Agbai all the way back

Originally Published: December 2, 2003
By Michael Vega | Special to ESPN.com

Uka Agbai is in his fifth year as a member of the Boston College basketball team. He's appeared in nearly 100 games. But, by all accounts, Agbai has to feel as though he's accomplished all anyone could ask for, just four games into the 2003-04 season.

Monday was Agbai's one-year anniversary of an injury that could have paralyzed him. It was on Dec. 1, 2003, against Holy Cross when Agbai suffered a pair of pedicle fractures on the right side of his neck during a 71-70 loss to the Crusaders.

Tonight, Agbai will start his fifth straight game for the 4-0 Eagles. The opponent will be Holy Cross.

"I guess I'm beyond the 'Broken Neck Curse,'" said Abgai before BC's 67-44 victory over Boston University on Saturday. "I hope."

Hope, it seems, was all Agbai could cling to last year when his season came to a sobering if not sudden halt after suffering a devastating neck injury in the third game of the season. The 6-foot-8-inch, 262-pound forward from Queens Village, N.Y., was unaware of the serious nature of his injury when it initially happened while battling for a defensive rebound midway through the first half. Amazingly, Agbai wound up playing the rest of the game with a broken neck, scoring 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in 39 rugged minutes of action.

Uka Agbai
Uka Agbai "couldn't feel anything on my right side" after suffering a pair of pedicle fractures in his neck against Holy Cross last season.

At the time his injury occurred, Agbai recalled, "I was on the floor and I couldn't feel anything on my right side. I just prayed to God, and all of a sudden I was able to get up, and I got the strength to play the rest of the game."

He didn't report the injury to his coaches when it happened, figuring, "it was just a pulled muscle."

It wasn't.

The next day when Agbai awoke for class, he couldn't lift his head off his pillow. It was then when he he realized his injury was much more severe than he originally suspected. Still, it didn't deter him from attending an 8 a.m. class that Monday morning.

Agbai reported to the team's trainer after class, complaining of lingering stiffness. He was taken to a local hospital where he underwent a battery of tests, including a CAT scan that revealed the pedicle fractures.

According to Dr. Dianne English, the team's orthopedic surgeon, "Nothing was out of place and nothing bad happened, really, because of the strength of the muscle. He's really a lucky guy."

After Agbai met with the team's doctors, and was informed of the nature of his injury, his first inclination was to ask how long it would be before he got back on the court.

"The doctors were looking at me like I was a ghost or something," he recalled. "They were like, 'You should be paralyzed.' That's when I broke down because I thought, you know, it wasn't that serious."

But it was serious, indeed. Season-ending serious.

"First of all, he's obviously very lucky and very blessed to be able to recover from such a serious injury, but because of his great condition it's allowed him to do that," said Boston College head coach Al Skinner. "As I've said all along, he's going to have a bigger impact on this team than he would last year's team, even though obviously he would've made us a better team. But, because of his experience, he personally can have a much bigger impact on this club."

And so far this season, it's showed.

Agbai's presence brings stability to BC's frontcourt that also features super 6-7 sophomore Craig Smith, an All-Big East Rookie Team selection last year who was forced to grow up in a hurry when Agbai went down.

"Yeah, I was looking to him for a little guidance on being a big man in the Big East," Smith said of Agbai. "When he went down, I was like, 'Wow! I'm going to have to be coming in as a freshman and starting.' There were a couple of games during the season where I wished we had him. Like the last game against UConn, the one at Syracuse, but it's great to have him back now. He's stronger and better than ever."

The time he spent away from the game enabled Agbai to gain a new perspective. He came to the sudden realization that if the game could be taken away from him so easily and abruptly, then it would behoove him to concentrate on his studies. With a fifth year of eligibility as a medical redshirt, Agbai spent the time wisely in the classroom, earning his bachelor's degree in communications last May while accelerating his work on a two-year masters program. He hopes to graduate this May with a master's degree in administrative studies, one year ahead of schedule.

"When it first happened, I kinda looked at it like, 'Why me?'" Agbai said. "I felt like I never had done anything bad to anyone, I never harmed anyone, and I had always treated everyone with kindness and respect. And so I thought, 'Why me?'

"After a while, people were trying to cheer me up. I wasn't even trying to hear it, but they were trying to get me to focus on the positives."

After spending almost four months in a neck brace, Agbai discovered, "A ton more positive came out of this than negative."

And, so, he doesn't dwell on the negative now. It serves no purpose.

"I try not to worry or think about getting hurt, anything like that," he said. "My mother, she worries a lot and says, 'Don't bang in the post and don't do all that.' But if I'm going to get hurt in the post, so be it. It's going to happen. There's nothing I can do about it. I've learned that."

There was, however, one other thing the introspective Agbai learned about himself.

"I just feel like everything happens for a reason and that I'm destined to do things -- great things," he said. "It's not about luck. There's something out there that I'm supposed to do. I may not know what it is right now, but there may come a day when I'll know what my goal is supposed to be, but I know it's going to be something great. I feel like I'm going to achieve a lot of things in my life.

"I just think to myself, 'What's the point to be able to have this opportunity to be playing again?' Obviously, something positive is going to come out of this or else I wouldn't be playing."

So far, Agbai has shown no signs of missing a step. He ranks third on the team in scoring (11 ppg) and rebounding (4.3 rpg). He says he still has the neck collar that was a constant nuisance to him. He keeps it on a shelf in his BC locker as a memento of his ordeal. He says he will keep it there for the entire season, quietly reflecting on it before each home game.

"It just reminds me of how far I've come, even before the injury," he said. "How far I've come from being an unheralded player and not being recruited to now, where I've got a lot of high hopes and I've got a lot of people believing in me now. It's a good feeling. I had to work hard to make believers out of a lot of people, but hard work pays off. It's a clich´, I know, but I believe in it. If things come easily, you become complacent. It came hard for me, but I'm a better person for it."

Games to Watch
Indiana at Wake Forest, Tuesday
Something's gotta give in this matchup of ACC/Big Ten Challenge unbeatens.
Illinois vs. North Carolina, at Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday
The Tar Heels are winless in four ACC/Big Ten Challenge games, but will try to avenge last year's 92-65 loss to the Illini in Champaign, Ill.
Duke at Michigan State, Wednesday
Something's gotta give, Part Deux. This should break the tie for No. 6 in the ESPN/USA Today poll between the only other two ACC/Big Ten Challenge unbeatens.
Tech creating a buzz
They no longer are flying beneath the radar, an unranked and unheralded team. Picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason polls after losing Chris Bosh to the NBA, Georgia Tech proved it still had plenty of talent after a tour de force Thanksgiving weekend in New York where the Yellow Jackets won the Preseason NIT tournament in impressive fashion.

"This is just the start of this," Tech coach Paul Hewitt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We've got to build on it."

The Jackets, who started the season unranked but cracked the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll at No. 15 (and No. 13 in the AP poll) after claiming the Preseason NIT title, improved to 5-0 after four blowout wins in the NIT, including back-to-back victories at Madison Square Garden over top-ranked Connecticut (77-61) in the semifinals and No. 25 Texas Tech (85-65) in the final.

"I was the most surprised guy in the building," UConn coach Jim Calhoun told reporters after his top-ranked team, a consensus preseason favorite to win it all, suffered its first loss of the season in stunning fashion to the Jackets. "We got our butts kicked physically, mentally, in every which way."

While Hewitt has called guard B.J. Elder "the best-kept secret in college basketball," the best-kept secret on his own team might have been Isma'il Muhammad. The 6-6 junior forward from Atlanta was selected the tourney's Most Valuable Player after scoring 38 points in 38 minutes of playing time off the bench in Tech's momentous triumphs over UConn and Texas Tech. Muhammad, who also garnered ACC Player of the Week honors, had a game-high 22 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes against the Huskies and 16 points and four assists in the victory over the Red Raiders.

Now Muhammad and his Tech teammates have everyone buzzing about the Jackets.

Around the East

  • After Tech toppled UConn in the NIT, second-ranked Duke squandered an opportunity to claim the top spot in the polls when it suffered a 78-68 loss to Purdue in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout. The loss also proved to be the only blemish on what otherwise was a perfect November run for the ACC, which went 30-1 during the month.

    "Purdue deserved to win tonight," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Raleigh News & Observer. "We played hard. We just didn't execute like we can or have to. I don't know if we can."

    Krzyzewski also lost one of his players on the way back from Alaska, when sophomore center Michael Thompson, a 6-10, 245-pounder from Joliet, Ill., who had played in three of Duke's four games (2.3 ppg, 0.3 rpg), announced his decision to transfer.

  • Good thing the loss to Purdue didn't count in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or else it would've been Duke's first in the series.

    Duke (4-0) and Wake Forest (4-0) are the only unbeaten teams from the ACC, while Michigan State (3-0) and Indiana (2-0) rank as the only undefeated Big Ten squads. Interestingly enough, they will square off against each other in this year's event. Duke, which has never played a home game in the ACC-Big Ten Series, will travel to East Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday to face the host Spartans, while Wake Forest will play host to Indiana on Tuesday night.

  • Vermont, the America East preseason favorite, almost pulled off a monumental upset at UCLA over the weekend. The Catamounts (0-3) led the Bruins by 11 at halftime, 34-23, got a career-high 38-points from Taylor Coppenrath, including a game-tying 3-pointer that made it 67-67, only to succumb to a free throw by UCLA's Ryan Hollins with 4.8 seconds left and an errant trey by T.J. Sorrentine at the final buzzer.

    Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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