Could Alabama guard Andrew Steele be a latter day Willis Reed?
Whenever basketball historians or fans of a certain age discuss toughness or courage, the conversation invariably comes around to Reed, the patron saint of playing through pain.
For the uninitiated, Reed
was the hero of the seventh game of the 1970 NBA Finals, when, despite suffering a severe thigh injury two games before, he limped out of the locker room to join his New York Knicks teammates during pregame warm ups. The crowd at Madison Square Garden went berserk at the sight of Reed, helping inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed—who had averaged 32 points and 15 rebounds through the series’ first four games—made the first two jump shots he took and didn’t score another point, but he became a legend that day for putting team before self and giving the Knicks an emotional lift when they needed it most.
Similarly, Steele has put himself in a position to be long remembered by Crimson Tide fans, not for any single, awe-inspiring moment of overcoming adversity ala Willis Reed, but for sheer determination in battling through a series of injuries that have plagued him throughout his career. If Alabama, which has struggled at times this season trying to build upon last year’s run to the NIT finals, rights itself and claims a spot in the NCAA Tournament, Steele will have no doubt played a major role.
That Steele is even on the court will go down as one of the more surprising events in Southeastern Conference basketball this season. In June, Alabama announced that Steele, who had suffered the fourth concussion of his athletic career in an SEC Tournament game against Kentucky last March, was giving up basketball because of post-concussion symptoms that included headaches and an occasional loss of short-term memory.
Given that Steele had already suffered a stress fracture between his foot and ankle that required surgery and a medical redshirt that cut short his sophomore season, and missed the first 13 games of the 2010-11 season after undergoing surgery on both knees, this seemed an unusually cruel end to a career that had begun with so much promise.
Steele was allowed to remain on scholarship as a student assistant coach, and though he relished the opportunity to prepare for what he hopes will be a future career, he missed playing. Occasional duty as a practice team player only made him yearn to return to the court even more.
Throughout the summer and fall, Steele had been undergoing tests to monitor his recovery from the concussion. After one such test, Alabama’s medical team approached Steele with some encouraging news.
“They told me that my vitamin D count was extremely low,” Steele said. “New research had showed a direct relationship between vitamin D levels and your ability to recover from illness and injury. So they put me on medication to help raise my levels up. There was hope I could see some improvement.”
Eventually, Steele’s doctors were encouraged enough to suggest that he could rejoin the team. Alabama coach Anthony Grant approached Steele before a Dec. 29 game against Jacksonville.
“He asked me if I’d like to play again,” Steele said. “But he wanted to talk to my parents and explain everything.”
Once all parties were convinced that Steele’s recovery from the concussion was sufficient for his return to action, Grant met with the media.
“Based on what I’ve seen,” Grant said on Jan. 2, “I think he’s more than capable of coming back and being productive.”
As Steele’s luck would have it, not long after his return, he suffered a broken toe. But compared to what he had been through previously, the latest injury was no big deal. No one outside the team even knew about it.
“The only thing he could do was walk around with a boot, stay active in practice and basically play in the games,” Grant said.
Alabama fans may have wondered where Steele—who because of his injuries had never been able to truly showcase his ability—would fit in on a team that relied heavily on a young guard corps that included sophomores Trevor Releford and Charles Hankerson and decorated freshmen Trevor Lacy, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper. But Steele surprised people starting with his first game back, scoring nine points in 12 minutes in a win over Georgia Tech.
“There was a lot of emotions [before the Georgia Tech game],” Steele said. “It was exciting, but I had a little bit of nerves because it had been so long since I’d played. There was also a sigh of relief, because I was back doing something I love and back with my teammates. That’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”
When Steele played 21 minutes against Georgia in the Tide’s next game and again scored nine points in a winning cause, eyes were opened. Maybe Steele’s return was more than just a feel-good story. Maybe he could get Alabama, which had lost its three marquee non-conference games—Georgetown, Dayton, Kansas State—untracked.
“People underestimated his importance to our team,” Grant said. “Losing him when we did last year was a big loss for us. Drew is a guy that's basketball IQ is probably his strongest quality. That's not something that you lose.”
Though Steele kept making contributions wherever he was needed—seven points, two assists, two steals against Mississippi State, a career-high eight rebounds against South Carolina—Alabama (14-7, 3-4 SEC) proceeded to nose dive in league play, losing four straight.
In what amounted to a make or break game last Saturday, the Tide played host to surprising Arkansas, which is making a charge for an NCAA Tournament berth in coach Mike Anderson’s first season despite the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Marshawn Powell. Another loss may have critically damaged Alabama’s own NCAA hopes.
Like Willis Reed those many years ago, Steele stepped up against the Razorbacks when his team needed him, playing 29 minutes, scoring 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field, grabbing six boards and handing out a career-high six assists. It was as complete a game as Steele had played in his career, and his performance helped lead Alabama to a 72-66 win.
“He's just an emotional leader; he's a guy that provides stability on the court,” Grant said after the game. “I think his heart was really on display today. I'm really proud of the effort that he gave us. I thought he affected the game in so many ways. It was good to see that."
The Arkansas game was a validation of Steele’s belief in his own ability.
“Throughout my career, despite all the injuries, my confidence never wavered,” Steele said. “I always knew what I could do. Never in my career had I been fully healthy, but now I’m probably as healthy as I’ve ever been. It had been so frustrating for me; it seemed like I was always battling back from something.”
Steele credits his teammates, coaches and family for their support during his many periods of recuperation. Fellow senior JaMychal Green, an on-court companion of Steele’s since their eighth-grade AAU playing days, encouraged his friend when he was considering his comeback. Steele’s brother Ron, who also endured an injury-marred career at Alabama, could offer the voice of experience. And Steele’s parents kept pushing an important lesson.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Steele said, “though every situation I might not be able to understand. There’s a bigger purpose, and that’s the thing my family’s kept me focused on. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Focus on what you can control.
“If we can do everything in our power to do that, the rest we just can’t worry about. And at the end of the day, you should have no regrets.”