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Original Issue

The Long Road Back

Five months after his near-fatal automobile accident, Sacramento King guard Bobby Hurley recovery

The Floor of Arco Arena is bare, and the building is quiet, save for the swish of brooms that workmen are using to clean the concrete aisles. Brilliant sunlight streams through the open doors at one end of the arena, and from beneath the basket at the far end of the floor, one can actually look out across empty parking lots, over sheep pastures, clear to the modest skyline of downtown Sacramento, five miles to the south.

Suddenly the silence is cut by the squeak of sneakers grabbing wood, a basketball bouncing and the abrupt, unsympathetic voice of Al Biancani, strength and conditioning coach of the Sacramento Kings: "Come on, Bob-oh, come on, you dog, come on, man...." From foul line to basket, Bobby Hurley retrieves and scores, retrieves and scores, his breathing becoming heavier with every layup, his skin turning deeper shades of red with every sprint back to the free throw line to pick up a ball Biancani has placed there.

Nearly five months have passed since the automobile accident that should have killed Hurley but instead left him limp and broken, with seemingly no future in his sport. Hurley, bent at the waist and clutching the hem of his baggy shorts in the universal sign of basketball exhaustion, says to Biancani, "Can I shoot some jumpers now?" Hurley looks familiar, recognizably the same six-foot waif who helped Duke win two NCAA championships and then signed a six-year, $16.2 million contract after the Kings picked him No. 7 in the 1993 NBA draft.

But the 22-year-old Hurley looks different, too—thinner (though at 160 pounds, he has gained back all but five of the 25 pounds he lost after the accident) and more frail. There are also thick purple scars crossing his back and torso, and another running from his left eye to the tip of his left ear. These are reminders that the simple question "Can I shoot some jumpers now?" is evidence of a small miracle. Before this day is finished, Hurley will drill for 75 hard minutes under Biancani, a man given to the politically incorrect practice of telling malingerers that they are wearing "pink panties." Hurley will run on the court, he will lift weights, and he will lie on the floor of the Kings' locker room, flushed and hollow-cheeked after more than 500 sit-ups. Panting, he will say, "I'm finished...cooked...done."

Yet the day will be a triumph, because, as Biancani says, "from where he was to where he is now is truly unbelievable." Where he is now is another day closer to a comeback that once seemed impossible and now is likely.

"I'm totally committed to playing," Hurley says, setting his sights on the Kings' preseason training camp, still more than four months off. "I realized by having the time off that I'm happiest when I'm playing basketball. I've found other things I like to do, but I miss it. I miss the life out there. It's going to be rough, you saw me struggling out there. But from this point, it's only going to get better."

On the night of Sunday, Dec. 12, Hurley played 19 minutes, failed to score and handed out seven assists in a 112-102 King loss to the Los Angeles Clippers at ARCO. It was a poor performance but not atypical in a difficult rookie season during which Hurley, seen by some basketball observers as potentially the next incarnation of Utah Jazz play-making star John Stockton, averaged 7.1 points and 6.1 assists in 20 games. Shortly before 9 p.m., Hurley drove from the players' parking lot in his 1993 Toyota 4Runner. Moments later, making a left turn at a rural intersection, he was struck broadside on the driver's side by a 70 Buick station wagon loaded with paint cans. According to police, the wagon, driven by Dan Wieland, a 37-year-old house painter, was traveling from Hurley's left at or near the 55-mph speed limit with its headlights off. Wieland will stand trial on June 13 on misdemeanor charges of reckless driving, causing injury and driving without a valid license.

The impact threw Hurley's Toyota 127 feet and onto its right side. Hurley, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and landed in an irrigation ditch. His sneakers were ripped from his feet and lay on the pavement. Hurley remembers little of that night: leaving the arena, making the left turn, briefly seeing the other vehicle before it struck his...and then sitting in the ditch. "I thought I was paralyzed, because of how bad my back hurt," he says.

Much took place that evening that serendipitously enhanced Hurley's chances of survival, including swift action by several other drivers who stopped to assist him. One such motorist, Mike Batham, found Hurley facedown in 18 inches of cold water and pulled him to a sitting position. "My first thought," says Batham, a 46-year-old engineer from Yuba City, Calif., "was that he was going to drown if I didn't do something."

Hurley's teammate and fellow rookie, forward Mike Peplowski, had left the arena a few minutes after Hurley and was the third person on the scene of the accident. Peplowski wrapped Hurley against the 40° chill in a hunting jacket from his truck and after emergency personnel arrived, helped them carry him from the ditch. Three months later, while they played golf together in Sacramento, Hurley and Peplowski would discuss what happened that night, a needed catharsis for both of them. Peplowski told Hurley how Hurley had kept asking, "Am I going to die?" and how the one sensation Peplowski couldn't shake from that night is that Hurley's breath bore a horrible stench. "It smelled like the deer I gutted last fall, and that's when I knew something was seriously wrong, that Bob probably had internal injuries," Peplowski says.

Hurley's injuries went far beyond what even his scars would seem to indicate: two collapsed lungs, five broken left ribs, left shoulder blade fractured in small pieces like an eggshell, torn anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee, compression fracture in the lower back, multiple deep lacerations, broken right fibula, badly sprained left wrist and dozens of deep bruises. Most serious of all, the windpipe stem leading from Hurley's trachea to his left lung was torn free from the lung, an injury that results in death in more than 90% of such cases. But at the University of California-Davis Medical Center, Hurley experienced another piece of good fortune: He was treated first by Dr. Russell Sawyer, the hospital's 33-year-old chief surgical resident. Coincidentally, Sawyer had just completed writing a book chapter on tracheal and bronchial injury. Sawyer was the one who diagnosed the torn windpipe stem, an injury often missed in emergency treatment.

It would take eight hours of delicate surgery to reattach the windpipe. "When you tear the lung off completely, that is almost completely incompatible with life," says William Blaisdell, the trauma surgeon who coordinated Hurley's treatment that night at the medical center. "He would represent the most massive injury I've seen that lived." Blaisdell's mere presence in the operating room represented yet another stroke of luck. The surgeon, who 28 years ago in San Francisco helped pioneer the study of trauma as a medical discipline, had arrived home in Sacramento from Washington, D.C., almost exactly at the moment the crash took place. "As we're landing at the airport, my wife looked down at the ground and saw the accident," Blaisdell says.

Perversely, the severity of Hurley's injuries helped prolong his life. "When somebody with this type of injury takes in air through his mouth, it leaks into his chest cavity and builds up pressure, which won't allow him to breathe and won't allow his heart to fill with blood," says Sawyer. "That's how the person usually dies. Bobby had so many rib fractures on his left side that the air was able to leak out of the chest cavity and throughout his body." The air bloated Hurley badly, creating what in emergency rooms is darkly called the Michelin Man Effect.

The gravity of the situation was not immediately known by Bobby's parents: his father, Bob Sr., the coach at St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., the high school basketball powerhouse where Bobby played before going to Duke, and his mother, Chris. Barely an hour after watching the King game via the satellite dish in their house in Jersey City, the Hurleys received a phone call from Bobby's then girlfriend in Sacramento. She told them what she had heard from Peplowski: only that Bobby had been in some sort of accident.

"We never, ever thought it was anything other than a fender bender," Chris says. Richard Marder, the Kings' team physician, called shortly thereafter to tell them that the injuries were serious but that it looked as if Bobby would live. The Hurleys caught a 5:30 a.m. flight to Sacramento. By late that Monday night their son was able to respond by squeezing their hands and nodding his head. Still, the parents were shocked by what they saw. "So bloated, so puffy," recalls Bob. "We just couldn't recognize him."

Bobby's brother, Danny, younger by 18 months, and his 13-year-old sister, Melissa, arrived from New Jersey on Wednesday. At the time, Danny, a junior guard at Seton Hall, was trying to deal with a trauma of his own. Five days earlier he had left his team, only three games into the season. Danny's decision was the culmination of more than two years of emotional anguish as he sought to live up to the reputation of his brother, who is also his best friend. "Either would walk through fire for the other," says Ricky Lasch, a boyhood friend of the Hurleys'.

Danny quit the Pirates six days after a 72-64 loss to St. John's in a night game at Madison Square Garden, during which he missed all six of his field goal attempts. Sacramento had faced the New York Knicks at the Garden that afternoon, and Bobby had attended the college game with his parents. "I felt that they were viewing a failure on the court, that their son was a failure," Danny says.

After the game, feeling uncertain of his place in the Seton Hall locker room, Bobby chose not to go there to comfort the distraught Danny. It is a decision he regrets. "As a friend and a brother, I should have gone to see him," says Bobby. "I know that no matter what kind of game I played, Danny would come in after and talk to me." Bobby did meet Danny later that night at a Greenwich Village restaurant. Danny told him he was quitting the team, and Bobby supported his decision.

Now, as he arrived at Bobby's hospital room, the younger Hurley was the one who felt a brotherly burden. "I couldn't believe how much pain he was in and how terrible he looked," Danny says. "Here I was, still feeling terrible about my own self. I thought, 'Why couldn't this happen to me, instead of somebody who's got such a bright future?' Just seeing him in that bed, I said, 'You don't deserve to be there. I'm the loser.' "

In the two weeks that followed, while Bobby learned again how to rise and sit, how to open his swollen eyes and how to take short walks in the corridor, it was as if the brothers were back in their basement room in the family's row house in Jersey City. They watched movies together on TV. They planned golf outings for the spring and taunted each other over who would win. "To know that he came out there, I'll always remember that," says Bobby. "I know that he would do anything for me. And I feel the same way for Danny."

Bobby still cringes when he recalls the agony of those first two weeks. People would visit him and be greeted with "I'm messed up, man. I'm messed up bad." He was on morphine for 10 days and almost wore out the call button asking for more. But also: "I remember in the hospital, the doctor asking me to wiggle my toes, and I could do that," says Hurley. "I knew I'd be able to walk again."

The rehabilitation process was draining. Six weeks after the accident, having returned to New Jersey, Hurley began going to a health club in Bayonne. The act of walking across the gym to a treadmill winded him. His first attempt at sustained exercise was to walk a mile in 10 minutes, which was embarrassing. "That frustrated me because I've always been in such great shape," Hurley says. "When I got to the Kings' training camp, I was in the best shape of my life."

By early March, Hurley was running. In April he began playing games of one-on-one with his personal trainer, Mike Hurley (no relation), using a nine-foot basket. "Nobody should ever underestimate that kid's heart or his determination," says King coach Gary St. Jean. "I'm just happy he's alive, but for his sake, I hope he comes all the way back."

It was an unexpected bonus that the torn ligament in Hurley's knee didn't require surgery. "He has a complete tear, but without the instability you would expect," says Marder. "The joint behaves as if it's a partial tear." The injury to the left shoulder is more troublesome.

"I still have a hard time doing things going to my left," Hurley says, "It'll come."

Marder agrees. "He's well ahead of where I would have expected him to be," he says. "It's very realistic to think that he'll be playing basketball again."

The emotional recovery has been difficult, too. Flashbacks to the accident, seemingly as real and terrifying as the crash itself, have been unnerving. Hurley will be sitting on a couch or, worse, driving a car, when something will trigger the memory of the crash. "I'll hear a car horn or I'll be looking at my scars, and I'll think about the accident, and my body will just start shaking, almost like I'm reliving it," Hurley says. "A couple of times I actually did relive it, and I was really shook for a while."

At one point Hurley consulted a sports psychologist, who helped him devise ways to shake loose from the flashbacks. "If I'm sitting alone and feel one coming on, I turn on the TV set, things like that," Hurley says. "I'm coming to grips with it, not letting it overpower me. I feel like I'm normal now."

Hurley plans to spend most of this summer at the five-bedroom house he bought for his family on the Jersey shore. He is having a gym installed in the garage. He recently bought a $100,000 Mercedes 500SL because, he says, "after the accident I promised I'd treat myself to a nice new car. Plus, if I get in another accident, this is a pretty good cat to be sitting in."

Danny, too, is mending. He has undergone counseling and is working out. "He's a different kid," says Seton Hall trainer John Levitt, one of his closest friends. "What happened to Bobby was the turning point in his life." Like his brother, Danny plans to return to his team, though with a lesser emotional investment. "Just to try to enjoy myself," he says. "Not to take the burden."

Bobby says, "Danny and I know how fragile things can be. Our family has learned not to base your happiness on whether the ball goes through the hoop."

And, incidentally, the ball has been going through the hoop lately. Early last week Bobby played his first full-court game since Dec. 12. Sure, it was only against high school and college kids at White Eagle Hall, a refurbished bingo joint in Jersey City. But he felt fast and quick, almost like before. And he made two NBA-length three-pointers. "I only made two all last year," Hurley says, referring to his sadly abbreviated NBA rookie season. "So already I'm even."

Ahead, actually. Way ahead.



A visit to the intersection where the smashup occurred wasn't the only time that Hurley has had flashbacks about the accident.



Biancani (in glasses) and Mike Hurley are pushing Bobby back into shape.



After playing in the Kings' Dec. 12 game, Hurley—and his vehicle—were mangled in a collision.



[See caption above.]



Bobby and Danny take a stroll near the beach house Bobby bought.