He’s smiling as he’s cradling a basketball in his arm, taking a quick break from practice Wednesday afternoon at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to talk about the circumstances that led him to this moment in his life.
“I’m enjoying myself,” John says. “It’s not fun adjusting. That’s hard. After not playing for three years, it’s been difficult at times. But just being able to come out and play basketball every day is something that I’m definitely not taking for granted.”
John, 23, is one of the best comeback stories in college basketball this season. A senior guard on the UMSL basketball team, he made the decision to stop playing basketball three years ago when he was a redshirt freshman playing for Rick Majerus at Saint Louis University.
His battered right knee had suffered a torn meniscus, torn patellar tendon and broken kneecap. Majerus, fearful of the long-term implications of those injuries, advised John to stop playing college basketball.
At the time, John said, it was the worst thing he’d ever experienced.
“I never had a death or anybody die or anything like that,” he says. “That was the hardest thing because a part of me died. That was the basketball player. That was kind of my identity up to that point.”
John continued to be a part of the SLU basketball program. He remained on scholarship, but instead of taking the court at Chaifetz Arena he watched from the bench and cheered on his teammates.
That wasn’t easy for a kid who helped McCluer North win the Missouri state championship while in high school and started nine games as a redshirt freshman, when he averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per game, before suffering a season-ending injury. His once-promising career had instead turned him into a spectator as the Billikens made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons.
After rehabbing the injury that ended his redshirt freshman season, John worked to keep himself in shape and regularly played pickup games whenever his schedule allowed. He wasn’t able to practice with the Billikens, so he sought refuge at SLU’s rec center to feed his hoops fix.
All the while, John longed to give basketball another shot.
He decided to play one final year at nearby UMSL, a Division II school that competes in the Great Lakes Valley Conference against schools like Maryville, Truman State, Drury and Rockhurst.
“I think it worked out real well for him and I think it’s going to work out tremendously for UMSL because we’re getting a terrific kid and student,” first-year UMSL coach Bob Sundvold says. “He’s working on his MBA, so hopefully we can get something done for him basketball-wise. He’s been terrific.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior guard found a kindred spirit at UMSL in senior guard Darian Cartharn, a former Division I player who also suffered a knee injury after tearing his ACL years ago.
John and Cartharn, 22, are roommates and also the old men on the Tritons’ roster. Cartharn arrived at UMSL after starting out at Wright State and then transferring to Salt Lake Community College in Utah. He led the Tritons in scoring at 14.9 points per game as a junior.
“Adding Femi to the mix has been good,” Cartharn says. “He’s another veteran guy that played at the Division I level who really knows how to play. Me and him have been through similar things in our journey to this point, so I can relate to him that way. He’s a good dude I can talk to about things that some of the younger guys you can’t talk to about.”
It didn’t take long for John to prove he could still ball, either.
Playing in a Nov. 2 exhibition game at Southern Illinois — a school that recruited John when he was in high school — he led UMSL with 22 points, six rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes.
“It felt amazing,” he says. “It was great. I was telling my fiancée (Emily Malafa) beforehand, ‘What would be the chances of going and playing in a Division I game like right now?’ … That’s crazy. Then to go out there and be able to be productive — unfortunately, we didn’t get the win — but just to be out there and play. I played 31 minutes. It was great.”
John realizes that it sounds cliché, but he keeps telling everyone who asks that this is all just a blessing. He can’t really put it any other way, he says. He picked UMSL because he wanted to enjoy playing basketball for one more year. He knows that’s all he’s got left at this level.
He’ll be moving on with his life soon enough. He and Malafa have been together since the second semester of his freshman year at SLU and have planned an April wedding. The idea was to give UMSL enough time to win a national championship first, John says. A full-time job in the nursing field awaits. So do pickup games whenever he can find time.
But he has one more season of basketball to play first.
John knows he is the person he is today because of the trials of his past, his knee injuries part of the process of helping to mold him into who he has become.
“It was extremely difficult,” John says. “But at the same time it helped me grow. It helped me grow into the man that I am today. I’m getting married. Basketball is great. It’s fun. But it doesn’t define me anymore. I have a nursing degree. I am a nurse at the SLU student health clinic right now. I work part-time. It’s different. But I think I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m able to come here and get my master’s degree. Everything kind of worked out.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.