- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Sometimes light shooting isn’t enough for Davis Nwankwo. Or moderate stretching. Or up to 200 push-ups a day.

But no matter how badly he wants to rush onto the floor, he remains on Vanderbilt’s bench as a reminder of his fleeting career as the sixth-seeded Commodores (22-11) prepare to meet No. 2 Georgetown (28-6) in an East Region semifinal tonight at Continental Airlines Arena.

The redshirt sophomore has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart condition diagnosed only after he entered cardiac arrest at practice near the end of last season. However, he remains on scholarship and part of Vanderbilt’s program, helping at practice and compiling shot, rebound and turnover charts for both teams during games.

“I guess I’m a mathematician,” Nwankwo said. “It’s been exciting, and I’m glad to be involved. I’m supporting the team, and with them performing so well, it’s made me forget what happened to me. I’m always positive. I try not to think about the negative stuff. I love these guys. They’ve been there for me, and I appreciate that.”

It was just more than a year ago Nwankwo was like any young player trying to earn more playing time. The College Park product was a redshirt freshman, a few seasons removed from a career at Georgetown Prep, and had scored 12 points in 23 games.

Yet on March 6, 2006, he collapsed on the court during practice the week of the Southeastern Conference tournament. Nwankwo only remembers working through a drill, blanking out and waking up with an oxygen mask on his face. In between, Vanderbilt athletic trainer Mike Meyer revived the 6-foot-10 forward with a shock from a defibrillator and two rescue breaths.

There was no such gap for his teammates.

“You see a big, strong guy go down like that, it’s pretty unnerving,” Vanderbilt guard Dan Cage said. “It’s the same thing as when you see an old, tough guy cry. You feel uncomfortable. When he just collapsed with total fatigue and weakness, it was kind of hard to see something like that. We try not to think about that but the days when we’re blessed for him to be with us.”

Added forward Derrick Byars: “It was probably one of the gloomiest days as a basketball player I’ve ever had. To see him go down like that, you hear about situations like that. We just prayed, went to the locker room and everything was all right afterward.”

His career, though, was over. Doctors informed Nwankwo he could no longer run up and down the floor for fear it could trigger his condition.

It was not easy for him to accept, even after he spent three days in the hospital after his collapse.

He soon had another concern: trying to remain a part of a program.

Coach Kevin Stallings told him not to worry, assuring Nwankwo he would be even busier in a nonplaying role.

“That young man was essentially dead on the basketball court for two minutes,” Stallings said. “Now he’s with us at practice every day, and that’s far more valuable to me than what kind of basketball player he might have become.”

That doesn’t mean every day is easy for Nwankwo, who is double majoring in engineering science and economics and plans to graduate next year. He will watch a play or a sequence unfold from the bench, and a part of him is ready to shed his suit and clipboard for a jersey and a dash to the scorers’ table.

“Every day,” Nwankwo said. “There’s times I get angry, especially during games when I’m sitting on the bench. Who wouldn’t?”

For the most part, those moments are fleeting. Byars and Cage both say Nwankwo has been an inspiration, a hint of how each day could mark their final time on the court.

And Nwankwo is fixated on the Commodores’ present — their first regional semifinal appearance since 2004 — and his future rather than clinging to last year’s scare.

“It all happened so fast,” Nwankwo said. “It was too much to consume at times. It was tough, especially seeing my close ones being worried like that and showing emotion. I don’t like people doing that. I don’t like people worrying about me, so I kind of got a little emotional. All that’s in the past, and I’m just grateful to still be alive.”

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