As part of the new two-hours-per-week offseason workout allotment, Michigan State players gathered for practice and some refreshers on fundamentals after the usual summertime freewheeling. One drill was simple enough: Two players on the court, running through pick-and-roll motions. Soon, Branden Dawson's turn arrived in what was one of his first sessions since tearing his left ACL in March. Though it was an astonishingly swift comeback, Dawson's teammates knew he was not cleared for contact. They also assumed he had not been cleared for liftoff.
Dawson spun out of the screen he set and dove toward the basket. He remembers Spartans guard Denzel Valentine lofting the ball toward the rim. Everyone else remembers what came next: Dawson, the 6-foot-6-inch swingman, leaping, catching the ball and ramming home a windmill dunk in one breathtaking motion. Months earlier, Dawson cried in a Breslin Center trainer's room and wondered if his career was over. Now teammates cried out, hooting and hollering, calling the sophomore a man-child.
"I was like, wow, you gotta be kidding me," said Spartans guard Travis Trice, Dawson's roommate. "Not just a catch-and-dunk-it. In the air, catch it, then windmill while you're still in the air and dunk it. Everybody was just shocked. Like, 'Did he really just do that?'"
It remains an open-ended question for Dawson and the No. 19 Spartans. Following the ACL tear on March 4, everyone expected more than a few episodes of Dawson's creak. Instead, the knee never swelled. So surgery didn't have to wait and the muscles didn't atrophy. And after some initial bouts with aimlessness, straight talk from coach Tom Izzo inspired a newfound work ethic, Dawson transitioning from throes to throw-downs faster than anyone imagined.
"It changed me in a lot of ways," Dawson said. "My freshman year, I was just taking basketball for granted. I wasn't going to the gym, I was just messing around, messing around in school, messing around with a lot of girls. Just doing things a normal teenage freshman does. I was just taking the game for granted. [The injury] made me realize it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye. I just looked in the mirror, and I told myself I really need to change my ways and change my attitude and change my approach to the game. It can be taken from you."
His numbers aren't striking until you consider the context as a Big Ten-opening showdown with No. 11 Minnesota looms on New Year's Eve. Dawson ranks third on Michigan State in scoring (9.8 points per game), third in rebounding (6.2 per game) and second in minutes (26.5 per night) while shooting 55.4 percent. He offers a versatile, efficient, defensive-minded presence just months removed from the operating table and a summer spent literally treading water: Hours a day of therapy in a pool, as opposed to hours a day honing his jump shot or ball-handling.
Izzo figured Dawson to return in January and return to normal in time for 2013-14. Now, a fully confident and aggressive Dawson could resemble a midseason transfer as Michigan State chases down Ohio State, Michigan, et al. "Everybody just assumes when a guy is in uniform, everything is normal," Izzo said. "And it's not. Michael Jordan couldn't take seven months off and be the same. It's almost like I'm pushing him every day, but I appreciate him every day, because I don't think many guys can do what he's done. It's amazing."
Initially, the knee-to-knee collision that caused the ACL tear had Dawson thinking it was a bad bruise. Then he tried to walk. He could not. In the back, trainer Quinton Sawyer delivered the likely diagnosis that MRIs would confirm later.
Predictably, Dawson felt dread:
Maybe the only person who took it harder than Dawson was Izzo. And maybe that set Dawson on the right path just minutes after a severe swerve. "I've never ever seen coach cry like that, like rushing tears," Dawson said. "He was saying he was sorry and everything, and that kind of shocked me, because he felt like it was his fault. After that, I think I stopped crying. I was like, 'Coach, we're going to get through this.' And I got up and hugged him."
Instantly, Dawson was ahead of schedule. Thanks to the lack of swelling, surgery took place two days after the injury. After a month, team doctor Michael Shingles told Dawson he was three months along. Even before that, days after surgery, Dawson sat in the trainer's room, unwrapped his bandages and extended his knee back and forth. Observing it, Trice asked out loud:
Trice told Dawson he didn't know how lucky he was. And he didn't. Dawson initially arrived late to rehab sessions. He said he missed classes. When teammates practiced, he stowed away in the locker room sending text messages. He'd never been injured before, so the isolation meant dealing with unfamiliar pain on multiple levels. Izzo then called Dawson in for a chat, reduced to a simple message.
"I just felt like since I wasn't playing, what else was I supposed to do?" Dawson said. "I was slacking off... From that point on, I started working hard. I pushed myself."
He spent hours treading water or running in place in a pool. He endured one particularly grueling exercise in which Sawyer, the trainer, spread five balls around him in a circle, ranging in size from a basketball to a tennis ball. Standing only on his injured leg, Dawson had to lean over and touch each ball. If he fell, he had to start over. It was fitting, anyway, that a player rediscovering balance needed to work painstakingly hard for it.
"Everybody is one way until something is taken away from them," Izzo said.
Dawson pled with Izzo all summer to do more, faster. Trice attributed it to his friend's extreme competitiveness and in the face of defeat -- "He'll even try to get personal with you sometimes," Trice said -- and by the time practices opened in October it was Izzo pleading with Dawson to stop dunking so much.
Dawson is nearing full-throttle on all fronts, even asking Trice to study for upcoming tests. Before the season began, Dawson arrived one day to find Adrian Peterson's statistics posted in his locker. He watched a video of the Minnesota Vikings running back's arduous rehab after his own ACL tear and rapid recovery. It is at once an inspiration and a reminder every time Peterson racks up another highlight and Izzo yells at Dawson, "There's your guy!"
"It's a blessing," Dawson said of the injury. "It was an eye opener for me. It was sending a message: You really need to focus, you really need to change yourself and the people around you. It made me realize, this is serious. It's not just a game."
Recently, Dawson and Trice broke down film of a Dec. 15 game against Tuskegee. On the first play of the second half, Dawson lost his man, badly, on a backdoor cut. He recovered in time to pin the shot attempt on the backboard. Trice turned to his friend and noted that, if he had been beat, it was an easy score. But Dawson was gifted enough, months removed from the worst moment of his life, to hustle back and block the shot. Trice wanted Dawson to know how lucky he was. Dawson shrugged. He was angry at getting beat backdoor in the first place. That's B.J., Trice figured. Everything was just getting back to normal.