Steele resolved to help Tide roll again
The first morning was the worst.
Ronald Steele, once among the top point guards in the country, woke up in a hospital room in April 2007 unable to walk. Doctors had just sliced open both of his knees, performing a serious microfracture procedure on the right one and a less invasive arthroscopy on the left.
The kid who taught himself to be a great ball handler by dribbling on roller skates couldn't even stand up.
"I never used to think about anything," Steele said. "I just played off instincts. And then I just sat there in that hospital room, wondering if I'd even get the chance to play again."
If there is a poster child for the current crop of comeback kids, it is Steele, a veritable Job in high tops. He has endured doubts and pain, surgery and anonymity, and now returns with nothing less than the hopes of Alabama's basketball dreams riding on his knees.
"I know there's a lot of pressure," he said. "But believe me, I'll put more pressure on myself."
The early season lists of top point guards reveal the usual suspects -- Ty Lawson and Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday and AJ Price. You have to tap the scroll button a few times to find Steele's name, if it's even there at all.
Three seasons ago no one would consider cobbling such a list without Steele's name at or near the top. An honorable mention All-America following his (2005-06) sophomore season, he seemed destined to a flyover collegiate career and an early NBA cash out. That year, Steele single-handedly brought the Crimson Tide back from the brink of disaster after Chuck Davis was injured.
Playing all but five minutes in a pivotal stretch, he turned the Tide after a 7-6 start, helping them win 10 of their next 14 games. The same player who contentedly took a backseat to Davis, never scoring more than 18 points in a game, topped that marker in nine games in Davis' absence.
Mark Gottfried memorably remarked at the time that removing Steele from Alabama's lineup would be like, "taking Dwyane Wade off the Heat."
Double jinx. Miami learned Wade's value in 2006 and Alabama got its dose of reality a year later.
Steele was named a preseason All-America before the 2006-07 season. Fans and salivating NBA scouts alike expected him to merely build on his sensational sophomore season. Instead, Steele dovetailed into the black hole of mediocrity. His numbers dipped and dipped hard, falling from 14.3 points per game to 8.6 in one year. Outsiders figured the can't-miss kid had hit a wall, that the prodigious talent wasn't so exceptional after all.
Putting on that uniform again, I know I'm going to get emotional. There were days, sitting in that hospital bed that I didn't know if I'd get the opportunity to play again. Now I'm just counting down the days.
"NBA guys kept telling me he wasn't the same guy," Gottfried said. "And he wasn't. They acted like he played bad because he wasn't good enough. That wasn't the case at all."
Steele played that entire season on rickety knees, knees so sore Gottfried regularly held him out of practice in the hope he would be right at game time. One MRI after another failed to reveal the source of the pain and not even Dr. James Andrews, the renowned Alabama orthopedic consultant, could come up with an answer.
"I was doing everything they asked me to do times 10," Steele said. "We were trying everything in the book and nothing was working. I've done every knee treatment you could possibly do."
Steele soldiered on, playing in 26 of 32 games until Gottfried finally sat him in the last two weeks of the season.
"It was pitiful," Gottfried said. "Finally I just said, 'Enough.' I couldn't watch anymore."
Surgery finally revealed the problem -- cartilage defects in both knees -- and Steele underwent the double surgeries in April with the intent of returning the following season. But in late August, his left knee required another round of arthroscopy and Steele, frightened that by December he would be back to the shell of the player he was the year before instead of the standout he was as a sophomore, elected to redshirt.
The decision to sit out last season was almost more painful than the year he played on bad knees, as Alabama struggled to a 17-16 finish and a disappointing 5-11 mark in the SEC.
But as much as the wasted year -- for player and program -- was difficult to endure, Steele believes the rewards are only a few months away. He said he feels healthy for the first time in more than two years and stronger, not just physically but mentally.
The critics didn't understand Steele's motivation.
"The biggest thing for me after the year off has been gaining confidence," Steele said. "I thought if I could play with these guys, the best players out there, then I would know I was ready. It was kind of a risky move, I know, but it really helped me. It gave me a confidence boost I couldn't get anywhere else."
When Alabama tips off its season, Steele won't wear a brace or even a neoprene sleeve on his knees. Either, he said, would only serve as reminders of what he'd been through.
But there is one thing Steele will put on that night, a piece of gear that he knows will likely cause it all to come rushing back in a Tidal wave.
"Putting on that uniform again, I know I'm going to get emotional," Steele said. "There were days, sitting in that hospital bed that I didn't know if I'd get the opportunity to play again. Now I'm just counting down the days."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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