After all, not every college student gets to enjoy an all-expenses paid trip overseas to visit locales such as Barcelona and Madrid. Add into the equation that the DU hoopsters managed to compile a 4-2 record against a handful of Spanish professional teams, and the entire experience was one that no one in the Pioneers’ program will soon forget.
Well, everyone except one, that is. While his teammates were reveling in the exotic journey, Rob Lewis was stewing in silent agony. Little did he know his nagging aches would cost him the entire 2010–11 season.
Finally recovered from a potential career-ending back injury, Lewis is eager to use his medical redshirt season to make up for lost time and turn in a senior campaign he envisioned a year ago.
“I’ve heard people say your college career is finite,” Lewis says. “But to be sitting there with my leg numb and watching the team struggle a little bit and not be able to play, it really hit me I might not ever play basketball again. I think I will have a greater appreciation even for practices, just being around the team, traveling … things I might have thought earlier were no big deal. I never thought I would miss a three-hour practice. I never thought I would miss getting yelled at.”
This season, the booming voice of head coach Joe Scott in Lewis’ ear will be sweet music for the fifth-year senior from Colorado Springs, Colo.
As DU set out for Spain, Lewis had been experiencing his first few pangs of back pain. Yet it was a shot Lewis took a few games into the tour that forever altered the course of his collegiate career.
On a seemingly routine play in the post, Lewis corralled a pass and almost immediately received an innocuous forearm to his back from an opposing defender. Lewis suddenly felt pain through his lower spine that shot through is leg and into his foot.
Even though Lewis was shut down for the remainder of the Spanish excursion, and although the bus trips and flight home were agonizing for his inflamed back, Lewis still had little reason to believe his forthcoming season was in jeopardy.
“We were travelling all over Spain in these buses that aren’t really fit for a [6-foot, 8-inch] guy,” Lewis says. “I was getting as much treatment as I could over there, but it was pretty limited. The plane flight back wasn’t very fun either. I still at that point didn’t think it was something that was going to hold me out. I thought it was something that I could get some treatment and see some kind of doctor. But it just kept getting progressively worse and worse.”
After the Pioneers returned to Denver, Lewis and the coaching staff still assumed he would be ready for preseason practice. Yet by then the shooting pains Lewis was suffering throughout his leg were so severe he was unable to lift his big toe. Lewis had averaged 9.9 points and 4.5 rebounds through his first three seasons, and his unexpected absence in the middle was a big reason why the Pioneers staggered to a 2-9 record out of the gate.
“I think his absence has been underestimated a little bit,” Scott says. “You’ve got a [6-foot, 8-inch] guy who is going to be a senior who has been your second-leading scorer and leading rebounder — that’s a big loss right off the bat. That is the funny thing about basketball — you lose one guy you can lose a lot of impact. The impact he had, besides the scoring and having a different guy out there that can get points the coaches can’t manufacture … Rob can get his points because he’s Rob. He’s good at that. We lost him, we lost a lot of that.
“More importantly, we were plugging in other pieces. I think somewhere in there Rob was kind of an insurance policy for us. Rob can play a bunch of positions and he’s got a lot of experience, and we know when he gets out there he is going to put it in the hoop and get a rebound. All of the sudden, we lose a guy who can put it in the hoop and rebound, and we also lost our insurance policy.”
Lewis eventually was diagnosed with a stress fracture that was pinching the major nerves in his lower back. He was in danger of undergoing fusion surgery — which could have ended his playing career — if the nerve failed to heal on its own.
Fortunately, a nerve conduction test Lewis underwent in December revealed he was on the road to recovery.
Lewis spent the spring and summer regaining the strength and explosiveness that made him such a versatile threat for the Pioneers. While working towards an MBA, Lewis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance last spring, hopes the 2011–12 season proves to be a triumphant one.
“I feel really, really good. I was able to do a ton of upper body stuff as far as lifting even back in December, as long as my back was stable,” Lewis says. “I was able to put on weight and get stronger. But once I was cleared to start running, it was a shock the first couple weeks. I was really out of shape. Six, seven months without running is pretty tough. Now I’m 100 percent good to go. I’ve got my explosiveness back, which I was really worried about.”