When Stanford forward Andy Brown tore his left ACL on an awkward layup attempt midway through his senior year of high school, he viewed it as a temporary setback he could easily overcome. When he suffered the same injury going for a rebound the first day of practice the following season at Stanford, he approached it as a chance to take a year to add muscle and better prepare for college basketball.
Only after he felt his left knee buckle for a third time driving baseline during an open gym session last August did the always-upbeat Brown finally begin to worry that his basketball career might be in jeopardy.
"I don't want to get too emotional, but it was definitely one of the lowest points of my life," Brown said. "I've been in sports since I was two years old and I first picked up basketball when I was eight. When sports are that much a part of your life and they keep constantly getting taken away from you, it's really hard. I had rehabbed for 10 months and then played only two days. I couldn't believe it happened again."
Three major surgeries on the same knee in 18 months would make most athletes ponder early retirement, but Brown insists his passion for basketball is too great for him to even consider giving up the sport so easily. Instead the 6-foot-7 junior is enduring another grueling offseason of rehab and once again targeting November to make his long-awaited college basketball debut.
A fourth torn ACL would leave Brown no choice but to medically retire since the Yorba Linda, Calif. native would likely earn his Stanford diploma before the projected 19-month rehab process ended. Doctors cannot guarantee Brown's knee won't give way again once he's cleared to practice in mid-October, but orthopedic surgeon Marc Safran did take even greater precautions this time to increase the likelihood of success.
Safran suspects the reason Brown is more susceptible to recurring ACL tears than others who have suffered the injury is because his body isn't generating adequate blood flow to the ligament graft, inhibiting the healing process. As a result, Safran used extra tissue to augment the latest repair and told Brown he wouldn't clear him to play until he rehabbed for 13 ½ months instead of the customary 6 to 8.
"We did more than what normally needs to be done because he's proven to us that wasn't enough," Safran said. "I think we've done everything in our power technique-wise to get his knee to the point where he'll be able to return to playing basketball."
It's no surprise to Brown's friends and family that he's so adamant about not quitting basketball because they know how big of a role sports have played in his life.
His mother, Laurie, was a three-time all-American in volleyball at Cal State Fullerton. His father, Steve, played football in college. They passed down their passion for sports to Brown and his older sister Lindsay, enrolling both kids in tee ball and youth soccer leagues as toddlers.
Unusually tall and coordinated for his age during elementary school, Brown excelled in every sport he played. He once turned an unassisted triple play at age five in a tee ball game, catching a line drive, stepping on the base and then chasing the remaining runner down between the bases. And he was so dominant on the soccer field that opposing parents would actually encourage their kids to kick Brown or knock him down to even the odds.
"It was incredible," Laurie Brown recalled with a chuckle. "It's like, 'C'mon, he's just a little kid out there. He just happens to be a giant.'"
Brown eventually grew bored with baseball and soccer and gravitated exclusively to basketball, the sport he enjoyed the most. He enrolled at prestigious Santa Ana Mater Dei in high school, teaming with such future McDonald's All-Americans as Taylor King and Travis and David Wear to lead the Monarchs to a pair of state championships and a No. 1 national ranking prior to Brown's injury his senior year.
Overshadowed by the Wear twins in the Southern California media and on the recruiting circuit, Brown nonetheless earned scholarship offers from several of the West Coast's top programs, eventually selecting Stanford over Arizona. Brown also endeared himself to his Mater Dei teammates and coaches with his unselfish passing, relentless effort and knack for always hitting clutch shots.
Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight described himself as "sick to his stomach" that Brown's knee injuries have prevented him from getting on the court at Stanford so far. When McKnight called Brown soon after he tore the ACL for a third time, he recalls his former player trying to cheer him up and insisting that he'd get through it.
"It just crushes me," McKnight said. "When I heard about it, I had tears in my eyes, and I rarely get emotional. I told him the first game he suits up for, I'll fly up to support him. That tells you how much I think of him as a player and a person."
The hardest part of sitting out the past two-plus seasons for Brown has been watching peers his played with since middle school out on the court while he sits in street clothes on the end of the Stanford bench. Coach Johnny Dawkins has tried to keep him involved in the program by asking for his input on coaching decisions or having him host incoming recruits, but Brown's family knows he misses being able to contribute on the floor.
"I keep wondering if he's going to have a breakdown," Laurie Brown said only half-jokingly. "At the very beginning, I told the doctor, I think he needs to see some kind of psychologist to deal with this because it's happened three times. It's incredible to go through this once, but to do it three times with the rehab and the constant wondering of whether it's worth it? I have no idea how he's able to do it."
It's not unprecedented for college athletes to comeback from three or even four ACL tears, though the outcome isn't always a fairytale ending.
Oregon's Nate Costa overcame three ACL tears in his left knee to become a productive backup quarterback before blowing out the same knee last November. And four torn ACLs prevented USC women's basketball guard Jacki Gemelos from regaining the explosiveness she had as the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2006, but she did manage to play in every game for the Trojans last season as a fifth-year senior.
Stories like those provide inspiration to Brown on days when his perseverance ebbs or scar tissue in his knee hurts so much he can barely walk. Stanford's training staff recently began allowing him to do cutting and pivoting drills again, but he won't be cleared to finally play for real again until at least the first day of practice on Oct. 15.
Brown projected as a potential impact player when he signed with Stanford in 2008, but it's unclear what contributions he can make three years and three knee surgeries later. If healthy and confident in his knee, he could provide depth off the bench behind likely Stanford starting forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Owens.
Whereas most college basketball players are judged by how many points they score, how many rebounds they secure or how many victories they help capture, Brown's season will be measured very differently. He will be one of college basketball's greatest success stories if he even checks into a single game.
"Oh my, can you imagine that after this much hard work?" Steve Brown said. "There would be a lot of folks back in Southern California tuned into that game. He'd be overjoyed."