"Robbie Hummel is in a valley right now," Linda remembers hearing. "But he's going to climb back up that mountain ..."
She thanked Williams after the service. It was something a mother needed to hear on the morning after Robbie had suffered his second ACL tear in less than nine months, which will force him to redshirt a season in which he and fellow All-America-candidate seniors E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson had hoped to finally make a run at a national title. The church insists that everything happens for a reason. But what reason could there be for this latest, cruel twist -- one that robbed one of the nicest players in college basketball of yet another NCAA tournament?
Linda and Glenn had been driving from Valparaiso to West Lafayette on Saturday, the day of Purdue's homecoming football game and its first official basketball practice. Robbie had been cleared to return to the court earlier in the month. "We hadn't seen Rob play since he got hurt [on Feb. 24 against Minnesota]," Glenn said, "so we were hoping to catch the tail end of practice."
With about 30 minutes left in their trip, Glenn's cell phone rang. The caller ID said Jeff Stein, one of Purdue's trainers.
"I talk to Jeff occasionally," Glenn said, "but he never calls me during practice."
"I said, 'Oh, dear god, don't let it be [Robbie's] ACL,'" Linda said. "When I heard Glenn say, 'Oh No,' I knew."
The rest of the drive was miserable. They arrived to find Robbie sitting on the floor of Purdue's Co-Rec center, wearing a knee brace, shellshocked, watching the rest of practice. He'd already received his diagnosis. Linda cried and embraced him. The doctors asked the family if they had any questions about what came next. They didn't. They'd been through the process already. It was just more heartbreaking to begin it a second time.
They went back to Robbie's apartment to watch the football game, and news of the ACL tear was already on the ESPN ticker. They heard of the wave of murmuring and sick stomachs that spread across Ross-Ade Stadium as the story disseminated. They heard it was announced on the PA during Indiana's football game in Bloomington. Robbie had already received hundreds of texts. "I've never seen so much emotion, from so many different groups of people," Linda said. She just felt horrible that Robbie, Moore and Johnson -- who'd arrived at Purdue together in 2007 -- wouldn't be able to make their final run at a Final Four together.
On Monday night, she and Glenn sat in their living room, and his cell phone rang continuously with calls from surgeons in various parts of the country. Robbie had his last surgery -- on his 21st birthday in March -- in Indianapolis, but they were considering all of their options. Virtually everyone they know has offered suggestions, in hopes of facilitating a comeback in 2011-12 (Hummel said he would return to Purdue next season). The Hummels were simultaneously trying to formulate a plan for a mid-November operation, trying to move on, trying to rationalize why this could happen again, trying to fight back tears, trying to have faith.
Robbie Hummel walked into Mackey Arena on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the Boilermakers' 1 p.m. practice had started. He was wearing a large black brace on his right knee, basketball shorts, a North Face fleece and a few days of stubble. He was carrying a Subway sandwich bag, and he sat on the team bench and ate as they worked through the intense defensive drills that typify a Matt Painter practice.
Around 2 p.m., assistant coach Paul Lusk enlisted Hummel to help with a drill. As he stood on the left wing and fed post passes to Purdue's forwards, it was painfully evident just how thin they are now on the blocks. Four big men remain: Johnson, sophomore Patrick Bade (who averaged 1.5 points, 1.6 rebounds last season), redshirt freshman Sandi Marcius and true freshman Travis Carroll. In one pause in the action, Hummel walked over to instruct Carroll on the finer points of either trapping the post or creating a wall in the lane.
Hummel's last move in Saturday morning's practice was to contest a layup by Moore. "I don't think we even made contact," Moore said, "and Robbie landed like normal, flat on two feet, but then ..."
... He crumbled to the ground. And it wasn't like the first ACL injury, when Hummel believed he'd broken his leg. This time, he said, "I knew right away." And there was little anyone could do to console him.
"When you've been through everything you've been through, you run out of things to say," Painter lamented. "I'm sorry isn't going to make it better."
October practice had opened with so much promise -- Hummel said he dreamed that he, Moore, Johnson and the others would be cutting down the nets in Houston in April. That was a realistic goal. The Boilers were Nos. 1, 2 or 3 in nearly everyone's preseason rankings coming off a 29-6 season. They made the Sweet 16 even without Hummel this past March before losing to eventual champion Duke.
Now Hummel has trouble sleeping. "The nighttime is the worst," he said, "because I toss and turn, with a million thoughts running through my head." Thoughts about not being able to finish with his recruiting class, about what he needs to do next, about how he just finished seven months of rehab and needs to start it all over again to be back for next season.
Hummel has looked for silver linings, of which there are a few. The Boilers' roster will still have a decent amount of talent in '11-12, and, as he said, the Big Ten stands to lose a lot of talent after this season, so the title race will be wide open. He'll have time to graduate with a business major, three minors (organizational leadership skills, marketing, and communications) and an entrepreneurship certificate. He'll have time to look into a future in broadcasting. And he'll still be able to help the team this year, albeit in a different capacity.
"I've told them that I'd like to be an extra assistant coach if I can," he said. "I want to help out with scouting, watch tape, do breakdowns of opponents. It'll be good for me, to find out if I like coaching."
Opponents used to have to scheme for Hummel, a 6-foot-8 matchup problem on the perimeter who averaged 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, shooting 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. "He's the guy they always had to worry about," Painter said. "Now we may have to worry about our opponents more than they worry about us. We may have to adjust to them."
Painter outlined one small-ball lineup option that, from watching Tuesday's practice, seems like it would be the way for the Boilers to get the most talent on the floor: Start the 6-10 Johnson at center, 6-6 Kelsey Barlow or 6-5 D.J. Byrd at power forward, and then either 6-2 freshman Terone Johnson or 6-3 freshman Anthony Johnson on the wing, and the 6-4 Moore and 5-9 Lewis Jackson at the two main guard spots.
Terone Johnson is probably the best option on the wing (Painter called him a "playmaker," which they need), and Barlow might be the most intriguing choice at power forward, being that he's long and athletic. But he's also extremely skinny ... and his primary position last year was as a backup point guard. The Big Ten has plenty of size and brawn in its frontcourts this season -- Ohio State has Jared Sullinger, Dallas Lauderdale and Deshaun Thomas; Illinois has Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis; Michigan State has DelvonRoe and Derrick Nix; Wisconsin has Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, and so on -- which may make it hard to play small on a regular basis.
If Purdue opts to go big (or relatively big, at least), the logical new frontcourt starter would be Bade, who added strength in the offseason while also dropping 20 pounds (to 225) in an effort to be more mobile. He's a sort of 4/5 tweener with a face-up game who might be capable of assisting Johnson in the post. In a normal year, Bade would only see spot action off the bench; in the Boilers' current predicament, he's one of the most important players on the roster. Neither Marcius nor Carroll (who are both 6-9) have any college experience, and it would be a stretch to think they could make a major impact this season.
It was easy to rank Purdue before the Hummel injury; the team was clearly one of the top three in the nation. Now? The Boilers probably have to start in the 15-18 range, just because of their frontcourt-depth issues. They play strong enough team defense -- a Painter hallmark -- that they'll still be able to win their share of games. It's just that, as Painter said before Hummel's latest injury, he was the player that "completed" the team at both ends of the floor.
"Robbie does the intangible things," Painter said. "He helps on defense, he sees things developing, he makes extra passes, he understands when he has to be aggressive on offense. E'Twaun and JaJuan have some of those intangibles, too, but not as broad of a scope, and now, that's what they need to bring to the table to help us win."
Near the end of an interview on Tuesday, Hummel posited one more silver lining: That this time, his teammates would at least have the full preseason to prepare for life without him -- as opposed to the first ACL tear, which killed their momentum last February. He was trying to start thinking like a coach, and he thought it was a good sign that the team didn't seem to be in shock as it went through practice on Monday and Tuesday. He said he'd step up and say something if he felt the need, if he saw any slippage in intensity. The Boilers are in a valley right now, but he'd like to believe that they can climb out.