Flying in the Face of Fear
Editor’s Note: This story is part two in a series on Branden Dawson’s return to the court after his accident. Click here for part one.
The scream echoed throughout a Breslin Center stunned into silence.
As he writhed on the floor in pain Sunday night, one phrase kept repeating itself in Branden Dawson’s mind.
“I was here when (former MSU guard Matteen) Cleaves came out for the championship game, but I have to admit my smile was even bigger (Sunday) because I was scared to death that the kid did his knee in again … I can’t explain the emotions of that minute.”
MSU men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo
“That’s like your brother going down, and you’re worried for him because of his well-being. And he’s already been through that injury and it’s the same knee, so a lot of things are running through your head just watching him. Like ‘Man, I hope it’s not the same knee,’ or ‘I hope he’s going to get up.’ So it was good getting to talk to him after the game and say ‘You were scared weren’t you?’ and he said ‘Yeah.’ I said ‘I was too.’”
Sophomore guard Travis Trice
“I was clapping and I probably should have been paying attention to the game. But we need him and that’s like my brother.”
Junior center Adreian Payne
“To be honest, nothing really went through my head. I just prayed. … I didn’t know mentally if he could handle going through this again. Not right now. So I just dropped my head and prayed for God’s will to be done more than anything. I tried not to think the worst.”
Dawson’s former AAU coach and Trice’s father, Travis Trice Sr.
“Please, please don’t let this happen to me again.”
For a moment, the sophomore guard thought his worst fear had become a terrifying reality.
Dawson defied the odds at the beginning of the season in returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in his left knee three months ahead of schedule and with nearly identical, jaw-dropping athleticism and leaping ability.
But as he laid underneath Nebraska’s basket, clutching his knee after being fouled on a fast break layup, many wondered if the seven months spent in rehab went for naught.
Tom Izzo was “crushed,” Adreian Payne was “nervous,” and Derrick Nix was “just praying that he was alright.”
Dawson slowly made his way to the locker room by his own power and began getting his knee examined by doctors Jeff Kovan, Michael Shingles and trainer Quinton Sawyer.
After a couple of defensive slides and jogs down Breslin Center hallways, Dawson sprinted back to the court, returned to the game and received the loudest ovation Izzo can remember, drawing comparisons from the No. 18 Spartans’ head coach to former MSU guard Mateen Cleaves’ dramatic return from injury during the 2000 national championship game.
“It just always reminds me that that’s why he’s (Dawson),” Nix said of his teammate’s return. “He’s a freak of nature. His body is just built differently than everybody in the world. I feel like he’s like LeBron James. He just looks like LeBron.”
It was only three minutes. Three, long, excruciating minutes.
And it was just a scare. No significant injury to speak of.
It also was the one thing Dawson had spent the past 10 months dreading.
Less than two weeks ago, Branden Dawson finally allowed honesty to set in.
After doggedly trying to convince himself it wouldn’t take much to return to the form that made him an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer as a freshman, he finally relented.
“I (had) told myself, ‘it’s not going to be that bad. It’s going to be like a walk in the park,’ and it’s not,” Dawson said. “I feel like, in my mind, I can do certain things, but my body just isn’t there yet.”
It’s been a source of irritation for both Dawson and Izzo, who admitted to struggling in learning how to coach his star guard.
After Dawson scored 15 points with 10 rebounds against UConn in his first game back from injury, Izzo confessed he, similarly to Dawson, had been fooled.
“I think (Dawson’s) been frustrated all year,” Izzo said at his weekly press conference Jan. 7. “I think he thought he could come back from the injury and be the same player. I got fooled a little bit because of the incredible physical skills.
“It’s hard to push a guy when you don’t know how much is injury, and how much is laziness, or (being) inept and that’s a very delicate area right now for me. … I have really not helped him.”
Yet while Izzo wondered how best to assist his sophomore, a former coach lent a helping hand.
A father’s advice
Sophomore guard Travis Trice’s father, Travis Trice Sr., coached both his son and Dawson as teens on the AAU circuit. He developed a close relationship with Dawson after meeting him as a high school sophomore.
Dawson spent the night of his first ACL tear with the Trice family at a restaurant, where the family’s patriarch helped teach his son’s friend about the importance of faith.
“We talked about his faith and his faith in God, and he knew it (would be) a long uphill battle,” Trice said of their conversation that night.
“I can’t imagine how tough it was on him.”
Through their conversations, Dawson began to turn his game around, leaving worries about his knee in the past and focusing simply on playing hard.
“I saw him hanging his shoulders, hanging his head and I didn’t see the smile that is Branden Dawson,” Trice said.
“I just love him as a kid. And I’ve tried to encourage him because you only get this opportunity once for a very short period, so you should enjoy it and take it one day at a time.”
But the actions of one day lingered for several more after the guard’s best game in more than a month drew national headlines for negative reasons.
Playing against home-state school Purdue, Dawson secured his first double-double since the season opener, scoring 14 points and 11 rebounds, but after the game, the focus stayed on whether he attempted to punch Purdue’s junior forward Travis Carroll.
The Big Ten reviewed the play and determined there wasn’t a punishable offense when Dawson said he smacked down on Carroll’s arm to break the hold on his jersey.
In the days that followed, Purdue fans, still furious with Dawson for not choosing to play at Purdue, lit up online message boards, threatening the guard’s surgically repaired knee, leaving him “bummed out.”
The next time he played a game at Breslin Center, for a brief moment, Dawson wondered if others’ wishes had come true.
And although they didn’t, he must once again find a way to learn to play without worrying his knee will fail him again.
It’s a challenge Dawson said he’s now ready to face.
“It makes it very tough because when I did come back in I was just kind of scared a little bit,” he said.
“From here on out, I’m just going to go out there and not think about it and just play.”