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Joseph Uchebo continues rehabilitation ahead of season

By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

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Joseph Uchebo, a 6-foot-10-inch junior center for the Pitt men’s basketball team, has been rehabilitating for more than a year since having microfracture surgery at Chipola Junior College. He hasn’t made a full recovery, handicapping himself at 60-70 percent currently. Doctors have told him that he’ll always have to deal with pain, so he’ll never make a full recovery.

In hindsight, though, Uchebo is enthralled with 60-70 percent. At one point during his time at Chipola, that seemed unattainable.

“I didn’t even expect to be that great, but they’re doing a great job here,” Uchebo said.

The idea of a “full recovery” after surgery — especially a major one — is a flawed concept. After a surgery to address a dislocation, fracture, break or any other injury, rehabilitation is needed for the body part to reach its pre-injury capacity.

With microfracture surgery, a full recovery requires a long, strenuous rehabilitation — four to six months, sometimes longer. Even then, many don’t ever regain their pre-injury range of motion.

Microfracture surgery requires a surgeon to use a small needle to make tiny punctures in a joint surface of the knee, such as the femur, tibia or patella.

Numerous major athletes — mostly basketball players — have required the surgery. Jamal Mashburn, a one-time NBA all-star who endured chronic knee problems, had microfracture surgery in 2004 and was forced to retire in 2006 without recovering. Amar’e Stoudemire made five all-star games after having the surgery in 2005 but deeply regretted it, saying “When I went through the recovery, one day I feel great and the next day I’m in excruciating pain. It was just back and forth.”

But there’s more to Uchebo than his injury history.

Uchebo has taken a circuitous path to college basketball. A native of Nigeria, Uchebo played his senior year at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C. Originally a top-100 prospect in the class of 2011, he committed to play for North Carolina State.

He wasn’t able to qualify for the 2011 season, though, so he chose to play for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., until his transcript could pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse to gain eligibility.

It was a logical move for Uchebo. He would get his transcript in order while also improving upon his basketball skills in the process. He’d lose a year of college eligibility for every season he played there, but that wasn’t a concern. One or two years and he’d be out.

For a while, everything seemed to be working according to plan. Uchebo dominated, producing a double-double nearly every game in the early parts of his freshman season.

But it soon went downhill.

Around winter break, Uchebo landed on a player’s foot and tweaked his knee during a game. It wasn’t a major injury, and he was able to play through it without it having a major degradation in his play. But soon after, he aggravated the knee again, bumping knees with another player in Chipola’s first conference game. Again, Uchebo played through the injury.

“From everything the doctors told us, he couldn’t hurt it any worse playing on it the last five or six games,” said Patrick Blake, Chipola’s head coach.

Immediately, it was clear that the injury severely affected Uchebo, and he was unable to run or jump without pain. Despite the pain, Uchebo pushed through the rest of the season through advisement from his coaches.

But after the season, an MRI revealed that he needed microfracture surgery for his right knee. The main injury came in his lack of cartilage between his kneecap, which caused him extreme pain. He also needed his meniscus cleaned up because of a prior injury, which doctors determined occurred before his time at Chipola.

Following the surgery, Uchebo was in for one of the most difficult rehabilitations in sports. He’d have to be physically tough to bear the process, though mostly he’d need mental strength. Even when his progress seemed minimal, he’d have to keep his spirits up and push through.

“He’s a competitor,” Blake said. “He works hard, he has a great work ethic.”

Daily rehabilitation was necessary to optimize the recovery from microfracture surgery.

“When you’re coming back from an injury, every day is a rehab day,” said Tim Beltz, Pitt men’s basketball assistant strength and conditioning coach.

In that sense, Uchebo wasn’t coming close to optimizing the rehab process at Chipola. Because his physical therapy was outside of school, he needed his coaches to drive him there. They had other obligations, and Uchebo was usually only able to make it there twice a week — sometimes not at all for the week. The subsequent results were predictable.

“No, no, it wasn’t [getting better]. I couldn’t even stay up on my own. I had to walk one leg at a time,” Uchebo said.

Due to his lack of progress, Uchebo was redshirted his sophomore year. Unsurprisingly, he received sparse interest from major Division I schools.

Pre-injury, coaches rushed to give their pitches to him. After the injury, he seemed like damaged goods to most. However, some schools believed in his talent and ability to recover from the injury. Pitt was one of those schools.

“When coach [Jamie] Dixon came down, he knew that I was a great player,” Uchebo said. “They already knew the deal. If they get me to 70, 80 percent, I will be a good player.”

After taking official visits to Pitt and Minnesota, Uchebo decided on Pitt. There was mutual trust, and that combined with Pitt’s top-end medical staff was enough for him to make the decision.

“Being from Nigeria, trust is a big thing for Joe,” Blake said. “Communication and being upfront and honest about everything. I think [at Pitt] Joe just felt most at home.”

Read part two of this story in Wednesday’s edition.

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Joseph Uchebo continues rehabilitation ahead of season