STORRS, Conn. -- UConn senior point guard A.J. Price laughs at the suggestion that there should be a Comeback Player of the Year award created in his honor.
Battling back from adversity has become the defining theme of Price's career with the Huskies. And now the stage is set for Price to recreate himself again.
Six months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his NCAA tournament debut, Price was cleared by doctors Monday to return to practice. He plans on rejoining his teammates in pickup games Tuesday afternoon at Gampel Pavilion, quietly celebrating the moment that has motivated him throughout the rehabilitation process.
UConn trainer James Doran will continue to monitor Price's progress closely. Price says he knows his legs can still get stronger before practice officially begins on Oct. 17, but he will step onto the floor with complete trust in his surgically repaired knee.
"I'll be ready to go," Price says . "I'll [play] like it never happened. We had six months to rehab. Everything was taken gradually because there was no need to rush. I took the biggest steps during the first month [after surgery]. I attacked it pretty well. Now I can see what a difference that makes. The knee is intact. Now it's all about strengthening it."
Bouncing back from ACL surgery can be a grueling process for any athlete. But Price, a senior from Amityville, N.Y., has faced stiffer tests since arriving at UConn in 2004. He missed his freshman season with a life-threatening case of bleeding in his brain caused by arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Then he was suspended for the 2005-06 academic year after his involvement in an incident involving stolen laptop computers.
After two years of inactivity, he struggled during his first season of collegiate competition, falling far short of the reputation he had built as one of the top high school guards in the country. That all seemed well behind him as he prepared to lead the Huskies deep into the 2008 NCAA tournament. Suddenly he was on the floor, holding his knee, grimacing in pain, and staring at six months of strenuous rehab.
"This doesn't bother me at all because it's a different type of comeback," Price says. "After the game, when the doctors and coaches told me I had torn my ACL, they said it's going to be the hardest thing you've had to go through in your life and the most work you have to put in. I've been through AVM. Those are three [scarier] letters."
Before injuring his knee in the first half of UConn's first-round NCAA loss to San Diego, Price had enjoyed a breakout season. He averaged 14.7 points and was second in the Big East with six assists per game. He was a unanimous All-Big East first team selection and was named a second team All-American by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
His play improved so much as a junior there was talk of him entering the NBA draft. The injury eliminated any thought of that. "That talk is hard to ignore," Price says. "I can't lie and say it wasn't in the back of my mind. I was thinking about it, but I was pretty sure I was coming back to school. [During rehab] this year was the most important thing on my mind. I know what type of team we have coming in. There was no way I was missing out on that. I had to be part of it, so I knew how hard I had to work."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun has watched Price in non-contact drills and likes what he sees. "I'm sure he is [quicker] than he's ever been because he has never worked this hard," Calhoun says. "He's a very talented kid but he's never been one to come into the gym and do the kind of things to make himself better. He is not going to remind you of [former UConn guard] Ben Gordon, putting up 500 jump shots a day. He's never done that. He has done that now though."
Price's recovery, along with the return of center Hasheem Thabeet and forward Jeff Adrien, places UConn among the favorites in the competitive Big East. But the optimism goes well beyond that for the Huskies. A recruiting class led by swingman Nate Miles and guard Kemba Walker gives UConn the talent and the depth to contend for the national championship.
"I've been dying; watching this team every day makes me want to get out there even more," Price said. "We've got all the pieces. That's what UConn basketball is all about."
With a healthy Price there will be intense competition for playing time at the perimeter positions. Calhoun will utilize a three-guard lineup with veterans Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie likely joining Price as starters early in the season. But don't be surprised if Calhoun turns to a two-point guard attack by mid-season. It has been a successful formula at UConn in the past, especially when Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore led the Huskies to the 1999 national championship. Walker, a pure point guard who was MVP of the FIBA Americas Under-18 championship tournament this summer, made a brash prediction in July, saying Price "is more of a wing than a point guard," and "I'll be the [point guard] most of the time."
Calhoun will have the final say in that. "Right now, assuming A.J. is healthy, it's Kemba's job to beat out A.J.," Calhoun says. "The good thing is they both can score. Both are quick. And both could be a real pain in the neck to play against -- together."
Price, showing the maturity that comes from all his experiences, said he was impressed by Walker's comments and thought they demonstrated the freshman's hunger to win. That's just one example of why Calhoun likes to say that Price has "gone from a boy to a man" during his time at UConn. Now Price has one more chance to show how far he has come.
"I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Price says. "Everybody goes through some adversity or controversy. What makes a person and what builds character is how you bounce back. I keep my head high all the time.
"It has made it more gratifying, knowing everything I've been through, knowing how may times I could have quit, how many times I could have been kicked to the curb or left aside. That hasn't happened. It has been constant work and constant pushing. And I'm still here."