When DajuanWagner looks at the seven-inch scar that runs down his abdomen, he remembersthe pain, a searing sensation as if someone had rammed a butcher knife throughhis navel. It was the kind of pain that can derail a career.
In 2002 theCleveland Cavaliers had taken Wagner with the sixth pick in the NBA draft. Just19, Wagner was already accomplished. He had scored 100 points in a game forCamden (N. J.) High (SI, Jan. 29, 2001) and was the state's alltime leadingscorer before he spent a year at Memphis, leading the Tigers to an NIT title.As a rookie with the Cavs, Wagner averaged 13.4 points. By the end of theseason, however, something didn't feel right.
Before hisfreshman year at Memphis, Wagner had begun feeling sporadic stomach pains. Withthe Cavaliers the pain grew more intense; he also suffered torn cartilage inhis right knee. As his health declined, so did his scoring average. Playing inonly 44 games in his second season, Wagner averaged just 6.5 points a game.Finally, in January 2005 he went to the Cleveland Clinic, where doctors foundthat he had ulcerative colitis, which causes inflammation and sores in thelarge intestine. After 11 games, Wagner's season was over. "For an athlete,colitis can be devastating," says Andrew Shelton, a colorectal surgeon atStanford University Medical Center in California. "Severe pain, weightloss, fatigue, cramping are all symptoms."
Adding insult toinjury, the Cavaliers, who had drafted LeBron James with the first pick in2003, chose not to re-sign Wagner in the summer of '05. "I understood,"says Wagner. "They made a business decision."
He returned hometo West Deptford, N.J., where he saw a specialist who recommended surgery toremove his inflamed colon. "I had to do it," says Wagner. "Themedication I was taking just wasn't helping." In October, Wagner had hiscolon removed and replaced with a small pouch made from part of his smallintestine. The next day he awoke feeling a blinding pain where the surgeons hadmade the incision--but no cramps. "I never felt them again," saysWagner.
He was releasedfrom the hospital with one caveat: no physical activity. "For six months Icouldn't do anything," says Wagner, who lost 35 pounds. "Just a lot ofsitting around the house."
After beingcleared to play in April, he contacted Omar Wellington of Nexxt Level Sports, apersonal training company that operates out of the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Health& Racquet Club. "When he came in, his body was at ground zero,"says Wellington. "He couldn't have been in worse shape." Wellingtonstarted Wagner on a five-day-a-week program that included one hour ofbasketball drills followed by an hour of weightlifting. By August, Wagner hadput back on 30 pounds. He was also showing flashes of brilliance on the court.In back-to-back summer league games in August he scored 65 points in one gameand 67 the next night.
NBA teams havetaken notice. Last month Wagner worked out for the 76ers, and five other teamshave expressed interest in him. "His skills right now are just O.K.,"says one Eastern Conference assistant coach, "but I do think he can workhis way back because he's still a natural scorer and physically he's in greatshape."
No kidding. Whilewatching Wagner play last week, former Raptors guard Alvin Williams heckled himabout a summer league game they had played the day before. "Hey,Dajuan," he said, "you get my text last night?" Wagner shook hishead no. Williams said with a laugh, "It said we kicked your ass." AsWagner smiled and walked away, Williams said, "I was going to say somethingtougher, but do you see those arms? I was afraid he might throw me through thewall."
The NBA life is hard to walk away from. Witness thislist of former players itching for another go-round in the league.
Jay Williams, PG--A motorcycle accident cut short thecareer of the second pick of the 2002 draft. Claiming he's ready to play,Williams, 25, has been invited to Nets' training camp.
Shawn Kemp, PF--Retired since '03 after he balloonedto 320 pounds, Kemp, 36, dropped 75 pounds and worked out for the Nuggets inJune (though a marijuana bust in July won't help his chances).
Roy Tarpley, C--Banned for life in 1995 for substanceabuse, Tarpley, 41, played last season for the CBA's Michigan Mayhem. In 10games he averaged 8.9 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Doug Christie, G--The former Kings guard, who retiredlast November because of an ankle injury, announced a comeback in August and islooking for a team with an opening. Christie, 36, made the all-defensive teamfour times in a 14-year career.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
WEIGHT UP Wagner is almost back at full strength after losing 35 pounds following surgery.
WINSLOW TOWNSON/AP (WILLIAMS)