Getting back up again: Xavier's Edmond Sumner having breakout season
CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner's Dell laptop was old and slow and heavy. It took forever to boot up, so he had to start it before he arrived at Detroit Country Day School if he had any hope of taking notes in class. Lugging it around, it was as if someone dropped a manhole cover in his backpack. He just wanted a MacBook, but this was a very expensive craving. So, like any decent point guard, he began probing for options.
This led Sumner to craigslist.org. There, he found his MacBook; it was a few years old, but only $350. It was slow, too, so he researched ways to address this. He found that a solid-state hard drive would speed up the machine. Upgraded RAM would make it flow smoothly. He ventured to a MicroCenter outlet and secured the new drive for $60 and the RAM for half that. Now it needed to be installed, but this part was free of charge: He intended to do it himself.
"If you know what you're doing," Sumner says now, "it's pretty easy."
He perused a couple Internet videos and articles and maybe an hour later, Sumner had his machine of choice, for roughly a third of the price. Over time, this story has evolved into a folk legend about No. 5 Xavier's redshirt freshman point guard, as if he deconstructed a laptop to the microchip before rebuilding it. It was simpler than that, even if it now means he is expected to solve all of his friends' tech crises. But Sumner's most outstanding feat this year isn't unfreezing a screen or rescuing a paper after a software crash, nor even leading a team with viable hopes of the first Final Four bid in program history.
The most amazing thing he's done this year is fall and get up, when everyone feared he wouldn't.
If there was a nagging question about coach Chris Mack's team, which returned eight regulars from a 23-win squad that reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, it was the vacancy at point guard created by the graduation of Dee Davis, a diminutive cog whose savvy was as valuable as his production (6.0 assists per game last year). The logical replacement was Sumner, despite a true freshman campaign that was halted after just six games by chronic knee tendinitis.
At this stage, Sumner is not a fully formed floor maestro; though his assist rate of 24% leads Xavier, his raw numbers are but a decent 3.3 dimes per a game, and his Win Shares total of 1.9 ranks sixth on the roster. Still, he stands out from his predecessor in other ways, mostly because he is shifty enough to collapse a defense and tall enough to survey options when he does. And he can finish on his own: Sumner's 10.9 points per game rank second among the Musketeers. "He's quick as a cat, and he's not quick because he's 5'9"," Mack says. "He's dang near 6'6" and he's long and has the ability to get in the lane. I think you're going to continue to see a guy that gets better with experience, making the right play nine out of 10 times, instead of now, six or seven times out of 10. But his size, his quickness, you can't teach it."
Or as Xavier's leading scorer Trevon Bluiett says: "He's a pro a few years down the line. To be able to have an extra go-to guy at the point position that presents mismatches and stuff like that, I think that's very vital."
Sumner, the youngest of three siblings, has been tested since childhood. Either his older brother, Ernest, made him cry during one-on-one battles—"I hated to lose," Sumner says, "and he'd just rub it in my face"— or his father, Ernest Sr., challenged him by playing him well above his grade level. Sumner doesn't remember competing with anyone his age until he was 12.
At Detroit Country Day, which counts Chris Webber and Shane Battier as alums, Sumner became a four-star prospect known for his combo-guard potential and his reticence. "Probably won't realize I'm in the room," Sumner says, "if you don't see me." Sumner says he loved Country Day coach Kurt Keener but "barely talked to him at all" upon his arrival there. The Xavier coaching staff could relate, soon after it began to woo Sumner.
"He was a clam when he was on his recruiting trips here," Mack says. "He was death to talk to on the phone."
His new teammates in Cincinnati fared no better. "When we first got on campus last year, he wouldn't say anything to you," says sophomore guard Larry Austin Jr. Classmates needed a couple weeks to wring a few syllables out of Sumner. But Austin Jr. pried more out of his taciturn teammate more swiftly than others: Sumner craved fast food, and Austin Jr. could drive him to get it. "That's the only way he would talk to me, if I was taking him to Wendy's or McDonald's right up the street," Austin Jr. says.
While reserved, Sumner is not disengaged. Sitting out for the bulk of 2014–15 frustrated him, but he maximized a bad situation by observing mistakes from the sideline and filing them away so he could avoid them down the line. Recently, coaches pushed Sumner to play off two feet in the lane, so his 183-pound frame better withstands bumps that might lead to turnovers; Sumner almost immediately tried to implement that technique. And when Xavier is running back after a make or miss, Sumner is now attempting to choreograph the transition defense, barking orders to teammates instead of just pointing.
"I want him to be a quarterback of a basketball team," Mack says. "The quarterback can't be silent. If you want to be a quiet guy off the floor, more power to you. But I don't know many really good point guards that aren't vocal."
Sumner believes Xavier's chances for a deep NCAA tournament run rely on his continued, rapid improvement. He wants to become the sort of point guard a team can't live without. And he is much happier establishing that value on the floor. He has wasted far too many hours wondering if he will return to it.
He can't remember the fall. He was standing in the corner at Villanova on New Year's Eve, shooting a three-pointer. And the next thing he recalls is waking up in an ambulance with Christa Austin, Larry Austin Jr.'s mother, handing him a phone.
On the other end was a familiar sound: His mother's voice. Then his father's. But he cannot tell you what they said. Time skipped again like a scratched record, and he was in a hospital bed. He thinks someone there showed him a video of what happened, but he isn't sure. A lot of that night was lost the dark.
"I don't really like thinking about it," he says.
Not two and a half minutes into a Dec. 31 game at The Pavilion, Villanova's on-campus gym, Sumner sprinted up the right side of the floor during a three-on-two break. He received a pass from senior Remy Abell and rose up toward the rim, with the Wildcats' Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins converging. Hart leapt to defend the shot, but turned his body in mid-air, missing Sumner completely. Jenkins likewise elevated, but he did not turn, and his 240-pound frame collided with Sumner.
Upon contact, Sumner's body went parallel to the floor. Had he landed on his left hip, he might have been fine. Instead, as he lay there, Jenkins crashed-landed on his head. When the bodies untangled, one remained on the floor. Sumner's head was turned to the left and still. His arms bent at 90-degree angles, elbows on the hardwood. His hands froze with fingers extended. Jalen Reynolds, Xavier's junior center, walked over to help his teammate and brushed Sumner's right hand, before pulling his own hand back.
"His eyes were in the back of his head, his hands were shaking," Austin Jr. says.
"Fear," Mack says. "I was very fearful for his life. I thought he was paralyzed. I've never felt that way."
"I didn't think it was going to be that long until he woke back up," senior forward James Farr says.
In the first moments after the fall, Sumner was not responsive. Soon, he acknowledged the voice of Xavier trainer David Fluker. A doctor on the scene subsequently asked Sumner to squeeze his hand. Sumner couldn't at first. Once he did, maybe a minute later, the doctor asked Sumner if he could wiggle his toes. Sumner raised a foot. "You felt such joy," Mack says.
After several minutes, medical personnel immobilized Sumner on a board and put a blue brace around his neck. At that point his teammates were called over. When they arrived, Austin Jr. reached out to his friend. Sumner asked who had taken his hand. Later, he wouldn't remember that, either.
"We all cried," Austin Jr. says. "We wanted to win that game for him but it was so emotional, we couldn't even play."
That Villanova immediately went on a 13–0 run after the incident, on the way to a 95–64 victory, was ultimately immaterial. As the medics rolled Sumner's stretcher off the floor and along the track around it to the waiting ambulance, Mack made his way to the Fox broadcast table in hopes of passing an update to Sumner's parents through announcers Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. A Xavier assistant trainer accompanied Sumner in the ambulance, along with Christa Austin and Laura Davis, the mother of Musketeers guard Myles Davis. Updates flowed between the hospital and the gym all night. Xavier players were apprised of Sumner's status at halftime. They may have felt helpless, but they knew their teammate had avoided the worst.
Sumner rejoined the team that night for the charter flight home after his hospital visit—"I don't remember even getting tested for anything," he says—and teammates woke him up every three hours that night as a precaution against a concussion turning into anything worse.
For the next few days, Sumner alternated between sleep and recovery. "I couldn't really do anything else," he says. He would miss Xavier's next three games. Most of his rehab involved dizziness testing: shaking his head up and down, sitting down and standing up fast. He got headaches from the exercises, but they faded, and Sumner returned to action against Marquette on Jan. 16. He was worried about being tired, about reacquainting with game speed. That was nevertheless preferable to worrying about losing another year at the end of the fall. "It was just good to play with my teammates," Sumner says. "That makes my day."
A tech genius and burgeoning computer science major gets all manner of requests. Some are mundane, such as the time Austin Jr.'s wireless connection went on the fritz. "It took me two seconds to connect it," Sumner says, "and he acted like I did something magical." And sometimes the pleas for assistance are more ambitious, such as when Brody Bluiett, Trevon's 7-year-old brother, approached Sumner to solve a power port problem with his PS4.
"He thought (Sumner) was like one of those guys who works at the GameStop," Trevon says. The issue, of course, was beyond Sumner's expertise. Can't help you with that one, he told Brody.
As Sumner says: It's easy if you know what you're doing. And while Xavier's point guard still doesn't always know what to do, be it in defensive rotations or in game console repair, he's getting there. The sooner he does, the better his program's odds for that Final Four breakthrough come April.
So it's the way up that Edmond Sumner concerns himself with these days. He's not thinking about coming down.