D.J. Wright was overcome with emotion leading up to last Friday night.
Wright, a senior at Greene County High School, competed in the school’s boys basketball game against Lincoln County. The result of that game was a last-second, 65-63 loss. But before the game even started, Wright already recorded a personal victory.
He competed in a fall league game in Conyers in early September. Wright planted his leg on a play during that game. His left knee awkwardly bent on the move.
And so began what was expected to be a lengthy process.
Wright tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which connects the femur with the tibia. The injury should have sidelined Wright for at least five months and probably a lot longer, according to GCHS athletic trainer Bruce Lovin.
Instead, Wright’s return to the floor came one day under the three-month mark of his surgery, which occurred Oct. 25, 2019.
“In my experience in the past, we've never seen a kid really come back and be ready to play within, the very earliest, five to seven months,” said Lovin, who has been officially involved with the school’s sports medicine program since 2000. “I've never worked with a kid that's been back in, on average, about six months, and that is if they work and push themselves. But this was an extraordinary thing from the beginning.”
The beginning was the toughest part for Wright.
He hoped for the best but was crushed when he learned the extent of his injury. It was clear to all involved that Wright would likely miss his entire senior season.
The reality of the situation weighed heavily on Wright, but a conversation with his dad, Danny Wright, established the mindset that carried Wright through the rehab process and an expedited return to action.
“That night when I found out, I cried. I cried like a baby, honestly,” Wright said. “My dad told me he wanted me to do two things, and that was work harder than ever and trust God. So, when that happened, I just wanted to get back to work. I knew I was going to have a lot of doubters, saying I wouldn't be the same, I wouldn't do this and I wouldn't do that. I wanted to keep God first, put my faith in him because I know he makes no mistakes, and just work hard.”
Lovin said he believed Wright’s faith played an integral role in the recovery process, pointing out that Wright also suffered a torn medial meniscus, which keeps the tibia and femur from touching one another and essentially functions as a shock absorber. The torn meniscus healed before surgery.
There was minimal swelling in Wright’s knee between the day the injury occurred and the surgery, which were about a month and a half apart. Post-surgery, Lovin aimed to increase the flexion in the knee and get Wright to regain full extension. Lovin noted that all of that came back in “record time.”
Lovin credited the school’s newer recovery equipment, too. GCHS purchased treatment tools with the grant it recently received with the installment of its College and Career Academy.
The Game Ready system, which includes a sleeve filled with ice water that routinely compresses a targeted area, and NormaTec compression pants were employed during the rehab.
The most important factor behind Wright’s speedy recovery, Lovin said, was the regularity with which he rehabbed.
Normally, outpatient physical therapy consists of one or two sessions per week, and those typically last an hour apiece. With Wright and Lovin at GCHS all the time, they put in seven to eight hours of rehab work each week.
Even though the recovery process zoomed by, at least compared to the average ACL tear recovery, Wright still dealt with the possibility of missing his entire senior season. The season was about halfway over before there was any talk of Wright actually returning this year.
“It's been tough,” Wright said. “There have been nights where I continued to cry. My mom and my friends had to be a big key to me, they had to help me out. It's been tough seeing my teammates go out there and I can't do anything about it.”
Wright may have been absent from the court, but his head coach, Gregory Freeman, said Wright stuck by his team.
“He didn't miss a practice,” Freeman said. “He came to every game. He supported the guys through everything. He was actually a coach on the bench.”
With the first couple of months post-surgery complete, Wright visited his surgeon, Dr. Stephen Johnson of Athens Orthopedic Clinic, in December.
The result of Johnson’s evaluation confirmed what Lovin had already suspected: Wright was healing at an accelerated rate.
“By that time, I was thinking to myself, 'If he keeps progressing like this, I think he might just possibly be able to make the last couple of games of the season,’” Lovin said. “We discussed it with Dr. Johnson and he agreed with me. I was not going to dare make that call myself. He looked at him and he told him, 'Your knee looks now, at two months out, as good as some knees I've seen at six months out,' which was a remarkable thing.”
A timetable was set. Wright would play again when the Tigers hosted Lincoln County in their penultimate home game. The rehab protocol continued as the game approached.
Lovin said he confirmed Wright’s return with Dr. Johnson again a few weeks ago just to be sure, and in the week leading into last Friday’s game, Lovin said he pushed Wright hard to make certain he did not experience any pain.
Wright was fine, and he had the all-clear to play.
“When they first told me I would have a chance at coming back because I was ahead of my therapy, I legit cried that night,” Wright said. “You put in so much work, coming in every day with Coach Lovin and just grinding. You have bad days, too, days where you're like, 'Man, I ain't ever gonna get back, I ain't ever gonna be the same.' Just getting out there [against Lincoln], that atmosphere was amazing. I appreciate everyone that came out, all the love and support. I can't thank everyone enough.”
Wright had apprehension going into the game. Expectations were high, as Tiger supporters had anticipated his return all season. Wright said he tried to stay calm despite the moment.
There was a noticeable buzz in the gym during pregame warm-ups. The crowd cheered hard when GCHS principal James Peek introduced Wright as part of the starting lineup.
Faith carried Wright through his recovery process. He used faith to get past the trepidation he felt Friday night.
“As far as nervousness about the knee, there was a little bit but I felt as if Coach Lovin prepared me well,” Wright said. “That's a great guy, and I can't do anything to thank him enough. He's put me through some great therapy and great workouts. I had faith in him and trust in him with my therapy.”
The first few minutes of the game quickly passed. Wright had the ball multiple times. Each time Wright had possession, the crowd at GCHS rose with bated breath.
It was clear the Tiger faithful were ready to celebrate Wright again.
Finally, with about five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Wright knocked down a 3-pointer. There was a momentary eruption in the stands as Wright celebrated on the court.
“When I hit that first shot, it definitely eased my mind,” Wright said. “My adrenaline was rushing. I'm in the moment and I'm wondering how I'm going to get my first shot. Am I going to get to the basket? Am I going to get a free throw? When I hit that first shot, it eased me a lot. My emotions went high and it helped me out a lot.”
Wright led Greene in scoring on his first night back. He dropped 20 points during the game.
Perhaps more important than his own points, though, was the fact Wright helped increase opportunities for his teammates. Desmond Dunn scored 19 points and D’Myron West had 13. Six different Tigers scored Friday night.
“There was a different energy,” Freeman said. “We had more continuity. [Lincoln] had to respect where [Wright] was on the floor, which opened it up a little bit more.”
Wright did not shy away from playing tough. He regularly drove the ball inside the paint and tried to create close-range scoring chances.
A few times, Wright wound up on the floor after getting physical. He drew a couple of hard fouls along the way.
“I'm not gonna lie, I was a nervous wreck while that game was going on,” Lovin said. “Every time he fell on the floor, I was just sitting there kind of covering my eyes up. After the game was over, I questioned him. He had no pain whatsoever. The only thing he experienced is he started having some cramps, which was to be expected.”
The Tigers all wanted 3 more points for Wright against Lincoln.
Greene had possession in a 63-63 game as the final minute wound down. Eventually, the Tigers drained the clock down to its final few seconds. They passed the ball around and made sure it got to Wright for the team’s final shot.
Wright’s attempted game-winning 3-pointer was no good. Lincoln recovered the ball and scored on an improbable play to win at the buzzer.
“I love moments like that,” Wright said about his final shot. “Those are the moments that we work for and prepare for in the gym. Those are the shots that we imagine taking. I've hit multiple in my career. In my mind, I'm thinking, ‘It's just another game-winner.’ My teammates put trust in me that I would get a good shot. Unfortunately, I missed, but I live for moments like that. Coming off three months of not playing, I'm a little rusty. I gotta get back in my groove. That one's on me, but we'll get it right.”
After all, Wright’s overcome something much worse than a missed shot.
Freeman took over as Tigers head coach ahead of last season, meaning he’s only coached Wright the past two years. In that short amount of time, Wright proved to Freeman that he has an undeniable passion for the game.
“You're as good as your effort, you're as good as your work ethic and you're as good as the time you spend perfecting your craft,” Freeman said. “He's done all three things, and for people that don't understand that, you feel sorry for them because they're going to go through life looking at other people being angry instead of looking at themselves. I hate that he didn't really get a chance to showcase who he was this year because he had a great summer playing basketball.”
Wright received multiple looks from colleges throughout the past few years. That’s a byproduct of his success with the Tigers, including the fact he reached 1,000 career points as a junior. Freeman said his goal is to help Wright continue getting attention and offers from Division I programs.
Now, those at GCHS can tell college recruiters about how Wright suffered what should have been a season-ending injury and came back in less than three months.
“I'm still freaked out about it,” Lovin said with a laugh. “It's just a testimony to a lot of things. Faith played a huge component in it. But the dedication and the determination and the willingness and desire to want to get back and be productive in what he's loved since he was 3 or 4 years old has just been remarkable.”
Wright and the rest of the team’s seniors have one more game left inside the GCHS gym. The Tigers will host Lake Oconee Academy this Friday night, which will serve as Greene County’s senior night.
He did not have much of a chance to create final memories with his teammates this season, but Wright said he wants to leave one final stamp on the program with this improbable opportunity.
“I think it's crucial [to beat LOA],” he said. “I don't want to go out there and do too much. I definitely don't want to go through anything like this again. But I'm going to leave it all out there on the floor. We're talking about my last game in this gym, my last game as a Tiger. It's crucial that we come out with a win. I gave it my all [last week] and I'm going to give it my all, as much as I can, this Friday.”