By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
There was a time not all that long ago when two Georgia Tech teenagers went so far out of their way to slow down that they might as well have retired to senior living centers, and for both Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood II, it was all about self-preservation.
Injuries canceled their promising freshman seasons before completion, and they each underwent surgery, yet in some ways the basketball players are quite different.
Alvarado blew onto The Flats from New York City with a tendency to go for the throat, and Haywood rolled in from Oklahoma City like a tumbleweed and caught on fire.
They can almost — almost — laugh now that they have finished eight weeks of summer workouts and practices with the Jackets after hibernating for a few months. They were cleared to participate, but they’ll tell you that business of shutting it all down last winter in the middle of your prime in order to rehabilitate injury was brutal.
“Rehab is really tough. You’ve got to be mentally tough about it,” Alvarado said. “I wanted to quit sometimes, but my teammates and my family made sure I was on the right path. Even when I was hurt, I wanted to play. I love basketball.”
Haywood’s freshman season was twice interrupted by a stress reaction in his right shin, and he now carries a chunk of metal in his leg.
“I got surgery in March. They put a metal rod in my knee, all the way down my leg with a screw on the side,” he said. “I’m going to keep that in the rest of my life.”
The Jackets endured many kinds of misery last season, the second at Tech for head coach Josh Pastner, and these injuries were high on the list.
Alvarado started the first 25 games, and the 6-foot point guard wasted no time identifying himself as a torpedo.
He plays hard and fast all the time. In the end — his coming with six regular-season games and an ACC Tournament contest left on the schedule – he finished as Tech’s third-leading scorer with a 12.1-point average. Even though he missed the last seven games, Alvarado paced the Jackets with 77 assists and 43 steals.
While he may have an outsized fear of slowing down, he had little choice but to slog after his surgery because of that thing doctors put on his left arm. After trying his standard plan of attack shortly after surgery, for the next two-plus months he did little that related to basketball or physical activity.
“I couldn’t because even when I’d hit the weight room and do a bunch of sit-ups, work on my core and my legs, I couldn’t because the cast on my arm, it was sweating,” he said. “When you want to sleep at night, and your arm is itchy, it’s hard. I tried to stay as calm as I could, study film.”
Haywood’s skein has been both less absolute and yet complicated. His season-ending injury wasn’t instantaneous, but rather accumulative.
After playing off the bench in the season opener against UCLA in Shanghai, he started the next seven games, and on several occasions he popped 3-point shots like mad. He hit 5-of-7 long balls against North Texas.
Then, he was sidelined by a sore leg.
“It started a couple games before conference play. When we went to practice against Georgia, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump, I couldn’t shoot, so I didn’t know what was going on and [athletic trainer] Richard [Stewart] didn’t know what was going on, so I got an MRI. They told me I had a stress reaction. I was mad. I was disappointed.”
After missing the next six games, he played seven, and by then the aching returned and was so severe that Haywood closed the book on his first collegiate season.
He went into limited-movement mode.
“They told me that if I kept playing, I could’ve broken my leg like [former Louisville student-athlete] Kevin Ware or [former NBA Indiana Pacer] Paul George, so when I thought about that, I was so happy that I stopped playing,” he said.
“It was just work on my upper body strength, work on my core a lot … just watching games and wishing I could be out there.”
Both players worked themselves into better shape early this summer, and Pastner looks forward to their availability when the 2018-19 season begins.
“Curt, the first day he was cleared … he was not good whatsoever. I remember telling our staff, ‘Man, he looked slow, he just looked like a bad player,’” the coach said.
Yet, “I also remembered that he hadn’t done anything in over six months because he wasn’t allowed any activity,” Pastner explained. “Curt, towards the end of the summer, he’s been really good. He’s getting his conditioning back, he’s getting his shot and rhythm back, and he’s really playing at a high level.”
Alvarado will again be a strong candidate to start in the backcourt, where highly-regarded freshman Michael Devoe joins the mix, and transfer Shembari Phillips and graduate student Brandon Alston also will factor alongside Haywood.
With the departure of Tech’s three leading scorers last season – Josh Okogie, Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson, the Jackets figure to pick up the offensive pace next season. With that in mind, Haywood has focused on his ball handling skills, and he suggested that, “We can be the fastest team in the country, I think.”
Alvarado is on board with that, and revved up for another season as the Jackets welcome freshmen Devoe and forwards Khalid Moore and Kristian Sjolund.
“We all have that guilt that we didn’t have a good season last year,” Alvarado said. “I’m not going to tell you our offense, but it’s a little more fast-paced. It’s about putting more shots up.
“Michael Devoe’s got a great jump shot. He’s real skilled with his footwork, and Khalid is very active on defense. Kristian, he’s all-around. They’re going to be real good for us.”