Ben Uzoh hopes for NBA return after mysterious ailment nearly derailed career

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Ben Uzoh hopes for NBA return after mysterious ailment nearly derailed career
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Ben Uzoh kept his secret away from the New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors because he didn't want anyone to think he was crazy. He just kept shooting jumpers, passing the ball and dribbling even though his right arm continued to lose feeling.

"I didn't know if I had diabetes," Uzoh told Yahoo Sports. "I didn't know if my heart was about to whatever. Why is my arm going numb? There are so many signs related to when you're hurt or arm goes numb. All these things were taking away from my ability to be myself.

"You can call it frustration, you can call it fear, you can call it whatever. I was so in the dark. I was hurting not only the team but myself."

Uzoh tried to play through the condition for four years. Not until he was waived by the Development League's Canton Charge in March, did Uzoh return to his hometown of San Antonio determined to get an answer on his injury. He visited Dr. Andrew Bennett, who determined in September that Uzoh had thoracic outlet syndrome – "a group of disorders that occur when the blood vessels or nerves in the space between the collarbone and first rib [thoracic outlet] become compressed," according to the Mayo Clinic. The result can cause pain in a person's shoulders and neck and numbness in their fingers.

Ben Uzoh was waived in March. (Getty)
Ben Uzoh was waived in March. (Getty)

Sports-related activities are among the common causes of thoracic outlet syndrome. While surgery is sometimes recommended – Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett had thoracic outlet surgery in July 2013 – Bennett suggested specific stretching exercises, medicine and acupuncture to treat Uzoh.

"I feel so much better just knowing how to manage," Uzoh said. "I'm still finding myself, retooling, reviving the connection that I was never able to feel. I am getting better each week. I am in great shape. But the reality is I don't want my arm to go out on me anymore. I am getting feedback on it still."

What makes Uzoh's story unique is the time it took to get the condition correctly diagnosed. Uzoh played 60 NBA games for New Jersey, Cleveland and Toronto from 2010-13 and participated in training camps for the Denver Nuggets and the Charlotte Bobcats. The former University of Tulsa star registered 12 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on April 26, 2012, against the Nets to give the Raptors their first triple-double in more than 11 years. The defensive-minded guard had shown enough to prove he could be a solid NBA role player.

What made the undrafted Uzoh's brief NBA career impressive is he was able to play in the league without revealing that he often lost feeling in his right shooting arm. It was a problem that had bothered him since college, where he averaged 15.3 points as a senior during the 2009-10 season.

"I didn't want people to think I was crazy," Uzoh said. "I was dealing with something they couldn't see. My agent couldn't see it. People in New Jersey my rookie year couldn't see it. …I never saw a medical doctor who could help.

"I was blaming it on how hard I worked. I thought I needed a new technique, shooting coach, different team or get more reps up. I realized that I was beyond that point. It was beyond a massage, getting stretched or getting iced."

Uzoh (left) had a triple-double during his stay with the Raptors. (AP)
Uzoh (left) had a triple-double during his stay with the Raptors. (AP)

After being cut in the Nuggets' training camp in 2012, Uzoh didn't reveal his ailment when he next played for D-League Springfield and Tulsa. But after being traded from Tulsa to Canton on Jan. 22, 2014, Uzoh's sister convinced him to finally come clean with his injury with then-Canton coach Steve Hetzel.

"He was the first guy I talked to," Uzoh said. "I wasn't open with any other team I had been on from college to New Jersey to Toronto to Cleveland. I decided when [Canton] traded for me, to be straight up with this dude that I had a syndrome going on with my arm that is really affecting me more than I had ever anticipated.

"I need your help," Uzoh said he told Hetzel. " 'I can help this team right now with what I have. But the reality is this is not allowing me to [be] myself.' "

Before hearing about the injury, Hetzel expected Uzoh to be the missing piece to help Canton make a push for a D-League championship.

"He was on board, ready for change and good to come to our environment. But he said he had an issue with his wrist that doctors couldn't figure out," Hetzel said.

Hetzel soon realized how big a toll the mystery illness was taking on Uzoh. The doctors recommended by Canton couldn't help. While Uzoh showed flashes of what Hetzel hoped for, the mysterious issue weighed on Uzoh mentally.

"Once his hand started to fatigue, he would lose feeling," Hetzel said. "He'd squeeze his hand over and over and again. He'd air punch the floor to try to get feeling like if your hand was asleep and you're trying to wake it up. After that he shut down mentally. He went from one of the best players in the league to us playing four on five.

"He had his injury occur and no one to tell him what was wrong. It was more mentally draining than anything. It was a struggle for him to enjoy basketball."

Hetzel once benched Uzoh during a practice after he stopped competing because of his arm issue. He believed Uzoh was "walking around in a nightmare." Hetzel eventually waived Uzoh on March 21.

"I made the decision for him to step away from basketball to find out what was wrong," said Hetzel, now a Charlotte Hornets assistant coach. "That's why we cut ties. We did what was best for him as a person. Making him be in the gym was a slap in the face."

Since he was successfully diagnosed, Uzoh has played pick-up basketball in San Antonio, but nothing on a highly competitive level. The plan of Uzoh's agent Ugo Udezue is to have Uzoh back playing professionally in the D-League at some point this season. Uzoh still has dreams of returning to the NBA.

"I don't like playing the victim," Uzoh said. "I am a strong-willed kid and I'd really just like to return to form. I have kind of accepted the syndrome. But it's more of a nuisance and annoying than a syndrome. People say you got this, but I got to the NBA with it, so how bad is it?

"It would be so cool to return to the NBA. I haven't given up. I realize I've done more with less. Imagine when I get to use more, a sixth sense to feel?"

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