A second chance

Sophomore guard Troy Holston Jr. averaged 15.8 points over his final nine games as a freshman before tearing his ACL during offseason conditioning. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS.COM

He sat in his bed at his mom’s house, window cracked open, staring at the clouds rolling by. 

Questions of “Why me?” circled Troy Holston Jr.’s head with his basketball career now up in the air.

Hours earlier, during a routine one-on-one defensive drill during a summer workout, the sophomore guard shuffled his feet as teammate Jake Bodway tried to spin past him for a layup. 

Then, he heard a “pop” in his knee — arguably the worst sound he’s heard in his young life.

“I thought life was over,” Holston said.

At first, Holston was told there was nothing serious to worry about, but the fear of the unknown was to daunting for him to put out of his mind.

“At first I didn’t know, I thought I maybe hyperextended it or dislocated it or something,” Holston said. “(The trainer) said don’t be worried, but I was crying. 

“I was hurt, it was hurting me and I knew it was something big.”

A few days later it was confirmed that his ACL was torn and his season was over before it even began.

“He was having a great summer before the injury happened,” coach Orlando Antigua said. “We thought that he had grown, he had matured, he had developed layers to his game. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional kind of player. And so we were really excited about pairing him up with Jahmal (McMurray) and the group coming in. 

“For us, not being able to rely on that experience and his skillsets and often times his leadership as someone who had been there and done that took us a couple steps back.”

Holston began to come on strong toward the end of the 2014 season, averaging 15.8 points over the final nine games, including 22 made 3-pointers.

He was expected to be the go-to player beside forward Chris Perry heading into 2015 with Anthony Collins transferring to Texas A&M over the offseason. Everything was trending upward.

But with one step, it all crashed to the hardwood with a resounding thud.

“That was probably the most down, black period of my life,” said Holston, who had never had surgery prior this one. “I just didn’t know what to do next. The unknown of not knowing when I was gonna come back and how good I’d be. That was the real scary part.”

After suffering the injury in June, Holston knew his entire 2015 season was done. The one positive of the timing of the injury was that he had an entire season to rehab and get back to full strength.

“He focused in on the rehab as his season,” Antigua said.

On an average day for the first few months, Holston was off the court and away from basketball. He would work with the team trainer twice a day, bending his knee every which way to get back his flexion and extension (basic mobility of the knee). 

Despite being forced off the court, Holston still watched as many NBA and college basketball games as he could. When he needed a break from thinking about not being on the court, he found refuge in his interest in exotic cars. 

He attended car shows in the area hoping to shake the desire to put his feet to the hardwood, but he couldn’t escape the nagging urge.

“It’s hard to run away from basketball, it’s what I love to do,” Holston said.

After four or five months, he was back on the court. Albeit in a limited capacity, once he set foot back on the court, it was time to prepare for 2016.

But as his strength and conditioning improved, the mental roadblocks of coming back from a serious knee injury kept Holston from regaining his 2014 form.

“He’s physically 100 percent back,” Antigua said. “But we’ve had to sort of reinforce to him that it’s gonna take some time now that he’s physically back, but mentally — the feel, the rhythm — when you’re off for that long, it takes time to get that going.

“Early on he was (hesitating). We were intentionally doing drills to get him exhausted where he’s not thinking about it. But he’s just gotta reprogram himself to always be ready. We’re just trying to get those basketball things back to being habits for him.”

These drills consisted of forcing Holston to run from the baseline to half court and back, then sprinting to the 3-point line and taking shots. 

He couldn’t catch his breath and certainly couldn’t think about his knee.

It took about three weeks of on-court drills to break the mental barrier. From there, it was about regaining the confidence he possessed as a freshman to play carefree and let the ball fly.

“It’s just the mental aspect of it, being more confident and knowing what you can do on the court,” Holston said. “You kind of hold stuff back that you know you can do on the court sometimes because of a lack of confidence. But now I have the ultimate confidence, like how I was going my freshman year.”

The source of this confidence came from escaping the confines of his knee brace, which he said kept him from being himself on the court.

“It felt like every time I had it on, it’s like I can’t move,” Holston said of the brace, sometimes even hiding it under towels in his locker to avoid wearing it. “I’m not as mobile as I could be. 

“Sometimes I would rip it off and throw it on the sidelines, but (the trainer) would make me put it back on.”

Another boost of confidence came from NBA champion guard Iman Shumpert of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who has come to work with the team each of the past two offseasons.

“When I was hurt, he came and was like, ‘Yeah man, you’ll get through it, just keep pushing and working at it every day,’” Holston said of Shumpert’s visit in 2015 when Holston was still injured. “He said I’d be like normal.”

Now, Holston sits just days away from the start of the 2016 season with USF taking on Nova Southeastern on Monday. It will be the first time that Holston has played on the Sun Dome court since March 12, 2015.

Holston adds an outside presence to a team that has finished near the bottom of Division I in 3-point shooting in each of the past two seasons.

“It’s definitely gonna be an added weapon for us,” Antigua said. “Not just his shooting, but you add an experienced guy that can really extend the defense. 

“For us, we want to make him a complete basketball player, not just an outside shooter and I think early on as a freshman that’s what he was and by the end of that season, he was a complete player.”

USF went 8-25 without Holston on the floor last season. Freshman Jahmal McMurray shouldered much of the offense in his first season, much like Holston did down the stretch of his.

But with Holston back, now a redshirt sophomore after receiving a medical hardship waiver, along with the addition of outside shooter Geno Thorpe among others, Holston expects to take that load off of McMurray’s shoulders.

“I think it’s big. I think it will take a lot of that weight off Jahmal,” Holston said. “He’s such a good scorer that guys are gonna come at him hard and double team him. But if he has me or Mike Bibby (Jr.) or Geno Thorpe on the wing, it’s gonna make it easier for him.

To his teammates that remember Holston as a freshman, nothing has changed. If anything, the injury somehow made him better.

“He recovered pretty quickly, but it took him a while to get his explosiveness back and his confidence,” said junior forward Bo Zeigler, who is one of two current Bulls to play on the 2014 squad with Holston. “Now, you can’t even tell that he had an ACL injury.

“Sometimes he looks unstoppable.”

 For now, he is back to his old self and in the eyes of his coaches and teammates, he will only continue to progress as the season heats up.

“I hope you get a chance to see a better Troy, a more mature, well-rounded Troy,” Antigua said. “But that’s a process and it takes some time and as excited as I am about where he is right now, I’m more excited about where he’s going to be able to be three, four, five weeks from now.”