Prepare for takeoff
Coming off career-threatening injury, sophomore guard Branden Dawson now ready to take flight
Spartan basketball players discuss heading to Germany to take on UConn in this year’s season opener.
As he lay on the floor in pain, Branden Dawson thought he was done.
A former McDonald’s All-American, five-star recruit and member of the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo often has referenced Dawson’s NBA potential, but when he fell to the ground in last year’s regular-season finale March 4 against Ohio State, the star guard instantly wondered if he’d ever play again.
The fears didn’t dissipate later that night when he was diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in his left knee, risking robbing him of the explosive athleticism and leaping ability that had always defined his game.
Average ACL recoveries generally take at least nine months, and the thought of being immobilized for a significant portion of time for someone as active as Dawson seemed unbearable.
But tonight, against all odds, Dawson will lace up his sneakers and take the court at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany as a member of the No. 14 Spartans’ starting five in their season opener against Connecticut (5:30 p.m., ESPN), with nearly all of his astounding leaping ability returned.
It’s a remarkable recovery, three months ahead of schedule and impossible to anticipate, that Izzo describes as “freakish,” and Dawson said is a blessing.
Then-freshman guard Branden Dawson smiles as he runs down the court after dunking the ball. The Spartans defeated the Texas Southern, 76-41, on Nov. 18, 2011 at Breslin Center.
Then-freshman guard Branden Dawson is helped off of the floor after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament Sunday, March 4 at Breslin Center. State News File Photo
MSU head basketball coach, gets a view from the cockpit aboard an in flight C-130 at Ramstein Air Base in Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. Matthew Mitchell/ MSU Athletic Communications
Then-freshman guard Branden Dawson dunks the ball. Dawson had 13 points and three rebounds in the Spartans' 76-41 victory over the Texas Southern on Nov. 18, 2011 at Breslin Center. State News File Photo
“I think he’s bionic. He’s the $6 Million Man,” Izzo said at the team’s media day.
“You look at his knees, you’d say, ‘God, he’s great.’ You look at him run, you’d say, ‘Jeez, he’s great.’ He’s gotten stronger. He’s a specimen. … He’s shown no signs of anything, and I hope it stays that way.”
Embracing battle scars
Russell Byrd knows what it’s like to be unable to move.
The sophomore guard has been forced to sit for most of his MSU career, as he’s worked to overcome three foot surgeries.
“When people get hurt, especially when you’re up here in college and you’re playing basketball and you love basketball, when that gets taken away from you, it’s a hard thing to handle,” Byrd said.
“I didn’t want to see him go through the same thing that I went through. I was dumb, I was too eager to get back and get over my injury. I just wanted him to take his time and make sure he was healthy because this is his future. … I just wanted him to do it right and make sure he didn’t hurt himself again.”
It didn’t take long for Byrd to notice his fellow guard making some of the same mistakes he made while rehabilitating his injury, as Dawson said his battled depression and lost muscle mass was greeted with advice.
“When he was going through his injury, (he said) he was late showing up to the sessions with our trainer, he wasn’t coming on time, he was missing class and blaming it on his injury,” Dawson said of Byrd.
The message hit home for Dawson, who began to re-engage with the team and saw his recovery improve considerably, and Byrd said there’s no doubt his teammate’s accelerated recovery can be traced, in part, to his adjusted mindset.
“When he first got hurt, he kind of got a little goofy on us,” Byrd said.
“He got a little quiet, a little distant, and a lot of (us), me included, the coaches, got on him, tried to push him back and lead him on the right path, and he definitely responded well to that, and it’s only helped him in his recovery to be mentally strong and remain with us as a team and not go off and kind of do (his) own thing.”
It was through their shared adversity that a strengthened bond was formed, although Byrd said it wasn’t always that way.
A shared fight
Originally, Byrd thought the only thing the two Indiana natives had in common, in addition to their place of residence, was a love of fighting each other.
“We fight a lot,” Byrd said with a smile.
“We battled a lot (in practice) and (developed) that anger you feel toward each other, but then you realize you’re teammates. … (Now) he’s like a brother to me.”
The battles on the practice floor included a lot of trash talking, which Byrd said both love to dish out, but neither are fond of receiving.
One of the more recent bits of trash talk centered around whether Byrd dunked on Dawson during a summer workout.
Dawson is adamant Byrd “didn’t dunk on me face to face,” but Byrd disagrees and had some support from his teammates.
“He dunked on (Dawson), and it was amazing,” senior center Derrick Nix said with a laugh.
“I got so crazy hype, I was just jumping all over the place because it’s supposed to be the other way around. (Dawson’s) supposed to dunk on Russ, not Russ dunking on (Dawson).”
Still, what’s most important to Byrd is the friendship he’s formed with his fellow Hoosier and the joy he’s gained from being able to lend a hand.
“We’re both Indiana boys. We’ve known each other since high school, and I just care about him a lot,” Byrd said.
“He’s a good friend, and I never want to see anything go wrong. I don’t want to see bad things happen to people, but when they do happen, I just want to be there and try to help them through it and make it a good thing, make them see the bright side of the situation because it’s something that I’ve tried to do with my three surgeries.”
Learning to run again
After months of work spent rehabilitating his knee and mind from the trauma that happened that fateful March day, Dawson was ready to return to the Breslin Center hardwood where all the pain began.
Yet after the second game, Dawson said the brace created tightness around his knee, leaving him feeling as if he was “doing everything slow” and that he’d be faster and quicker without it.
Nix said he yelled at Dawson about running harder after the exhibition finale, and said part of the reason is because it’s hard to remember the injury Dawson is coming back from when watching him leap.
“I keep forgetting that he is coming off an injury,” Nix said.
“At halftime, we watched a couple clips, and I just told him, ‘You ain’t running hard,’ and I told him not only is he costing his team and costing me, but he’s also costing himself because if he runs hard, he could be a lottery pick, and he agreed with me.”
Izzo said the one thing keeping Dawson from taking the next step and breaking out as one of the country’s best is knowing what it truly means to run hard all the time.
“I think he understands that he’s got to run harder,” Izzo said.
“He maybe didn’t know (if he was running his hardest) after the game, but he knew it the next morning when he watched the film and Nix was running by him on the break.
“Now is part of it the leg? No question. I mean he’s learning how to walk again. It’s not that he’s having any problems. (The other day), he played without the brace. Most kids that have injuries like that want to wear the brace. It’s not like he’s afraid. He’s got to learn that his motor’s got to pick up. His RPM’s (revolutions per minute) are running a little shallow of where they need to be, and I think he sees that; I think he knows it. He’s not doing it on purpose; he just doesn’t know the difference.”
To help show Dawson the ideal speed, junior guard Keith Appling suggested having him watch film of former Spartan guards Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager, which Dawson said has made a difference.
“Mo and Shannon were two athletic wings, (and) when I watched them, it was crazy; it was unbelievable the things they were doing on the (fast) break,” Appling said.
“I feel like (Dawson) and (freshman guard) Gary (Harris) have some similar athletic ability, so it might be a great thing for them to see how things were done before their time so they can have a feel of how they’re supposed to be doing.”
Still, Appling said it’s pretty remarkable to watch Dawson with all of his retained athleticism.
“There are some days when I ask myself ‘Did he even get hurt?’ Because he’s doing a lot of the same things that he was able to do before he got hurt,” Appling said.
“Whether it be dunking off two feet, windmilling, catching alley-oops, tip dunks, everything. He bounced back pretty well and a lot faster than anyone expected.”
And for Dawson, all the bad thoughts that raced through his mind are long gone, with his focus squarely on getting back to soaring.
“When I go out for practice or work out or something, I do not think about it,” Dawson said.
“Coach (Izzo) asked me the same thing. Do I think about it? Am I in pain?”
“I’ve been playing since I was 7 years old, so I just go out there, don’t think about it and just play.”