BUFFALO GROVE, Ill. – Sam Maniscalco prides himself on toughness.
Toughness, leadership and work ethic define him as a basketball player. There may be others who jump higher and possess a quicker first step, but Maniscalco discovered at an early age not everyone is willing to stay in the gym all day to work or fight through pain and fatigue.
It’s why one of the most difficult moments of his career came late last November when he had to admit there was something seriously wrong with his left ankle, and he just couldn’t play on it any longer. While he understood physically it was the right decision to shut himself down six games into Bradley’s season, he struggled with it mentally. In his mind, he was showing weakness and letting his team down.
Six months later, Maniscalco knows he made the right call. On a recent June afternoon, he sat in a foldout chair, sweat dripping down his face after a 50-minute workout with his personal trainer Jeff Pagliocca at Buffalo Grove Fitness Center, and he reflected on six months he’ll never forget.
Since ending his season because of the ankle, his life and his basketball career have taken many unexpected turns. He had surgery in December. It was his second surgery on his ankle in a year’s time. Then following a 12-20 season, his coach, Jim Les, was fired by Bradley. Soon after, Maniscalco decided to transfer to Illinois for his final season.
Through it all, Maniscalco believes he has matured. He made some difficult decisions and fought through adversity. He learned patience. He pushed himself through another grueling rehab. He had to psychologically battle his natural instincts of trying to return to the court sooner than he should.
“I’ve grown up,” Maniscalco said. “Let’s put it that way.”
Part of growing up was adjusting how tough he could be. Throughout his career, there have been times where Maniscalco played when he probably shouldn’t have because of an injury or sickness. He did it while playing at St. Patrick High School in Chicago. He did while playing with his club team, the Illinois Wolves. He played game after game throughout the past two years for Bradley when his body gave him signs he should sit.
His left ankle injury goes back to the summer leading into the 2009-2010 season. He sprained his ankle during a game during Bradley’s overseas trip to Brazil, but he didn’t think much of it at the time. Just before the season began, he rolled his ankle on a teammate’s foot in practice, and the pain worsened.
Throughout the season, Maniscalco had good days and bad days depending on what his ankle allowed. He practiced when he could and tried different treatments. He found ways to play through the games, but barely could walk on the days after.
Maniscalco never complained.
“It was just something I was used to,” Maniscalco said. “I was so used to the pain. That was me. Me on 1 ½ legs. I was used to that. I found a way to play with that. I found a way to play with pain.”
Maniscalco survived his junior season despite the pain and even closed it out with some of his best performances. But once summer arrived, his pain did, too. He tried to rest it by wearing a boot for four months, but that didn’t help. He ultimately opted to have his ankle scoped and hoped to be 100 percent for his final season at Bradley.
Rested and rehabbed, Maniscalco returned to practice shortly before Bradley’s season. Within a few weeks, Maniscalco noticed something was wrong again. His ankle felt unstable. The discomfort had returned. After he played 35 minutes and shot 1 for 8 against Eastern Illinois on Nov. 24, the pain had increased to an even greater level.
A few days later, Maniscalco announced he was ending his season. Dr. Robert Anderson, a nationally-renowned ankle specialist, performed surgery on him in December. Maniscalco had a bone spur shaved off and a piece of cartilage removed. He was told there a 97 to 98 percent chance he would return to the court healthy.
If it was up to Maniscalco, he would have begun rehab right after the procedure. But the way he was going to improve was by resting his ankle and then gradually strengthening it.
“In a way, I had a tough time with patience before I had to go through this,” Maniscalco said. “I’ve learned through this process that I’ve garnered a lot of patience. I’ve realized patience is key in a situation like that.
“It’s hard for me to hold back. Technically, I could be out there playing with contact. The way my body feels, yes, I think I could do it. It’s just not the right time yet.”
Maniscalco’s sessions with Pagliocca this spring began with light jogging workouts and have increased each week. Now, he’s up to nearly an hour of training, sprinting and cutting at full speed. He has yet to play with contact or full court. The plan is to amp up his training when he arrives at Illinois later this month and be 100 percent when the team travels to play in Italy in August.
“Every day we’re getting more work in,” Pagliocca said. “We’re adding five to seven minutes. He’s as committed and competitive to improve as anyone who has come through those doors. He’s making up ground quickly because his mentality is locked into the season.”
The upcoming season provides Maniscalco with a unique opportunity. For his final college basketball season, he has been given the chance to be the starting point guard and a senior leader on a Big Ten team and likely be a key factor in whether the Illini reaches the NCAA tournament.
Maniscalco likes to downplay his role, though.
“I’m not trying to go in there to be the savior, be this, be that, quote unquote the man,” Maniscalco said. “I’m trying to go in there and be myself. Play the basketball I have the last 3 ½ years at Bradley, try to bring some leadership, toughness, hustle, energy. Do anything in my power to help those guys be successful, help that program be successful. I just want to be a part of it.”
What Maniscalco wants even more is to be playing basketball again.
“I haven’t played in so long,” Maniscalco said. “I’m just so excited for the opportunity to get back out there with the guys, sweat again, go through the motion again, be a basketball player again. That’s what I am.
“It’s been a year since I’ve been able to work out in the morning, go rest a little bit, spend my day and come out at night and get 300 shots up. The biggest thing is I want to be able to be a basketball player again. What a basketball player does is he lives in the gym.”