|Friday, January 3
Carey recovering one painful day at a time
By Andy Katz
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Few people outside his close circle of friends see Senque Carey's grimaces when he struggles to get out of bed, put on a shirt or bend down to tie his sneakers.
Few people aside from his girlfriend, Nadia Steed, or good friend Reggie Cooks see Carey wince upon each sudden turn and stop Cooks' car makes as he drives Carey on daily errands.
No, this isn't what the public, teammates, coaches and New Mexico Lobos fans see from the fifth-year senior point guard. Instead, we get only a snapshot of his recovery, a glossy version that hides the blemishes of Carey's real and constant pain.
What we all see is Carey at a shootaround on Sunday, yelling instructions as if he's a member of Ritchie McKay's coaching staff. Carey can only shuffle onto the court to stand and make passes to his teammates for jump shots, and it's obviously trying for him to bend ever so slightly to make bounce passes into the post.
He's doing all this while dressed in jeans and a sweater. And during the game later that day against Pepperdine, Carey sits on the bench -- standing only on a few occasions -- unable to move from his reserved spot on the sidelines while shouting instructions to his replacements at the point: Javin Tindall, Ryan Ashcraft and Jeff Hart.
Carey puts on a good face for those outside his circle, continuing the perception that he's feeling better than he really is at this point. But ...
"It's really hard being an athlete and having the basics of life being taken away," says Cooks.
Two games into the season, Carey's life changed dramatically when he took a charge against Northwestern State. The impact sent him curling to the court. He didn't hit his head or his neck. He just crumpled to the floor.
"My body just went numb," Carey says. "I was conscious, but I was so worried about my body. I was shocked I couldn't move. I remember the burning in my shoulders. I lied there and said to myself, 'My arms ain't moving and neither are my legs.' I just said I was going to lie there for a while and hopefully the feeling would come back in my fingers."
Fortunately, the feeling eventually did return to Carey's extremities after suffering the spinal injury that left him with temporary paralysis on Nov. 25. The initial fear was that he would be permanently paralyzed or immobile for months. Steed even researched how to make their rented home in Albuquerque wheelchair-accessible. She checked into a ramp to the front door, handle bars for the bathroom, and she even started clearing space for a wheelchair to manuever.
Fortunately, the feeling in Carey's arms and legs did return in the days following Nov. 25. So did Carey's range of motion after exhaustive rehab of three hours daily. Remarkably, he was wheeled down the Pit ramp on Dec. 8 and stood for his teammates. But Carey says doctors at Stanford's Medical Center told him two weeks ago that his recovery is still only 50 percent. He had thought he was 80 percent back.
"The blessing of seeing him there (Dec. 8) was that he could stand up. Now he can walk," McKay said. "I was there when he was lying in the hospital three days after it happened. The doctor was hitting him with a rubber mallet -- so close it looked like abuse -- and there was no response."
Upon learning of Carey's injury, Crooks flew to Albuquerque to act as Carey's driver during the holidays before returning to San Francisco to resume his job as a third-grade teacher. Cooks has been a friend since the two were 10, before they became teenage teammates for the AAU Bay Area Ballers.
"He just wants to be on the sidelines helping coach this team," Cooks says. "He just wants to be around the team, but he's in a lot of pain. His girlfriend had to help him put on a shirt. For him to even get on the floor to rest and stretch his back was a struggle. He stayed on his hands and knees for about five minutes before he could straighten out and lay down."
"He didn't realize that when he was lying down for two weeks how much impact that had on his spine," Steed said. "He really thought he would get up, recover and play right away. He's only at 50 percent. He can't even feel his calves. He's got pain in his back. This is going to be a longer recovery than he thought."
Surgery to remove two herniated discs is set for Jan. 27 at the Stanford Medical Center, a few miles from Carey's hometown of East Palo Alto, Calif. The procedure will slow Carey's recovery time but ultimately give him the chance to have a normal, upright and pain-free life.
"I held my legs up to the doctor at Stanford and he just pressed them down," Carey said. "I can't turn my neck. It's like when you sleep wrong on your neck. I'm like a 99-year-old man driving on the freeway, and no one would want that. My legs are fine, but my back and upper body is hurting. I take Tylenol but that's about it. I've been real frustrated.
"I'm nervous about the surgery, but of course I want to play with my kids some day. I've got to have the surgery regardless of whether I ever play or not. My spine has so much pressure on it that if someone just rear-ended me, I could be paralyzed for good."
During his Dec. 8 appearance at the Pit, Carey, with the help of a team manager, took 100 shots in a stationary position. The emotional moment of Carey standing and taking shots left an almost Superman-like impression on his team. Here was their starting point guard coming back from paralysis. He apparently looked like he wasn't that far removed from getting back on the court.
"I'm not sure how smart that was," Carey says. "I'm paying for it now. I get dizzy now if I stand on one foot. If I do that I could fall over. I can walk straight and walk up and back, but not if I close my eyes."
Carey says he'll wear a neck brace for a few months following the surgery. He said he was told it could take up to a year, possibly longer, for the nerve endings to heal.
"I've got burning in my shoulders and in my hamstring still," Carey says. "If I had stayed standing up all day, then by 4 o'clock I'd be done. The hardest part is the stamina and my nerves."
Ironically, Carey suffered a similarly freakish injury when he was in high school, which left him with momentary paralysis. He says that incident, which didn't occur on the basketball court, was more muscular, like a back spasm.
The two incidents haven't been connected by doctors. But both are too real, not to mention too scary, for the New Mexico staff to consider allowing Carey back on the court. He originally talked about a comeback -- this season -- when he was first injured. But such talk has cooled with the reality of his pain and the need for surgery.
"It's beyond the liability issues," McKay said. "The vision of him tightening up on the floor is scary. I don't think I would have wanted that when he was talking about coming back. Honestly, how do you tell a kid, 'Get over there and take a charge,' when the last time he did it he couldn't move.
"I don't want to be around to see that. My motivation for him wasn't to see him return to play, but to see him walking. I'd rather him not play again."
Carey still wants to someday play basketball again. He says he might be able to return to the game he loves within 18 months after surgery. It's a goal, but where? He averaged 8.4 points for the Lobos last season, and 9.6 points in two seasons at Washington before transferring. Assuming his health allows him to attempt a comeback, getting a pro gig overseas would be tough what with the legal issues facing any team that wants to sign him. That's why coaching is the most logical step.
McKay has offered Carey a position on the New Mexico staff for next season. Carey has one semester remaining to graduate, although he must make up some classwork he missed last semester while he was hospitalized.
Steed is adamant Carey will get his degree, even if he has to rehabilitate in the Bay Area instead of Albuquerque. But struggling isn't new for Carey, who never knew his father while his mother raised him.
"He never had a lot in life, so this is just another struggle for him to get through," Cooks said.
Carey certainly has captivated the Lobo basketball community. And he has received plenty of support from around the country, too.
Cards flowed into his hospital room from all over the United States. He has been an inspiration for his teammates, coaches and anyone who has come into contact with him. His infectious smile lights up a room. When the local television broadcast team asked him to do five minutes of on-air analysis for the second half of the New Mexico State game last month, Carey stayed for the whole 20 minutes.
"He just kept going and we weren't going to tell him to stop," said analyst Nelson Franse. "How could you? He was pretty good."
"He's got a tremendous feel for the game," McKay said. "Through all of this, he has become a friend. And never did I see him feel sorry for himself.
"He is a leader for us. I know he's not out of the woods yet. But he's got a chance to restore normal movement. That's all we want, and I know he'll be in this game and make a successful coach."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.