The biggest shot of Brennan Smith’s college career—a shot that basketball players dream of making—turned into a nightmare.
Waynesburg University was playing a crucial game at Chatham nearly two years ago. The Yellow Jackets were fighting for a conference playoff berth.
The team trailed by two points in the game’s final seconds, and Smith hit a shot at the buzzer to force overtime.
Minutes later, he was on the ground—motionless, with a familiar, horrifying feeling.
He caught the ball at one of the elbows, took a step, planted on his right foot and heard a pop.
He knew something was wrong with his right knee, but wasn’t sure exactly what until he went to UPMC Children’s Hospital the next day.
“I just lost the ball and laid there,” Smith said.
The Jackets would fall to Chatham by two points, lose their remaining three games and miss the postseason. For Smith, however, that snowy, frigid night was much more costly; it nearly took away his basketball career.
Before Smith grew into a 6 foot 5 inch college basketball player, Smith was born with Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD). According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, it is a knee injury where the “bone underneath the cartilage of a joint dies due to lack of blood flow.” The description adds the “bone can and cartilage can then break loose, causing pain and possibly hindering joint motion.” The condition is like a ticking time bomb. The first time it exploded in Smith’s right knee was his sophomore year of high school. Smith said the condition, which is most common in children between the ages of 10 and 15, is more painful the older a person gets.
When Smith fell to the floor about 20 seconds into overtime, he had an idea that something was wrong having experienced an injury before. The first time OCD altered Smith’s basketball career, his doctor told him that, at 15, he was already considered “old” in terms of having the injury. Now, at 20, the injury came as a terrifying surprise.
“When it happened to me in college, that’s when I was really shocked, because it’s supposed to happen when your younger… everyone I’ve know [who has had OCD] has had it happened when they were younger,” Smith said.
Initially, Smith didn’t feel a lot of physical pain, but when he woke up from surgery more than a month later, that changed.
Smith couldn’t do much of anything for two months following the surgery. He was bedridden, away from his friends at school and he couldn’t go to classes for the rest of the spring semester.
The only positive, Smith said, he was able to spend his days watching college basketball—the sport he loved since he was a kid and the sport he didn’t know if he would ever play again.
He had all the time in the world to watch basketball—but playing it for Waynesburg was out of the question for all of Smith’s junior season.
Last year, the Jackets improved marginally, making the PAC tournament, but lost in the first round. Smith feels he could have made a difference on the team.
“If I would have been as healthy, I feel like I could have stretched the floor as a big man, and I feel like our team would have benefitted a lot from that,” Smith said. “We were strong in a lot of positions, but we didn’t have a true big guy. I just feel like I could have fit with how they all played.”
When Smith was healthy enough to escape from his hospital bed, he began to rehab, working out in his high school’s brand new weight room during the summer. He was limited in what he could do—he couldn’t squat for an entire year—but he worked enough to put on 20 pounds of muscle.
While the rehab was physically demanding, the part that hurt Smith the most was the mental aspect of not being able to compete.
“I didn’t mind working out, because that’s really all I could do at that time,” Smith said. “But it definitely hurt to see [my teammates] out there. I felt that I could have affected our team a lot in a positive way last year … I hated sitting and watching.”
For head coach Mark Christner, it was important for Smith not to entirely isolate himself from the team, but also not be around them too much to take away from his rehab. It’s a difficult balance for injured players, he said.
“He was around as much as he wanted to be,” Christner said. “He didn’t really travel with us, but he was at practice. I knew that he had some landmarks just in terms of rehab and doctor check-ins and all those things they have to progress through, because it is a lengthy rehab in his situation.”
Not being on the court, at times, felt unbearable.
“Sometimes, I wouldn’t even watch the games, because it’d be too hard for me,” Smith said. “I always felt like if I was on the court I could make a difference.”
Then things began to change, Smith’s doctor had encouraging news. Not only was Smith told that he could return to court to play for the Yellow Jackets again, he also was informed that, if the healing went well, he could be stronger than he was before he went down.
“He pretty much told me, if I heal it right this time, it could be better than it ever was before, because I’ve always been dealing with [OCD],” Smith said. “So that’s just what I’ve been hoping, and it has been [better] so far.”
Almost two years to the date, Smith returned to the same court where his career nearly came to a premature conclusion. In some ways, the situation paralleled the one Waynesburg faced two years ago. The Yellow Jackets, at 3-6 in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, needed a win having lost 10 of their last 11 games. While Waynesburg is in a similar situation from two years ago, Smith is not the same player.
Even without competing his junior year—Smith is a junior as far as basketball goes, with the option to return next season— he’d transformed into arguably Waynesburg’s most important piece, currently averaging 14.5 points and five rebounds a game. The 20 pounds of muscle he put on recovering from his injury has been essential, both in Smith’s physicality and for Waynesburg as a whole, as 6-foot, 7-inch sophomore forward Ben Vitovich left the team after the fall semester.
On the court where the best and worst of his college basketball collaborated in a span of roughly five minutes two years prior, Smith played one of his best games, scoring 27 points and adding nine rebounds to lead the Jackets to an 85-76 win.
While the Yellow Jackets have had a rocky year thus far—the team is currently 5-14 and eighth in the PAC with a 4-7 record—Smith has proven to be a difference maker.
It’s Tuesday morning and Smith is sitting at the scorer’s table in the Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse. On the court, a few Yellow Jacket players are having a light shoot around while assistant coach Greg Bean watches on, when Smith gets out his phone and plays a video.
The video is of Michael Porter Jr., currently a rookie power forward on the Denver Nuggets.
“He has a perfect quote, a perfect quote right here in this video,” Smith said.
Smith begins the video, and briefly repeats what Porter is saying
“Packed stands…Sold out crowd,” said Smith.
He pauses for a moment.
“I know [my situation] is not to this extent,” Smith said, as Mizzou Arena’s 15,000-plus seating capacity vastly outnumbers the seats in the Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse. “But, that’s just how I felt sitting on the bench seeing [the team] not doing well.”
Smith continues to scroll through the video, looking for the quote. Finally, he gets to the part where Porter reads from James 1:12, which says “blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because having stood that test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
“Until you stand that test, God won’t reward you until you have [gone] through that… That’s exactly how I feel about it,” Smith said.
For Christner, Smith is making the most of what could be his last season.
“He is playing like he’s been given a second chance, and I think there’s no substitute for that,” Christner said.