Of all the times to suffer his first major injury, Jon Hood wondered, “Why now?”
Why now when he was just getting his shot back? Why now when he had started to put in more work in the gym? Why now when he was becoming a leader and embracing his role as a veteran?
“Please be the littlest thing possible,” Hood remembers thinking after lying on the floor in mid-July in excruciating pain. “Please be something that only puts me out three weeks.”
It turned out it was an injury that would take a lot more than three weeks to heal. Hood tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on July 18 during a pickup game with some of his teammates in Memorial Coliseum.
He remembers getting the ball and driving to the hoop when he decided to hop-skip into the lane. Nobody was in Hood’s way, but when he came down on the floor and his right knee braced for the momentum of 215 pounds stopping all at once, his knee turned in and his ankle went out. And then he felt the one thing that all athletes dread.
He felt the pop.
“I knew I did something to it,” Hood said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com on Thursday. “I didn’t know what, but I knew I had screwed it up.”
Hood laid in the trainer’s room while Dr. Scott Mair completed a surgery down the street and made his way over to the Joe Craft Center. Hood didn’t have to wait long, but for a kid with emotions swirling through his head while his immediate athletic career hung in the balance, it seemed like forever.
“I was scared,” Hood admitted. “Waiting for the doctor to get there, that’s a terrible feeling.”
Dr. Mair showed up to the Craft Center before too long and gave Hood a brief evaluation. He was fairly certain Hood had torn his ACL, but he needed to take an MRI of the knee to be sure. The next day, with assistant coach John Robic and his father, Brian, by his side, Hood underwent an MRI and received the news that had him tossing and turning in his bed the night before.
He had torn his ACL and would likely miss the 2011-12 basketball season.
“I’m glad they were in there because I blanked after he said it,” said Hood, who is now on crutches with a massive black brace strapped to his right knee. “He said, ‘You’ve got a torn ACL,’ and everything was just gone. In my head, I was thinking, ‘There goes the season. I can’t help the team on the court.’ ”
As anyone could expect, Hood was devastated. For a player who had never experienced a major injury before, it was pretty earth-shattering news. He broke his wrist as a junior in high school and missed a month during his senior season with a stress fracture in his foot, but he had never undergone surgery before. Hood had never even had his wisdom teeth taken out or an IV poked through his skin.
The fear of going under the knife for the first time was hard enough for Hood, but the toughest thing to come to grips with was missing out on a season that he had worked so hard for in the offseason.
After two seasons in which he saw limited action, Hood dedicated the spring and summer to bettering himself. He put on about 10 pounds of weight in Kentucky’s offseason strength and conditioning program, but more than anything he felt like he had regained the shooting touch that made him a legend at North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky.
Hood said he never lost his confidence during a sophomore year in which he hit just 24.3 percent of his shots, but he did have an epiphany.
On a trip home to visit his family and friends, Hood started to work out with his father. After two shots, the one person who has seen him sink 95 percent of his shots was able to pinpoint a couple of bad habits that had begun to plague his shooting technique.
“He nitpicked my shot,” Hood said of the mechanics his father pointed out (specifically, the spin off his release, the position of his elbow and his footwork). “He nitpicked it and nitpicked it and nitpicked it. He said, ‘If you were in the gym enough, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”
Because dad knows best, that was all Hood needed to hear. He took a good look at himself in the mirror and dismissed head coach John Calipari’s assessment last year that he was just unlucky at times. Hood did what so many players have a tough time doing and put the blame on himself.
“I can admit it,” Hood said, “I wasn’t in the gym enough. That’s something that I changed. I’ve changed that over the summer. I was in the gym a lot and consistently shooting the ball well.”
Hood was in the Craft Center constantly getting shots up with his teammates and working out. To Hood, it was starting to look like the second act of Josh Harrellson.
And then, by buzzard’s luck, Hood “had an accident on the one time I wasn’t shooting a 3. The one time I was actually attacking the basket I go down.”
“I don’t think it will fully hit me until we start practice at Big Blue Madness,” Hood said. “I think it will really hit me that ‘Oh, I can’t do anything this year at all.’ Around Madness, that’s when (my knee will) start feeling alright and won’t have this big huge brace.”
Since the injury, Hood has received an outpouring of support from friends, family members, past and current players, and even people he didn’t previously know. He’s talked with everyone from former Florida Gator Chandler Parsons, who took him on his visit to Florida, to UK gymnastics member Whitney Rose, who suffered a major knee injury last year, to UK women’s basketball player Amber Smith, who, coincidentally had surgery on her knee the exact same day as Hood last year, on Aug. 12.
North Carolina guard Leslie McDonald tore his ACL a week prior to Hood, and Hood said they’re in a race against each other to see who can get back the quickest. But maybe no other words have stuck with Hood more than Robbie Hummel’s. The Purdue star has suffered a season-ending injury before his scheduled senior year two summers in a row.
“Don’t rush it,” Hummel told Hood. “Don’t rush it at all. He kept reiterating that. Don’t rush the knee.”
That brings Hood to his expected return.
“I have the whole year to decide if I’m going to redshirt or not,” Hood said. “I haven’t talked to Coach Cal specifically about that. Who knows? The timetable for an ACL is usually six months before they turn you loose, and that’s having no conditioning.”
Hood has certainly thought about returning this year. He’s figured out in his head that six months from his surgery date would land him in the middle of February, but he’s also quick to point out that it takes two months to regain your conditioning and stamina.
At that point, Hood realizes the team will already be in postseason play and the rotation will likely be set. Hood wants to return, but he also doesn’t want to waste his junior year, a similar situation to what UK Hoops’ Smith faced a season ago. She ended up redshirting.
“If you’re playing Division I basketball at Kentucky, you have to be in shape,” Hood said. “And I mean in shape. If you’re not in the best shape of your life, you’re at a disadvantage.”
A couple of weeks ago, Calipari said he was looking forward to coaching a more experienced and improved Jon Hood, one that would have certainly affected UK’s depth this season.
“I was hoping that he would have a breakout year,” Calipari said at the time.
Hood hasn’t been officially ruled out for the 2011-12 season, but should he take a medical redshirt and return next year as a junior, Calipari said there could be a silver lining for the 6-foot-7 guard.
“He can use it to be a year older, a year more mature,” Calipari said. “Now you come back with a different purpose, and I think he will. He’s a great kid. It’s just so unfortunate because he’s such a nice kid. You want him to do well.”
Psychologically, Hood has coped with the injury by creating a lofty goal. If he redshirts and Kentucky totals 95 wins over his next three years (31.6 victories per season), he will tie Jeff Sheppard’s 159 wins, who he says owns the most victories for any player in five-year stretch at UK (Kentucky only keeps an official record of the four-year total, which Wayne Turner holds with 132).
“Being here another year with Coach Cal makes you better,” Hood said. “He makes you better as a player. Look at Josh. Look at DeAndre (Liggins). It doesn’t matter who you are. He makes you better as a person. He’s not only a great coach to play for but to be around. He’s upbeat about everything and can change your life.”
Why now? Hood may have found his answer.
For more on Jon Hood, check back Friday for his take on this year’s freshman class and how it compares with his star-studded 2009 class.