RMP” patches that now adorn WVU's jerseys to the incredibly brave way in which Macon dealt with his loss (he missed just one game), the family values are evident.

Whether or not Macon's emotional recovery is influencing his play on the court isn't really important – what matters is how he is dealing with his loss. However, Macon has slowly but steadily improved since his return to action, and has had his best two games against N.C. State and Wofford, the Mountaineers' most recent opponents. In the 77-44 blowout of the Terriers on Monday, he recorded a career high 11 points, accompanied by four rebounds and a monstrous block of an attempted Wofford dunk that led to a Gary Browne 3-pointer on the opposite end.

His improvement arc between the lines will be eagerly watched by West Virginia fans, but it's the one off the court that continues to matter most. His final line describing his current status in dealing with the loss of his mother was heartening, but it might well be applied to his play on the court.

“I am,” he summarized, “doing a lot better now.”

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