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Rebounding for life and sport

1/5/2011

PASADENA -- There was a time, not too long ago, when it was thought that Steven Adams might not ever have the opportunity to step foot out on the basketball court and play again.

Approximately two years ago, unexpected spells of double-vision and headaches signaled significant problems for the promising young prospect from Pasadena High. A pair of visits to the family physician as a precautionary measure followed and revealed Adams had a life-threatening situation developing internally, dangerously close to his brain, of all places.

Emergency surgery was necessary, and fortunately, successful.

The rehabilitation process thereafter was long and arduous.

His desire, however, to get back on the hardwood never wavered.

Close to a full recovery these days, Adams recently made a triumphant return to the starting lineup and is consistently contributing for the Bulldogs. Furthermore, the 6-foot-9 and 250-plus pound senior post player is beginning to show flashes of his former self.

“Life was hard at first, after the surgery,’’ Adams said. “I couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, I had to learn how to feed myself again, tie my shoes and brush my teeth. Play basketball too. But I’m feeling good again, especially on the court. I’m just trying to get my handles back, my jumper back, my agility, my timing. Good thing is, it’s coming, I can feel everything coming back.’’

Adams first noticed signs of trouble back in mid-January of 2009. He was hustling to get back on the defensive end of the floor against crosstown rival Muir, and suddenly, felt a bit different. Adams wasn’t winded or necessarily tired. Nevertheless, something was amiss.

He proceeded to motion toward the coaching staff and immediately headed over to the trainer. The 70-52 Pacific League victory over the Mustangs was an afterthought, the only post-game concern appeared to be about the mysterious condition of the Bulldogs’ big man.

The next day, he checked into the hospital. There was little, or no, hesitation. And the initial test results came back negative. Adams was given a clean bill of health.

Less than a week later, the symptoms ended up resurfacing.

A more thorough observation was performed this time around. After undergoing a CAT scan and an MRI, a rather startling discovery was made: Adams was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an abnormal connection between the veins and arteries.

In laymen’s terms, a large mass had formed behind his right eye and was putting an uncommon amount of additional pressure on his brain. Not good, not at all.

Suddenly, fighting for rebounding position with his opponent did not matter quite as much. Adams was about to embark on a much more important fight, one for his life.

He came out of the surgery, a two-day and nearly 10-hour affair, relatively unscathed. Considering the magnitude of the procedure, Adams was fortunate.

Recovering at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles was the next order of business. Day after day, Adams worked diligently toward regaining lost strength, both mentally and physically. Finally, he was released from the facility in April of 2009 and headed home.

Whether he likes it or not, Adams is reminded of his past struggles on a regular basis. He need not look any further than the mirror for signs of the traumatic experience. A blatantly obvious scar runs along his right side, from the top of his head to the temple of his ear. That is, unless he puts on a headband before the opening tip to cover up the unmistakable mark.

“For Steven to have gone through all of the things he has, and for him to be doing so good, it’s a blessing, that’s all I can say,’’ said Tyra Adams, his mother. “God has a plan for him. He’s living proof that you can do whatever you put your mind to.’’

Doctors were skeptical about whether Adams would be the same type of player he was before learning about his AVM. We are, after all, talking about an individual who was on the radar of numerous NCAA Division I schools as an underclassman.

Adams burst onto the varsity scene as a sophomore due in large part his 6-7 and 220-pound frame. He provided Pasadena with a tremendous presence underneath the basket, on both ends, and keeping him on the bench proved to be a tough task.

A productive stint on the summer circuit only strengthened his standing in the eyes of the powers that be. Several Pac-10 Conference programs, most notably UCLA and USC, took notice of his upside and were in constant contact with Adams as a result.

“Steven Adams has been with us since his freshman year and you could tell right away he was one of those special athletes,’’ Pasadena coach Tim Tucker said. “He could throw a football, hit a baseball, he was a freak athlete. At one point, Steven was one of the country’s top power forwards. I was talking to college coaches about him all the time. He was on his way.’’

Then, things took a decided turn for the worse.

First, he underwent surgery, seemingly out of nowhere.

An unusually long layoff from any on-court activity certainly didn’t help matters much.

Out of shape upon his return to the Bulldogs, Adams had a difficult time adjusting to the speed of the game, and subsequently, missed a majority of his junior season. Last year, he was essentially lost in the shuffle, with a role that was never truly defined.

The uncertainty prompted him to apply for a hardship waiver from the CIF-State office. Accordingly, Adams was granted a fifth year of eligibility in September.

“I had heard about the name Steven Adams a while back, he was a borderline phenom then. In the past couple of weeks, we ’re finally beginning to see his big-time potential again,’’ said Greg Newell, the son of legendary basketball coach Pete Newell, who was well-known for working with post players at his annual Big Man Camp in Hawaii before his death in 2008.

The younger Newell has been helping Adams fine-tune his overall skill set for quite some time now, and given his family lineage, his guidance is immeasurable.

“Steven is at about 85 percent at this time, but I think he’s about to make a quantum leap,’’ Newell added. “My dad used to say: ‘You drive for show, you put for dough.’ Everything we’re doing right now is in preparation for the end of the year. We just got off the range, just got off the tee-box, we’re right in the fairway and we’re approaching the green…

“Honestly, I don’t know how many people can say that they have actually come back from brain surgery, I mean, it doesn’t happen often. You can come back from a knee, or some other kind of injury, but not brain surgery. That’s just a testament to his fortitude, his character. Steven is a great story, one of those incredible stories, and I want it to have a happy ending.’’

All signs point to things heading in the right direction.

Make no mistake, Adams hasn’t posted many eye-opening statistical efforts for the Bulldogs this season. Double-double efforts have been hard to come by. He has made the most of his second chance though, and there is no possible way to underscore just how important that fact has been for him, as well as everyone closely associated with program at Pasadena.

Adams is indeed a fixture in the middle once again. Never was that more apparent than at last week’s Holiday Hardwood Invitational at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High when he made things difficult for opponents each time they made their way into the paint.

“When Steven went into the hospital, it was a big shock. Now that he is back, and playing again, it’s amazing,’’ Tucker said. “I think he still has the talent to play Division I basketball. He’s one hell of a player, hell of a kid. To make it this far, almost all of the way back, we’re excited for him. We’re excited to see what life has in store for him in the future.’’

Moving forward, Adams & Co. figure to turn their collective attention toward Pasadena’s league opener on Tuesday night against visiting Glendale at 5 p.m.

Beyond that, the Bulldogs, who are annually a postseason contender, appear poised to make a run in the Southern Section playoffs.

“I’m working hard every day and every night,’’ Adams said. “I’m trying to get back to 100 percent, get my shape right, get back to being a top recruit. I want to show everyone what I can do, show them that Steven Adams is still around and strong as ever.

“I want to be the person everyone looks up to, the person my teammates can go to in the clutch, just like I was before my surgery. I was that dude for my team. I was the man on campus, everyone could follow the leader, that’s the player I want to be again.’’

So far, so good. And if the past is any indication of what the future could potentially hold, odds are Adams will most likely overcome anything put in front of him.

He has given onlookers no reason to think otherwise thus far.