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M. Basketball: Andy Brown and the high price of a single free throw

Andy Brown stood at the free-throw line on Jan. 14, 2012, waiting to take two foul shots. Stanford led Colorado 82-61, and less than a minute remained. These two free throws wouldn’t impact the game. As the 6-foot-7 junior forward stepped to the line and dribbled three times, he didn’t even notice the crowd, the bench or anything else around him. All that Brown focused on were the 15 feet between him and the basket.

 

Brown’s trip to the foul line began well before he snatched an offensive rebound and was fouled by Colorado forward Damiene Cain. In fact, his trip to the line had begun three years before, when Brown was still a senior in high school.

Junior forward Andy Brown (above) has suffered through three ACL tears in his basketball career, but finally scored his first point on January 14 against Colorado. (DANI VERNON/ Courtesy of StanfordPhoto.com)

 

In high school, Brown was a two-time state champion while playing for Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei. Mater Dei sustained just 10 losses during Brown’s four years, with a few of them coming against the teams that boasted future NBA stars like Kevin Love and Jeremy Lin. Brown’s high school coach used to refer to him as “The Iceman” for his ability to handle pressure late in games.

 

In January 2009, during Brown’s senior year, Mater Dei was undefeated and the top-ranked high school basketball team in the nation. In the second half of a rivalry game against Servite High School, Mater Dei led by more than 20 points. Brown stole the ball in the open court and sprinted across the hardwood to hammer in a breakaway slam dunk.

 

“When I came down [from the dunk],” Brown said, “I landed awkwardly and my knee just kind of popped.”

 

At first, Brown thought the pop he heard was only a sprain. He later learned that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, ending his high school career. Initially upset that he would miss the rest of his senior season, Brown quickly refocused for the next step in his career: playing college basketball for Stanford.

 

After undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in February 2009, Brown underwent an intense regimen of physical therapy designed to help him redevelop his range of motion and strengthen his knee. Eight months later, Brown returned to the court and began practicing with Stanford on Oct. 16.

 

During his first college practice, Brown felt a little slower than normal, but his left knee felt strong. About half an hour into practice, Brown soared into the air to grab a rebound.

 

“I jumped in off one foot,” Brown said. “I landed on one foot, and my knee popped out again.”

 

Right away, Brown knew he had torn his ACL — again his left knee. After being forced to miss the end of his last season of high school basketball, Brown would be forced to miss his entire first season of college basketball.

 

Yet Brown remained positive in the face of his latest setback. The injury forced him to medically redshirt, which allowed him to take a year to figure out college, both on and off the court.

 

In order to improve himself as a player, Brown spent his freshman year getting stronger in the weight room and learning about the college game from his mentor, then-senior Landry Fields. Off the court, Brown’s injury not only gave him more time to focus on his studies; it assisted him socially as well. Brown met other students via physical therapy, as well as by virtue of his golf cart, as students repeatedly asked him for rides.

 

While Brown looked at his second ACL tear as a blessing in disguise, he still itched to get back on the court. He underwent the same regimen of physical therapy as before, and it took him 10 months to return to the court.

 

In August 2010, Brown was back on the court playing a series of pick-up games with his teammates. It was the most basketball he had played since high school. During the games, Brown felt like his old self again, draining six three-pointers. Toward the end of the open-court session, Brown and his teammates were playing a short game to five when Brown went down yet again.

 

“I caught the ball on the left wing and I dribbled baseline,” Brown said. “I got cut off and I went to spin. I planted with my left foot and my knee gave out again.”

 

The all-too-familiar pop and shooting pain let Brown know immediately that he had torn the ACL in his left knee for the third time. According to Dr. Marc Safran, who conducted Brown’s second and third ACL surgeries, there is about a 4- to 15-percent chance that a patient with an ACL tear will tear the ACL a second time. According to Safran, Brown tearing his ACL three times was “definitely out of the norm.”

 

“That killed me,” Brown said. “It was tough because it wasn’t about my passion for the game anymore but if my body and my knee would actually allow me to play.”

 

For the third time, Brown underwent reconstructive knee surgery. This time, however, Safran used a different, older procedure on Brown’s knee. The surgery involved tightening Brown’s lateral collateral ligament to provide more support for his ACL. This older procedure was the same procedure that Brown’s college coach, Johnny Dawkins, underwent while he played in the NBA.

 

After nearly two years of rehab and physical therapy, Brown was back to square one. He would only get one more shot to play college basketball: a fourth knee injury wouldn’t heal before Brown graduated. Brown went back to his old regimen, but this time he had to rehab for more than a year.

 

Having endured three surgeries and nearly three years of rehab, Brown finally suited up for the Cardinal on Nov. 23, 2011. He logged his first minute of action that night against Oklahoma State in Madison Square Garden. Brown’s knee still hurt at that point, though, so he just stood near half court and waited for the clock to run out.

 

As the season progressed, Brown’s knee continued to heal. On Jan. 14, he entered his first-ever home game at Maples Pavilion. After being fouled while grabbing an offensive rebound, Brown went to the foul line, where he’d have the chance to score his first college point.

 

Once called The Iceman, a nervous Brown stepped to the line.

 

He took three dribbles, bent his rehabilitated knee, rose up and fired his first in-game shot in years.

 

As the ball swished through the hoop, the Maples Pavilion crowd and Stanford bench lost control, cheering wildly as they witnessed Brown’s three-year struggle finally pay off.

 

“It was an awesome feeling,” Brown said. “I honestly couldn’t care less about the second one.”

 

Brown missed the second free throw, but it didn’t matter. After three years at Stanford, Brown had three surgeries, a knee littered with dark surgery scars and discolorations from cortisone shots, and, finally, one point.