By Joe Lemire
January 27, 2010

After Ohio State's Evan Turner crashed to the court following a dunk attempt against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 5, his lower back absorbing the brunt of the impact, Turner's career flashed before his eyes.

Turner was taken to the hospital and the news was grim -- he suffered a transverse process fracture of two vertebrae, which affects rotational movements. Later that evening, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta, a veteran of back problems, visited Turner in the hospital and told his star player, "I don't care if you never play another second here. I'm more concerned about your long-term health."

Then, Matta recalls with a laugh, "I went home and slept like a baby -- I woke up every two hours and started crying."

Turner's long-term plan, of course, includes the NBA, but he was also the primary reason the Buckeyes were 7-1 and No. 13 in the country at the time of his injury. Turner already had two triple-doubles -- one more than had been recorded in the previous 112 years of Ohio State hoops history -- and entering the Eastern Michigan game had been leading the team in points (20.6 per game), rebounds (12.9) and assists (6.6) while averaging 35.1 minutes.

With its team ravaged by early matriculation to the NBA -- Matta is quick to point out that, in the old days, his starting five this year would have been Turner, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook and Kosta Koufos -- and two lost scholarships due to poor academic performance, Ohio State's prospects without Turner seemed bleak

Ohio State trainer Vince O'Brien says a transverse process fracture is an unusual basketball injury and is more commonly found in impact sports such as football. Figuring that the bone would take four to six weeks to heal and that it would take Turner at least another two weeks to regain his strength, conditioning and flexibility, Ohio State announced that Turner would likely miss eight weeks, a devastating loss carrying well into Big Ten play. The Buckeyes had 12 games in that time, including eight conference games and two nonconference bouts against ranked teams.

"There wasn't a lot in the literature about this injury," O'Brien said. "I hate to say we made it up as we went along, but as he responded to what we were doing, we were able to do more the next day."

Teammate and roommate Jon Diebler says the first few days after Turner's injury were "rough" because "he was upset that he was letting his team down." That's the attitude that has led Matta to call Turner "the most ultracompetitive kid I've ever coached." Still, the coach stressed caution, having undergone two major surgeries to repair disk problems in his back. (Matta still has nerve damage that affects his right foot and requires him to wear a leg brace.)

Of course, Diebler had it rough those first few days, too. Turner's mom, Iris James, drove from Chicago to Columbus to take care of her son during the day, but if Turner needed something in the middle of the night, he'd wake up his roommate, rather than his mother, sometimes stirring Diebler at 3 a.m.

But Turner's injury wasn't all bad for Diebler. "I benefited from it, because his mom was cooking meals for us," he said.

Turner tried to pass the time with extra reading, mostly books recommended to him by the coaching staff, including Tony Dungy's Uncommon. Turner did his best to keep in good humor but soon discovered that, judging by their usual greeting, friends and fans had seemingly changed his first name from Evan to "Are you playing tomorrow?" He tweeted that "only superman tim tebow could play with a broke back."

(Even his teammates got in on the fun. Senior reserve guard Mark Titus, author of the popular Club Trillion blog, wrote that the weeks of Turner's injury will forever be known as the "Brokeback Era" of Turner's career.)

But within five days Turner was already working out on an underwater treadmill and dribbling every free moment on dry land. O'Brien had Turner do 40 minutes of exercise daily, to mimic the length of a game, alternating between aerobic and anaerobic work, the latter of which was broken up into "four-minute wars," replicating the intervals between television timeouts.

As Turner wrapped up his first anaerobic session, he told O'Brien, "[The game] went into overtime. Let me go one more minute." Says O'Brien, "At that point I knew he might come back a little sooner than we anticipated."

From there Turner's rehab work continued to an exercise bicycle, then the elliptical machine, a treadmill and finally onto the court. He could lightly lift weights. And, of course, he could dribble. While the team practiced, he'd be on the sideline bouncing the ball over and over and over.

"Evan always finds a way to work on his game," Diebler says. "That's what makes him such a special player."

Once Turner regained his range of motion, O'Brien devised activities to help regain his flexibility and strength. Then he could play basketball in a controlled environment: individual shooting, team offensive drills with no defense or contact and then, finally, full practice.

A few days before Ohio State's Jan. 6 home game against Indiana, the team physician gave Turner medical clearance to return to the court after missing just six games (half of the original estimate). Now all he needed was clearance from his mother.

Hearing that her son intended to return to action so far ahead of schedule, James again drove the nearly six hours from Chicago to Columbus to watch Turner practice.

Though Turner insists he would have played anyway ("I felt like I been out too long already," he says), the point was moot because James, suitably convinced that her son was ready, gave her blessing.

O'Brien says he ordered a special, tight-fitting Nike undershirt with a little bit of padding -- not unlike the undershirt he wore even before the injury -- but otherwise Turner has no restrictions.

"He was in unbelievable shape before he got hurt," O'Brien said, "so I think that allowed him to recover much quicker."

And Turner couldn't wait to return. O'Brien says he was impressed at how well Turner visualized himself on the court while watching from the sidelines and how he'd break down in excruciating detail what he would have done in certain situations. So eager was Turner to play that, before his first game back, Matta was watching old tape of the Buckeyes' game against Florida State and saw something he wanted to share with his player. He called Turner, who answered the phone in his apartment, where he was already watching tape of the same game.

The Buckeyes were eager, too, after going 3-3 without Turner. The wins came against Cleveland State, Delaware State and Presbyterian. In its three losses, Ohio State averaged just 57.7 points per game against nationally ranked Butler and Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Michigan.

Turner returned in an ideal situation, playing 20 minutes in a 25-point rout of Indiana. And he even dunked once, helping overcome any lingering doubts after the way he was injured. "I don't feel any hesitation," Turner says. "I just go out there and play. That's the only thing I can do. I don't really get nervous on the court."

His real first test came six days later on the road at then-No. 6 Purdue, in which he scored every point of a 14-2 late second-half run to turn a 10-point deficit into a two-point lead en route to a 70-66 upset win. In that game he scored a career-high 32 points, to go with nine rebounds and three assists.

Purdue coach Matt Painter compared Turner's versatility to that of NBA great Scottie Pippen, and Boilermakers' defensive specialist Chris Kramer said Turner is "the best player I've ever guarded. He looks like he's loose with the ball, but he has it on a string. He can spin in the lane, he can shoot it and has a nice pull-up. He has everything working for him. He's a stud."

Turner, who has won four Big Ten Player of the Week awards in six healthy weeks of competition, is likely the country's single most valuable player to his team and may be Kentucky point guard John Wall's stiffest competition for national player of the year (for more on this subject, check out Andy Glockner's piece on Turner). After falling out the national rankings, the Buckeyes are back at No. 20, having gone 4-2 since Turner returned, losing only a pair of road games, at Minnesota and No. 9 West Virginia.

If the original eight-week estimate had been correct, Turner would only be returning on Sunday for the rematch with Minnesota. Instead, the competitive player and his aggressive rehab won over his empathetic coach and protective mother to turn Ohio State back into a serious contender.

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