Just a few feet from the baseline of the practice court, just a skip pass away from his countrymen, Edgar Sosa rode a stationary bike in a blue Dominican Republic practice uniform on Wednesday.
Every once in a while a teammate like former Louisville Cardinal Francisco Garcia would come around to talk to Sosa as he pumped away at the pedals. Assistant coach Del Harris stopped by from time to time to check on him. Sosa, wiping the sweat from his brow, just kept on pedaling.
Even if Sosa had never stepped foot on the court Wednesday – which he did frequently and successfully – it would have been a monumental accomplishment.
Just 10 months earlier, Sosa suffered a horrific leg injury playing for John Calipari’s Dominican Republic team in the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship. After guiding the Dominicans to yet another impressive victory, their fourth win in the Olympics qualifier, Sosa broke his right fibula and tibia in a win over Panama.
In the closing seconds of the rout, Sosa drove left and tried to float the ball over a defender. His lower leg snapped when he landed.
The injury, clearly visible to everyone in attendance and watching on TV, was so horrific that Coach Cal called it one of the most devastating things he’d ever seen. The outlook was so grim that some people wondered if Sosa would ever play basketball again. Doctors in Argentina told him he’d be out at least a year and a half. Others told him two years.
No one expected him to be back in the gym Wednesday, just 10 months since the injury, not only riding a bike, but running up and down with his teammates and preparing for a last-chance Olympics run.
“That was the first major injury I have ever had in my life,” Sosa said. “Throughout my career I just had a sprained ankle, tweaked my knee, nothing serious ever. And when it happened, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Last year’s team rebounded from his loss and used his injury as motivation in a historic run. The Dominicans fell short of an Olympics berth, but by placing third – the highest finish in the country’s history – they earned a spot in this year’s 2012 FIBA World Qualifying Tournament, the last tournament to qualify for the Olympics.
Even Sosa never expected to be back in time for this year’s run.
“I just went to rehab every day and worked as hard as I could,” Sosa said. “Thank God I’m here now and able to join the team.”
Doctors inserted a rod in Sosa’s leg that extends from the bottom of his knee to the top of his ankle. Two screws were inserted in the rod at the bottom and at the top, but they took out the two screws at the bottom about a month and a half ago.
Sosa had to wait 21 days after that operation before he could play, and he touched a basketball for the first time on May 12.
“Thank God I didn’t mess up any muscles or any tissues around the leg,” Sosa said. “It was just a clean break. As soon as the bone healed, I was pretty much good to go.”
Sosa has been working out ever since to get back in shape and rejoin the Dominican team for its potentially historic run at the beginning of July. Sosa said he’s playing through pain and his level of play isn’t where he wants it to be, but he was on the court with the starters on Wednesday and moved with relative ease.
“Right now I’m a little frustrated because I’m not doing the things I know I’m capable of on the court,” Sosa said. “I’ve still got to find my rhythm. I haven’t played basketball in eight and a half months and I’m being thrown into the fire in this high-caliber basketball and good competition. I’m having to pick things up quick, but I feel within the next couple days I should be back into my routine.”
The timing of Sosa’s injury couldn’t have been worse. When he went down, he was playing the best basketball of his career, taking advantage of Coach Cal’s offensive system and turning into the team’s top point guard.
On a talented squad that featured NBA veterans Al Horford and Garcia, Sosa was being lauded as “the head of our snake.”
“I’m not going to lie, I love playing for Coach Cal,” Sosa said at the time. “He gives me a lot of opportunity and freedom to show my game.”
It was Coach Cal’s mission to put Sosa in a position to have NBA opportunities, but the broken leg undoubtedly sidelined those dreams for the time being.
“I was making so much progress,” Sosa said. “It was something so unfortunate that had to happen to me. I was getting a lot of buzz. A lot of NBA teams were contacting my agent. They were really excited about me and then that has to happen. It’s kind of like starting over from scratch now, not just trying to make an NBA team but trying to get a contract in Europe.”
It seemed like treason for a former Louisville guard to grow and like a UK coach so much, but the relationship Sosa and Coach Cal built during the trip to South America was fortified by the constant calls Calipari made to Sosa while he made the long journey back.
“I have so much respect for Coach Cal,” Sosa said. “Throughout the whole year, he called me at least once a week, telling me that he was praying for me every day. That’s something that I really appreciated.”
Sosa said a lot of people didn’t call him while he recovered, and yet, here was the coach of the No. 1 team in the country – a rival coach he never played for in college – dialing his number on a weekly basis.
“They’re rolling, and for him to take time out of his schedule to just give me a call and make sure rehab is going well is just something that I took to heart and my family took to heart as well,” Sosa said. “He’s such a great guy and a great coach and I’m just excited that I’m able to play for him again this summer.”
Kentucky’s fan base even took Sosa under its wings after seeing the admiration and respect Sosa and Coach Cal grew for one another last year. When Sosa went down with the terrible injury, part of the Big Blue Nation felt as if the former Cardinal was one of its own.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support from people all over the country, people who have known me my whole life or people who I have played against just once,” Sosa said. “They have shown me so much love and so much support, and I just want to thank everyone for the prayers and having me in mind throughout the whole year. I know that the prayers and everyone keeping me in mind helped me recover.”
Sosa still has a long ways to go to get back to where he was last year, but he’s confident another summer with Calipari and the Dominican team will grant him the opportunity to reach his NBA dreams.
“It’s going to be a big summer for me,” Sosa said. “If I play well, the sky’s the limit.”