Sumpter's back, without classmates, for another run
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- The simplicity of the fall is still so vivid, Curtis Sumpter had to jump up and show exactly how it happened.
He popped off a table on the baseline of the Pavilion on Tuesday and went through the re-enactment as if it were a criminal case, rehashing the events of Oct. 19, 2005, the day Sumpter's basketball career once again was halted and his mind-set about the game changed forever.
"I can tell you the play, right over here," Sumpter said as he walked to the top of the 3-point circle, all the while wearing a brace on his left knee that looks like armor.
"I back-cut this way for a strong layup," he said, extending his right hand into the air, "and Will [Sheridan] came up and knocked me out of the air, contesting the layup like he's supposed to do. I came down funny and landed over there. I was laying there and coach [Jay Wright] was laying there beside me."
Sumpter pointed to the floor where word "Villanova" is spelled out under the basket at the south end of the Pavilion. He paused and shook his head, remembering himself sprawled there.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Wright said. "He said right away, 'I did it again.' It was dead silence in here. Everybody went down to the other end. We were all devastated, not just for losing him, but because we all knew how hard he had worked to come back."
So here he is again, back from his second ACL surgery on his left knee, returning to the court as a fifth-year senior without his classmates and close friends who seemed destined for a Final Four appearance last season.
Sumpter's heralded classmates (Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser) as well as sophomore Kyle Lowry led the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed, a 28-5 record and an Elite Eight appearance before losing to eventual champ Florida. Sumpter could only watch.
He hoped to return in February, nearly a year after originally blowing out his knee while on defense -- ironically against the Gators -- in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. But that wasn't realistic. Wright said he wasn't going to dampen Sumpter's spirits, knowing how much he wanted to return to close out his career with his friends, but reality hit Sumpter after he was cleared to practice lightly in February.
"I would have been the worst player ever," said Sumpter, something that's hard to believe when seeing the 6-foot-7 forward hit the boards, finish around the basket and make shots from 15 feet and out. "I wouldn't have been able to do anything. But I didn't care. I wanted to be out there and if it meant [not getting drafted] and just trying to make [an NBA] team at the end of the summer, then OK."
To understand why Sumpter was so determined, you have to go back to the previous summer. The original surgery, when ligaments from a cadaver were inserted, was a success and Sumpter was on schedule to return to the court in the fall. Trainer Jeff Pierce and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watson said Sumpter was a model patient.
Sumpter worked hard to get back for the most-talked-about season in Villanova basketball since the Cats won the national title in 1985. Sumpter, like Foye, was considered a possible Big East Player of the Year candidate. His 15.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game were credible stats that put him in preseason consideration for national honors.
Sometimes, though, despite the rehab and the hard work, the surgical procedure just doesn't work.
"It just tore out, for whatever reason," Pierce said of Sumpter's cadaver ligaments. "It just failed."
Sumpter was crushed.
"It was understandable, after what he had done the past five months," Pierce said.
Those five months after the first surgery are nothing compared to the last year. Sumpter's mental recovery probably has been just as difficult.
Watch Sumpter and he appears ready to go. The brace, which gives the appearance of someone who is still hurting, will come off in the next few weeks. Sumpter wants to play "brace free" -- and so do his teammates who can get taken out for a few plays when they rub against it, like Dante Cunningham did Tuesday. Still, Sumpter isn't yet at ease on the court.
"It took me all summer and into September before I would stop worrying about going in for a layup, getting hit and coming down unstable," Sumpter said. "I wondered if I came down, would my leg give out? That was always in my mind."
It still is.
"Once in a while I'll go up and still shy away from contact," Sumpter said. "I've got to go in and lean in. I want the contact and I want to be able to take the hit and I want everyone to stop saying, 'Oh, is he OK?' I just want to play."
Wright said he naturally is being cautious about Sumpter. The Wildcats practiced 11 times from Oct. 13 to Tuesday; on a few occasions, twice a day. Wright told Pierce to let Sumpter know he could take a practice off, especially on the few days they went twice. He did it again Tuesday. And each time Sumpter was there in the afternoon, refusing to be treated any differently.
"It's been more like, 'You don't believe me that I'm back or that I can handle it,' but I want to be careful," Wright said. "He needs to play in games, that's what he needs to do and I'm not going to wear him out."
Fraser, who had multiple surgeries on his knees and hands while at Villanova, is working out in the area as he prepares to make another go at an NBA camp next summer. He stopped by practice Tuesday, as he often does, and spoke to Sumpter.
"It's all about detail," Fraser said. "He's got to do the repetitive stretching, get the proper rest and he'll be fine. It's a mental thing now. If you go back to our junior year, he was the rock of the team. That won't change. That doesn't go away with the injury. That's embedded in him."
Sumpter does look like the old man here. Joined by Mike Nardi and Sheridan, Sumpter is one of three seniors on a team chock full of youngsters. His teammates don't notice much of a difference, though.
"He's the same old Curt to me," Nardi said. "He's getting out on the floor, spotting up and scoring."
"I knocked him down a few times on purpose," Sheridan said laughing. "He got right back up. His timing is down."
In talking to Sumpter, you can see there is some trepidation. That's understandable. He has a chance to be Big East Player of the Year despite not playing in a competitive game for 20 months. Who wouldn't be a bit scared to see how his teammates would react in a heated game?
"I think he'll be better than he was," Wright said. "He shoots the ball better. It may take until December or January, and I understand there is some physical apprehension, but I anticipate at some point he'll be a dominant player. It can't happen though until he plays in games against someone else that doesn't know what he's going to do."
Sumpter hasn't hit a consistent stride where he can string day after day together. That frustrates him to no end, but just being out on the court again is a victory in itself.
"I'm happy for practice, I was happy for open gym," said Sumpter, who already graduated last spring and is just taking a few extra classes this season. "I'm not thinking about the season. I'm just happy to play ball."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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