On the Rebound

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Almost a year ago, former Duke University standout Bobby Hurley was one of professional basketball's rising stars, having been signed to a $16.5 million, six-year contract. Then in a split second, everything changed. On Dec. 12, the Sacramento Kings rookie point guard was returning to his bachelor apartment from Arco Arena after a 112-102 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Driving on a dark country road, Hurley stopped his Toyota pickup at an intersection. He can't recall seeing the Buick station wagon, possibly with its headlights off, barreling toward him, and as he started into a left turn, he was broadsided. Hurley, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was sent flying into a ditch, where he lay unconscious in a puddle of water, many of his bones broken and his windpipe torn from his left lung. "I don't know of any other patients who have survived this injury, "says William Blaisdell, chief surgeon at the University of California, Davis Medical Center.

But as the NBA season gets under way, Hurley, 23, not content with survival, will be back playing basketball—better than ever, he thinks. He discussed his trauma and his remarkable recovery with correspondent Laird Harrison.

I DON'T REMEMBER WHAT I WAS thinking that night. I was probably upset, frustrated with our team. I know we didn't play very well. I didn't score any points. I was still learning to play in the NBA. The players are so much better than in college. I was struggling at times, and I was looking forward to getting home.

I don't believe I saw the other car. It was a dark road, and if somebody had the headlights on, it would have been very visible to me. [The driver of the Buick, Daniel Wieland, then 37, sustained a broken leg and other injuries in the accident. His trial on a charge of reckless driving ended in a hung jury.] I remember coming up to a stop sign, stopping, starting a left turn, and then that's it. I don't remember the collision—just being in the ditch.

The first person to get to me was Mike Batham [an engineer from Yuba City]. He had made the left turn prior to me and was looking in the rearview mirror when he saw the accident. He turned around and came back to the scene. I was facedown in the water, so he probably saved me from drowning.

A couple of minutes later, a teammate, Mike Peplowski, was passing by when he thought he recognized my truck. He called for an ambulance and helped get me out of the ditch. People on the scene were trying to keep me calm, telling me that everything was going to be all right. I didn't believe them. I thought I was going to die.

My whole body was hurting. I remember them putting me on a stretcher and placing me into an ambulance. Then I fell unconscious. The next day I was so swollen that my parents, who had flown out from their home in Jersey City, said they couldn't recognize me. My face was so puffed up I could hardly open my eyes, and I couldn't talk.

I was in serious condition for a couple of days. The doctors explained the injuries I had sustained [one of them, Dr. Russell Sawyer, had just written a textbook chapter on windpipe injuries]. First of all, my trachea had been torn from my lung, and blood was building up there. To prevent that, I had to cough up blood every day.

But my lungs were only one of my problems. I had broken ribs, a small fracture in my back and a fracture of the fibula in my right leg. I had torn a ligament in my knee, and my left shoulder was fractured. Doctors reattached my trachea and set my broken bones. Even they were surprised by the speed of my recovery. In two weeks I was ready to go home.

Then the hard part began. My body had been so damaged it was painful just to get out of bed. But my doctors told me that I had to start expanding my lungs, so I would try to walk around my apartment, up and down the hall, maybe three times a day. At first I would get lightheaded and nauseated, and I would have to lie down. But each week it would get better, and I was able to do more.

I probably could have rehabilitated my physical injuries in Sacramento, but I also had to deal with frustration and depression, the whole mental part of the recovery. So six weeks after the accident, I decided to return to my home in New Jersey, where I could be with my family and the friends I grew up with.

My main worry was my left shoulder, which had no movement and no strength. I couldn't lift my left arm at all. I got electrical stimulation to strengthen the muscle and began working with weights. Some days I would make great progress, but on others I would take a step backward. Having to go to therapy every day got to be very depressing. There were times when I wouldn't show up. There were times when I wanted to cry because I was so unhappy about what was going on. So I began talking to a sports psychologist. He asked me to write down my positive accomplishments. He always wanted me to reflect back on where I was when I first started and the progress I had made. That made it a little easier.

The times when I thought about the accident would usually make me feel very anxious. When I first started driving again, if somebody beeped the horn at me or cut me off, I would get very upset. A couple of times I had to pull the car over to regain my composure.

A few months after the accident, I had the worst night of the entire ordeal. I had a dream in which I was in a similar crash. But this time I actually felt myself flying out of the car. It was just really painful. Just as hard as the physical part of my rehab has been the mental part—the flashbacks, the depression of not having my normal life. It was tough to deal with.

The times I had the most difficulty were when I started feeling sorry for myself, saying, "Why did this happen to me?" You can't have that attitude. Things happen for a reason. God gave me this as a challenge to see how I would react to it. That's how I look at it.

There were several moments over the course of the rehabilitation that made me feel very happy: the first time I was up on my feet and walking; the first time I began to run; and then the time in late May when I first began playing real basketball again, not just shooting by myself but getting involved in actual games.

Those games—with the team my dad [Bob Hurley Sr.] coaches at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City [Hurley Jr. played there before going on to Duke]—showed me how far I had to go. I had kept all my old basketball instincts, but I couldn't execute. For instance I would see a play developing maybe two passes ahead of me. I knew that a teammate would be open, but I couldn't get him the ball. Or I'd see an opening, but my body wasn't able to exploit it. Still, I knew it would just be a matter of time when my body would catch up to what my mind wanted it to do.

I've grown up a lot because of this. I've gone through something so difficult, trying to rebuild my body and having so many ups and downs, that playing a bad game isn't going to have the same impact as it used to. Now I try to have a good time when I'm out on the court. After all the work, all the things I didn't want to do—going to physical therapy, lifting weights, running—getting to play basketball again is like a reward.

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