March 4, 2009.
Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns were getting ready to play in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at the Cajundome. The Cajuns were hosting a first round game for the second time in three years. Florida International was the opponent. The winner would head to Hot Springs, Arkansas for the quarterfinals. For the loser, the season was over.
La'Ryan Gary, the Cajuns junior forward, didn't play his first season at Louisiana because he did not qualify academically. But he had already suffered a first round tournament loss. His sophomore season, the Cajuns had suffered an upset loss to Troy after tying for the Western Divison championship.
La'Ryan Gary didn't like losing. He, in fact, despised losing. And he was determined this night that the Cajuns would win and advance to the quarterfinals.
But on this night, things would change for the 6-6 graduate of Carencro High School. And, winning a basketball game would suddenly become secondary.
It happened with 2:20 left in the first half. FIU had gotten off to a quick start and built a double digit lead. Gary had scored six points, but picked up two early fouls. As a result, he spent nine minutes on the bench. But he re-entered the game and, with the Cajuns in possession, ran downcourt, left his feet and went high in the air to get a lob pass from a teammate.
He was screaming in agony before he hit the ground.
It was a freak injury. As he left his feet, his patella stretched and tried to tear. Something had to give. What gave was Gary's tibia, in the area where the patella attaches to the bone. It's called an avulsion fracture. Gary's kneecap also dislocated. Those who were sitting on that side of the Cajundome said it was the most gruesome injury they'd ever seen. Despite some stories told after the fact, it was not a compound fracture. But it was bad. Very bad.
Ragin' Cajuns basketball athletic trainer B. J. Duplantis was on the other end of the court. When Gary landed, Duplantis initially thought Gary might have shattered his tailbone. (As it turned out, Gary had broken his fall with his hands palms down. It was fortunate that one or both arms didn't break as well.) But by the time he got to half court, Duplantis knew what had happened. And, by the time he reached Gary and saw the extent of the injury, his first thought was that Gary had played his last basketball for the Cajuns.
"Honestly, I thought it was over for him," Duplantis later said.
Former assistant coach Jai Steadman rushed to Gary as well. Steadman positioned his own body to shield Gary's view of the leg. He just kept repeating, "it's gonna be okay, LG. It's gonna be okay."
But Head Coach Robert Lee knew it wasn't going to be okay. He went onto the court, thinking that Gary had perhaps torn an ACL. But when he saw the injury, he, too was sure Gary's career as a Cajun had come to and end. And, it hurt Lee deeply. Gary was Lee's most competitive player. And, his teammates fed off his energy.
La'Ryan's mother, Janelle was at the game as well. Standing nearly six feet tall, Janelle Gary is a tough woman who, herself, has overcome great personal adversity. She raised La'Ryan mostly by herself. She was the one who pushed La'Ryan, both in school and out. She demanded his best. She is La'Ryan Gary's harshest critic. She is also La'Ryan Gary's biggest fan. Everyone calls her Ms. 'Nell. She calls everyone "darlin'."
"I never saw his leg while they worked on him," she said. And, that's probably a good thing. I rode with La'Ryan to the hospital in the ambulance. But it hurt me so bad, darlin', that he was in such pain."
Within minutes, Gary was being loaded onto a stretcher. And, as Duplantis headed back to the Cajuns' bench, shaken, he saw his boss, John Porche, the long-time director of sports medicine. Porche happened to be at the game that night. Duplantis met with Porche and Dr. Dan Carroll to give a report on the severity of the injury. Porche had already called Dr. John Schutte at Acadiana Orthepedic Group. After speaking with Duplantis, Porche called Dr. Schutte again to update him. Schutte immediately left for the hospital. Surgery would be performed that night.
Schutte did the surgery. He inserted four screws into the area just below the knee. Recovery was going to be long and painful. Schutte was just hoping that Gary, after rehabilitation, would be able to walk normally. There was no discussion about La'Ryan continuing his career. It was just assumed he was done as a player. Schutte privately told Lee just that when the coach arrived after the game. "We all went to the hospital after the game," Lee said. "We visted with Ms. 'Nell and Dr. Schutte came out when surgery was over. Then he pulled me to the side and told me La'Ryan's career was probably over. I didn't tell Ms. 'Nell."
Ms. 'Nell worked a lot and because of her schedule she wouldn't be available to give La'Ryan the constant care he needed upon his release from the hospital. Gary went to stay with an aunt, Debra Gary, Ms. 'Nell's sister. She would be at home to take care of her nephew. But, after a couple of weeks, La'Ryan got a little stir crazy. He was ready to go back to his apartment, at University Place, across the street from the Cajun Track Complex. Ms. 'Nell wasn't happy. But Duplantis assured her that he'd be right across the street if La'Ryan needed him. And, he lived close by. Ms. 'Nell relented, and La'Ryan went home to his apartment and his roommate, teammate Travis Bureau.
It was two full months before La'Ryan could begin his rehab. And, he was impatient. He argued with Duplantis and with the therapists at McLeod-Trahan-Sheffield about how slowly things were going. He felt like they were all babying him. But the trainer and the therapists explained that the rehab HAD to be slow. And, once it was thoroughly explained, La'Ryan accepted it and got down to business. His goal was not to walk normally. His goal was to play basketball--next season.
By the time summer rolled around, La'Ryan Gary was recovering. Rapidly. It was obvious that his surgeon had done a remarkable job. Gary was allowed to begin running and working out. And, for a while it looked as though that goal of playing in the 2009-10 season just might happen. The plan was for Gary to continue treatment and working out. And, hopefully, by December, he would be ready to rejoin the Ragin' Cajuns in uniform.
Gary started working out, doing some running and other skill work. He started light participation in pickup games. But after playing in a pickup game in late September, he noticed some swelling in the knee. Duplantis gave him daily treatment, but the swelling didn't go down. Finally Dr. Schutte ordered an MRI on La'Ryan's knee.
La'Ryan Gary had torn his meniscus.
More surgery would be necessary.
On October 20, 2009, Schutte performed a second surgery, this one an orthroscopic proceedure to repair the tear. Duplantis met with Lee to inform him that Gary wouldn't be ready to play by at least February, if ever. Because Gary was a non-qualifier, there was a chance that he could get another year of eligibility if he completed 80% of his core curriculum toward his degree. Lee and Duplantis investigated and found that Gary was on track to get another season. The decision was made that Gary would be redshirted. Now La'Ryan had to be told.
Gary and Duplantis went to see Dr. Schutte for a followup visit. While waiting for the doctor, Duplantis prepared Gary for the worst. "I told him there was a chance that the doc would say he was done. I told him he needed to prepare himself for life after basketball." But Schutte didn't say Gary was done, only that he couldn't play in the upcoming season. After the conversation Gary had with the trainer, this wasn't devastating news. But while Gary couldn't play, he had time time to think about what he would do. He just didn't want to be another injured player, totally away from the game he loved. Away from his teammates.
Gary told Duplantis he wanted to coach.
A meeting was set up with Coach Lee, Duplantis, Gary and Ms. 'Nell to discuss the possibility of La'Ryan being a part of the program although he wasn't able to play. The choice was going to be Lee's. For him the choice was easy.
"I made a promise to Ms. 'Nell when I recruited La'Ryan that I would take care of him. I promised her I'd push him on the court and I'd push him in the classroom. We knew La'Ryan wanted to coach someday when his career was finished. We decided that during the season, he'd travel with the team. He would attend practice. And, he would sit next to me on the bench." Lee had another pair of eyes for the season. Gary had on-the-job training.
The Cajuns got off to a slow start, which was frustrating for all involved. But Lee's squad put it all together on a Saturday in December, beating a very good Sam Houston State team on the road, 95-85. No one knew it at the time, but there would be a Sam Houston connection that would shape the Cajuns', and Gary's future.
Gary didn't have many duties in practice. He would continue his rehab and undergo treatment while practice was taking place. But he observed intently and didn't hesitate to go to Lee or one of the assistant coaches with observations and suggestions. On game nights, Gary, seated next to Lee on the Cajuns' bench, was responsible for weakside defense. He would look specifically at that part of the Cajuns game and reported to Lee on what he saw. Again, he didn't hesitate to make suggestions. Gary, who had always been on the court, now got a new perspective on the game.
The Cajuns responded during conference play, going undefeated at the Cajundome. They finished with a 10-8 conference record and were seeded in the middle of the pack for the tournament. This year, for the first time, every team would go to Hot Springs to participate in the tournament, after three straight years of playing first round games at campus sites. After falling in the first round for three straight years, it was hoped that the new format would be a reversal of fortune.
The Cajuns first round opponent was Louisiana-Monroe, the only team the Cajuns had beaten twice during conference play. ULM got off to a fast start and the Cajuns played from behind most of the night. Warhawks senior guard Tony Hooper was having a big night. But the Cajuns battled back and took the lead late in the game. Trailing by two, ULM worked the ball for a final shot. Everyone knew that ULM would go to Hooper. What no one knew was if ULM would play for the tie or the win. The Cajuns defended extremely well and the Warhawks looked out of sorts. And, with time winding down, Hooper dribbled left and with two Cajuns defending, let fly a three pointer. Swish. :00.6 left. The Cajuns season again was over.
More disappointment for the Cajuns players. More disappointment for La'Ryan Gary. Gary felt for the Cajuns seniors, especially Sun Belt Player of the Year Tyren Johnson. For them, their college careers were finished. But Gary wasn't finished. He was getting another year of eligibility. He would get a do-over for his senior season. Gary planned to make the most of it, and he was ready to put his coaching career on hold.
La'Ryan Gary planned to be ready to play basketball.
A new regime
The loss to ULM turned out to be the final game for Robert Lee as the Cajuns' head coach. Louisiana won a championship during his first season and the Cajuns gave Louisville all they wanted in the NCAA tournament before suffering a six point loss. But, with exception of a Western Division co-championship, there wasn't much on court success for the Cajuns after that first year.
The University interviewed five candidates. Many Cajuns fans wanted to offer the job to Tim Floyd, the former New Orleans, Iowa State and USC head coach who also had two stints in the NBA. Others wanted to see former Cajuns assistant Butch Pierre finally get a chance to show what he could do as a head coach. But Athletics Director David Walker and Sr. Associate Scott Farmer zeroed in early on Bob Marlin, the successful head coach at Sam Houston State, who the Cajuns had beaten in Huntsville in their best performance of the season. Marlin had a working knowledge of the Cajuns, having played them two years in a row. La'Ryan Gary, in a game played against SHSU in the Cajundome his junior season, had no points and three rebounds in 20 minutes of action. After accepting the job, Marlin called his good friend, Arkansas-Little Rock coach Steve Shields, for the skinny on the Cajuns.
"Steve said he felt La'Ryan Gary was our second best returning player after Chris Gradnigo. We both knew La'Ryan had missed the season because of an injury, but Steve said he was really athletic and could play inside and outside. But we (Marlin's staff) didn't know how effective he could be."
After taking over, Marlin began off season workouts. He was impressed by Gary's athleticism and work ethic. Gary had decided that he'd go all out and if another injury happened, it happened. Gary worked hard every day during workouts, and he impressed his new coaches.
"It wasn't long after we started that (assistant coach) Neil (Hardin) came to me and said that LaRyan was better than we originally thought," Marlin said. "He was going to be able to help us. The question was, how much would he be able to play?"
Spring turned into summer. Gradnigo decided to transfer to another program for his senior season. Gary continued to work out on his own. In the fall of 2010, organized practice began. The coaches soon learned about Gary's limitations. He couldn't practice two days in a row because of the swelling in his knee. In addition, he had developed severe arthritis in the knee, which sometimes caused him excruciating pain. He took treatment every day, but the pounding the knee took in practice precluded his being able to participate on a daily basis. There were times he would have to take himself out of practice because of the pain. But he continued to work.
But before the season started, there was another setback. Gary went to see Dr. Schutte, who drained fluid from his knee. Ms. 'Nell said she and LaRyan were told that Gary wouldn't be able to play because of the daily wear and tear on the knee. That day was devastating for them both.
"I just held him and we both cried. He had worked so hard to try and come back. He was so hurt by the news." But after one of the roughest days of the whole process, Ms. 'Nell reminded La'Ryan who was in charge.
"My mama told me through all of this that no matter how bad it was and no matter what the doctors said, that I just need to give it all up to God. God will decide how much I get to play," Gary said.
Gary went back to practice. Marlin was so impressed with Gary's leadership and hard work that he named Gary one of the Cajuns' captains before the season started, along with fellow senior Randell Daigle and newcomer Josh Brown.
And, the new coach went one step farther. He decided to honor Gary by giving him a start in the first game of the season against New Mexico State.
"We felt like La'Ryan had earned that. We knew that if we were lucky, we might get 15 minutes a game from him, maybe 20 tops. But he had worked so hard that we thought it was only right that he be in the starting lineup opening night."
Duplantis, who had continued to oversee La'Ryan's rehab and daily treatment, was touched by the coach's sensitivity.
"He told me that day that he was going to give La'Ryan a start. I got all choked up when he told me. But he didn't want me to say anything. It was a pretty tough secret to keep."
Marlin gave the starting lineup in the locker room before the game.
That night, La'Ryan Gary was introduced as a starting forward and for the first time since March, 2009, he took the court in a real game for the Cajuns. He played 18 minutes. His line for the night: six points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals. The Cajuns lost the game, but La'Ryan Gary was back.
"Oh, darlin' I was so nervous before the game. I just prayed and prayed for La'Ryan to stay healthy. Every game I just give him to God. But one New Mexico State player got rough and threw La'Ryan to the floor while fighting for the ball. I was ready to come out of the stands and whup him, I really was."
Gary came off the bench and played eleven minutes against Louisiana College. The next game, Gary had to remove himself from shootaround because of pain in his knee. He played only nine minutes that night against Creighton, got into foul trouble and was largely ineffective.
But Marlin gave him another start against Cleveland State in the Cajundome. And, that night, Gary surprised everyone by playing 30 minutes, and scored 19 points, one off his career high, to go along with six rebounds and four steals. He came off the bench the next game against Houston and played 26 minutes, scoring 13 points. He played fewer than 20 minutes in the next three games, all Cajuns losses.
Following an embarassing loss to Texas College at the Cajundome, the team at 1-7 and in disarray. Gary felt it was time to go and have a visit with his coach.
"La'Ryan came to me," Marlin said, "and talked about how frustrated he was and how his teammates were. There were problems, as frequently happens with a first year coach. I listened for a while and then suggested to him we have a team meeting where we could clear the air. La'Ryan took the initiative. That's what a captain does."
They had the meeting and aired some laundry. But the Cajuns lost their next game as well, to a red hot Central Florida team.
The news wasn't all bad for Gary, however. He had set a goal to finish his academic requirements during the fall semester. And, he set another goal to finish the semester on the Dean's List. When final exam grades came in, Gary had achieved both of his goals.
On December 18th, 2010, La'Ryan Jesse Gary, son of Ms. 'Nell, an academic non-qualifier coming out of high school, walked across the Cajundome stage and became the very first ever in his family to receive his college degree. And, he did it with a 3.0 average in his final semester.
"I was so proud. I think I cried most of the day. And when they called his name, darlin', I yelled out loud."
The next day, the Cajuns came back from a double-digit deficit to defeat long-time rival Lamar. Gary played only eleven minutes in the game, but his team came away with the win, capping off a perfect weekend. He didn't play in the next game against NMSU, a narrow Cajuns loss.
After the Lamar game, I saw Ms. 'Nell. I walked up and gave her a big hug. "I know you're proud of that boy," I told her. "I sure am, darlin,' " she said. "For yesterday and today."
Conference play was about to begin, and for Gary, things were going about as planned. He played more than 20 minutes three times in the first eleven games. He played fewer than fifteen minutes three times. He had three games where he scored in double figures.
Over the next four games, Gary played twenty minutes only once, in a 93-91 overtime loss to Middle Tennessee. He tied his career high with 20 points before fouling out.
When the Cajuns hit the road for the next two games, the roster had a different look. Senior Colby Batiste would not be returning for the new semester after completing his degree requirements. And fellow senior Courtney Wallace had an academic issue which would eventually cost him his final semester as well. The Cajuns lost both games on the Arkansas swing, but both losses were by single digits and the Cajuns had a chance to win both games late. Gary played a grand total of 21 minutes in the two games. But with two big men no longer available and junior Scottie Farrington sidelined with a pulled rib cage muscle, the Cajuns had issues inside.
The Cajuns were coming home for a big week. Saddled with a 3-14 record, the Cajuns hosted winless Centenary for the last non-conference game of the season. Then Saturday, rival Louisiana-Monroe would be in. That weekend, a reunion of former players and coaches would be held and a good crowd was expected.
La'Ryan Gary knew that the weekend would be big. He also knew that with only J. J. Thomas, Travis Bureau, Javan Mitchell and himself remaining of players 6-5 or taller, that it was time for Gary to make a bigger contribution.
He was mentally ready. But would his body betray him?
Gary scored eleven points in 13 minutes against Centenary in an easy blowout victory. Then, in front of a season-high 5600 fans, Gary had 18 points in 22 minutes against ULM as the Cajuns won back to back games for the first time all season. North Texas then came to town for a rematch of a game played on New Year's Day. Gary played only seventeen minutes, but had fourteen points and five rebounds in the 93-88 Cajuns' victory. But on this night, Gary "tweaked" his knee and was hurting so badly he was in tears on the bench. But after returning to the game, he had a Sportscenter-type highlight when he didn't give up on a North Texas breakaway and blocked a layup from behind at a crucial time of the game. The Cajuns converted on the other end. Despite playing in agony, Gary had made a game-changing play.
The Cajuns were now 6-14, but all six wins had come at home. Louisiana's next game was at South Alabama and it fell on the exact anniversary of the Cajuns' last road victory at ULM. The Cajuns got off to a good start and were going back and forth with the Jaguars. The Cajuns were winning the rebounding battle, but midway through the second half, South Alabama had consecutive possessions where they got four and five chances to score the basketball. Gary had had enough. And, his statement to his team was picked up by the television microphones courtside.
"GET THE DAMN BALL," he screamed.
The Cajuns rebounded well the rest of the game. Teammate and roomate Travis Bureau wound up with 20 rebounds and the freshman J. J. Thomas had a career high 28 points. Gary played a season high 36 minutes, scoring 19 points with five rebounds. The Cajuns had an overtime win and won their fourth straight game.
After his long playing stint, Gary had six days before the Cajuns were due back in action. Marlin gave the Cajuns two badly needed days off. Gary didn't practice on Wednesday, but came back on Thursday to get ready for the Saturday contest. He played 23 minutes in the win over UALR, scoring eight points and gathering five rebounds. It was the first time during the win streak that Gary had scored in single digits.
At a press conference prior to the UALR game, Gary was asked about the knee. He went into detail about his injury, smiling the entire time. When asked about the pain he was going through, he said "There are some days, even during shootaround, when it's just killin' me. But when it's time to play, I just block it out."
The Florida swing was next. Gary had twelve points and four assists, playing 31 minutes in a win over Florida International. Now, it was a short trip to Boca Raton to take on league leading Florida Atlantic, who was 10-2 in conference play. Gary did not practice on Friday as usual. But as the Cajuns prepared to play the Owls, how much would Gary be able to play after playing over 30 minutes two nights before?
The game was tight at halftime. And, early in the second half, Gary had to come out of the game because he was hobbling badly on the court. The pain in his knee was worse than it was in the UNT game. Duplantis talked with Gary and reported back to Marlin. Gary had told Duplantis he'd be ready to go at about the twelve-minute mark. Gary didn't wait that long. With just under 14 minutes left, Gary asked to go back in the game.
But it was clear that Gary was in trouble. He could get up and down the court, but every time the whistle blew to stop play, he was limping noticeably. And, when the team went to the bench for the media timeout with just under twelve minutes to play, Duplantis had seen enough.
"I told him, 'La'Ryan, you've got to come out." And he said 'I'm okay.' And I told him again, you gotta come out.' And he looked at me and said 'I'm not comin' out. I'll suck it up and deal with it after the game.' I knew I wasn't going to win that argument."
Play resumed. And, the Cajuns held FAU without a field goal over the last eleven minutes. After re-entering the game, Gary scored ten points down the stretch, including two three pointers. Yet, every time the whistle blew, Gary had to drag his left leg behind him as he walked downcourt. His lack of mobility got him a couple of fouls. Still he played. He got an offensive rebound and a putback. He got fouled and made two free throws. But it was obvious that he was in the worst pain he had experienced all season. More than once he waved to Duplantis as if to say, once again, that coming out of the game wasn't going to happen.
Gary finished the game as the Cajuns got the upset win 72-64. But after the handshakes, Gary finally succumbed to the pain. He sat on the bench, unable to move. Finally, two teammates told him they would carry him to the locker room. Gary refused. But he couldn't walk on his own. Supported by his teammates, Gary went and joined his teammates in thanking the Cajuns fans who were in attendance. Then, with his arms draped around two of his teammates, Gary slowly headed to the locker room.
After the team prayer Gary lay on the locker room floor, tears streaming down his face from the pain. By this time, Duplantis had given La'Ryan an anti-inflammatory drug that had not yet taken effect. Eventually, the team was ready to head back to the hotel. They asked Gary if he needed help. "No," he said. "Just help me up. I'm walkin.'"
The Cajuns' captain and inspirational leader then walked to the bus. Unaided.
Gary didn't practice at all the next week. He participated in shootaround on Thursday and was one of the first at the arena Thursday night as the Cajuns got ready to play Arkansas State, a team one game ahead of the Cajuns in the western division. And, although he moved around well, Duplantis was concerned. "He's hurting," Duplantis told me before the broadcast. "He's gonna go, but he's hurting." The hurting Gary played another 30 minutes, scoring fourteen points with four rebounds as the Cajuns won their eighth straight before 5300 rowdy fans at the Cajundome.
Saturday night against Western Kentucky, Gary got in foul trouble and played only twenty minutes, scoring three points with four rebounds. The Cajuns had a seventeen point lead early in the second half before WKU went on a 21-4 run and eventually tied the game. Gary was on the bench, but he wasn't idle.
"We had a timeout and I was talking to my assistants about adjustments," Marlin said. "By the time I got to the huddle, La'Ryan had been pretty demonstrative with his teammates. I just had to talk about what we were going to do next. He had already done the rest."
The Cajuns rallied again, as they have so often during the streak, and prevailed 67-64.
The Cajuns, 3-14 and 1-5 in conference play in Mid-January, had won nine straight and had moved into a three way tie for first place in the Sun Belt Conference West.
The Cajuns play their final home game of the season Thursday night against Denver in the Cajundome. It will be the final time at home for Gary and teammates Travis Bureau and Randell Daigle. At a Monday press conference, I asked Gary, considering all he had been through, what his emotions were. "I can't put them into words," he told me. "But I know it's going to be an emotional night for all of us."
"I know I'm gonna cry, darlin," Ms. 'Nell said. "But it's going to be so special for La'Ryan and Travis and Randell. I just thank God for giving them all this chance."
Tuesday at Marlin's Rebounders' Club, Gary was asked about the upcoming conference tournament and the fact that the Cajuns would have to play on three, perhaps four consecutive days in order to keep advancing in the tournament.
La' Ryan Gary, who can't practice on consecutive days, looked directly at the member who asked the question and said, "I've never gotten to play in Hot Springs. I'll be ready to go. I'll let my adrenaline carry me through."
La'Ryan Gary has never played in postseason. His team has never won a game in a Sun Belt Tournament. But Gary and his teammates, with wins in their final two regular season games will have their legacy permanently recorded with a Western Division Championship banner at the Cajundome. Even if that doesn't occur, Gary has made his mark on the program.
Robert Lee told me, "He has the heart of a lion. There haven't been too many like him."
Marlin agrees. "The night I interviewed for the job, (former athletics director) David Walker told me that La'Ryan Gary was the heart and soul of our team. He was right. He's a warrior. He's a leader. He's everything you want in a player and a teammate. He's going to make a great coach."
But before embarking on a new career, La'Ryan Gary just wants to play some more.