Dec. 20, 2008
By Jack Wilkinson
As homecomings go, D’Andre Bell’s didn’t go as planned. Not at all. Not even close. Not that he’s complaining.
“No, it wasn’t so much as me asking, `Why me?'” the Georgia Tech senior swingman said a week ago on the Flats. “I understand that God has a plan for everybody in life.”
God’s plan diverged greatly from Tech’s pre-Christmas itinerary. On Thursday, when he should’ve been flying to California with his teammates, Bell was already in a Los Angeles area hospital, undergoing surgery on his spine. On Friday, when the Jackets were practicing in Malibu and enjoying the view, he was recovering in his room in Marina Del Rey Hospital. On Saturday, when Tech plays Pepperdine in the first of a two-game southern California swing designed as his homecoming tour, Bell will likely be discharged from the hospital or itching to do so.
One thing he won’t be doing? Indulging in self-pity.
“When it first happened, I was in shock,” Bell said of the Oct. 10 pre-season collision with a teammate; he hit his head on the player’s leg and felt numbness in his extremities. That led to a jolting diagnosis: spinal stenosis, a congenital condition in which the spinal canal narrows and compresses the spinal cord.
As jarring as the diagnosis was – and the potential ramifications if the stenosis hadn’t been detected – and the disappointment of missing what should have been his senior season, Bell accepted both with maturity and grace. “I remained calm and stayed positive,” said the 6-foot-6 wing who had his best season last year, averaging 6.6 points per game and playing superb defense on the perimeter. “I just stayed in my bubble. The Lord says count it all [equally], the good and the bad.”
Even when the bad is even worse than feared. “I walked in with a lot of confidence,” Bell said of his examination and diagnosis at the Emory Orthopedic and Spine Center. “I thought I’d have to do a little re-hab, and then get back to starting my final year. When I found out the outcome, I was at a loss for words.”
No basketball. Perhaps for good. Instinctively, Bell phoned his family: His father, D’Andre, mother Onerra. His grandfather, too. “Everyone,” he said. “They did the best thing they ever could’ve done for me. They said, `We love you, no matter what happens.’
“My grandfather and father said, `You’ve already had an amazing achievement being in college. Basketball, that’s not why we love you.”
“As an athlete,” Bell said, “sometimes you get caught up in `I have to do this for my family.’ It [professional basketball] is an easy way to make a difference financially. I’m glad they instilled in me to have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
If Plan A was to play hoops, Plan B was to earn a college degree. Bell is on track to graduate in May with a B.S. in management. Plan C? “I’m contemplating whether I want to get my masters – an M.B.A.” Bell said.
If so, if he’s accepted into Tech’s management program, then Bell could begin work on his masters next year while hopefully playing basketball on the Flats, yes? “No, I’m gonna transfer,” Bell said, smiling, then roaring with laughter. His interviewer roared, too.
“Yeah, I’m gonna play [at Tech],” Bell said, still smiling. Still hopeful that a successful surgery and recovery will enable that.
“I should be bed-rested for two or three days,” he said, back in the Edge Athletic Center before flying home. “I should be able to walk. I won’t be able to play basketball, or get back on the court, for four to six months.” For the past couple of months, Bell’s been in surprisingly good spirits. He’s also been a presence at practice, and during games. He’d been “all right, in good spirits, very positive. As every human, I might’ve had a lapse or two. But I’ve been pretty consistent.”
His role has changed. “It was more me being at practice every day, supporting the guys, giving them my experience,” Bell said. “When I was playing and being a leader, I found showing somebody how to do something was very effective, more than just telling them.
“Now, I’m learning a lot, more about basketball,” he said. “And I’m still connected with the [basketball] family we have. I’m trying to grow as a basketball player: watching film, watching practices, trying to see and visualize why Coach does things that he does. It’s not just putting a ball through the hoop.
“I see things I hadn’t seen. I don’t know if that’s more being here four years, or maturing. I’m a guy of detail. If Coach wants us to do a cut a certain way, I try to do that. But now I’m seeing how it works, and why, and seeing it done. It’s a whole different perspective.”
Even if his daily basketball routine had largely remained intact. “I was still part of the team,” Bell said. “I was there for every practice, almost every workout. My routine stayed the same, but I did notice a big gap in my day.”
He noticed this, too: How receptive teammates were to Bell sharing “the knowledge I’d garnered over the years.” Yes, he said. “I was surprised.” He smiled. “Don’t say surprised.” And he laughed.
And they listened: Gary Cage, the senior walk-on guard from Atlanta. Bassirou Dieng, the Senegalese forward, St. Francis (Pa.) graduate now in grad school at Tech, and Bell’s roommate. And Nick Foreman, the freshman from Texas, who has been most receptive to Bell’s counsel.
“He’s taken to me the most as far as listening, and coming to me for advice,’ Bell said. “I do my best to stay [involved]. At times, whether it’s a good thing or bad thing, I don’t think I’m of any use.” He smiled. “But Nick’s assured me I’m being helpful.
“I’m the type of guy, whoever comes with open arms, whatever they want to learn, I’ll share with anyone,” he said. “He that has an ear, let him hear, you know?”
On Friday, the news out of Marina Del Rey was very promising. Thursday’s six-hour surgery, performed by Dr. Robert Watkins, perhaps the foremost spinal surgeon in the country, had gone very well. Bell’s pre-surgery preview, before flying home a week ago: “They’re trying to open up the spinal canal, so the cord that goes through my spin and nervous system will have more space.”
According to Tech basketball trainer Richard Stewart, Watkins had fractured the vertebrae, and increased the spacing around the spinal column. After practice, after the surgery, Paul Hewitt and his coaching staff and all the Jackets were at the hospital, hoping to see Bell, who wore a brace around his neck.
After Saturday’s game at Pepperdine, Bell is expected to be discharged from the hospital on Sunday. And on Monday night, D’Andre Bell plans to be in attendance when Tech plays Southern Cal. Perhaps his homecoming is not so bad after all.