HAMPTON ——Nate Motley is a few minutes early, which isn't much of a surprise. What is, however, is that he's walking on his own — no crutches, no brace, not even a limp. You'd never guess that less than five months ago, his kneecap had been snapped into two pieces and dislodged into his thigh.
"I've been off crutches since April," said Motley, a rising junior guard at Kecoughtan. "People see me and ask, 'Man, are you back playing already?' Yeah, I'm back. And I think I'll be better than ever."
No one could look at it. Not Kecoughtan coach Ivan Thomas, who was visibly shaken and had to turn away. And not Motley's mother, Denise Whitfield, who said she was "crushed" when she got through the crowd and saw her son.
The stretcher took him away, and doctors told Motley he had a displaced fracture of the patella. Translation: His kneecap was broken into two pieces, neither of which were located where they should be. Normally, this happens as a result of a direct blow. Not this time.
It was the Peninsula District quarterfinals, and Motley was playing in his third game after transferring from Bethel to Kecoughtan. On his way in for a breakaway, he planted his left foot to go up. His knee buckled, and his leg bent back under his body.
He landed awkwardly as Hampton's Ronnie Davis, a few steps behind, leapt over him. Davis never made any contact with Motley.
"Actually, it had been giving me trouble for a long time," Motley said of his left knee. "I just kept playing on it because I didn't want to tell my coach, 'Hey coach, my knee hurts.' Then I'd have to sit out. So I just kept playing through it, and this happened. I think it was to the point where it was so weak when it broke."
Motley underwent surgery, in which two screws were inserted and 21 staples were used to close the incision. Eventually, he gathered enough courage to ask the question.
"I asked them, do (you) think I'll ever be able to play basketball again?" he said. "It was that bad. Of course, nobody said to me, 'You're done for the rest of your life.' But I really thought it was going to take a long time — a really long time — before I got back."
Yet here he is, nine weeks before the 2011-12 school year is to begin, and Motley says he's ready to go. He's not, of course, at least not full-throttle. He's been running, jumping and shooting, but not with the intensity he'll need come winter.
Still … who would have imagined this kind of progress five weeks ago?
"I asked the doctors if this was normal," Denise Whitfield said of her son's recovery. "They said it's probably due to his age (16) and that he's so physically fit. That's why he just bounced back."
The injury ended an eventful 16-day stretch for Motley.
He began the season at Bethel, where he was rated the fifth-best sophomore in the state by Rivals.com. But on Jan. 31, three days after scoring two points in the Bruins' loss to Woodside, Motley enrolled at Kecoughtan. Transfers barely cause a ripple these days, but this one came in the middle of a season.
Motley missed three games while the Peninsula District ruled on his eligibility. Because he had moved in with his father, who lives in the Kecoughtan zone, Motley was declared good to go. In his first game as a Warrior, on Feb. 8 against Hampton, he scored 10 points. Kecoughtan had another offensive threat.
Then, a week later, his kneecap was split in two. With Joshua Fortune also lost for the season (broken wrist), the Warriors lost in the first round of the Eastern Region tournament.
Motley says he was fortunate the injury occurred early in his high school career, which allows him enough time to show recruiters he has recovered. Also in Motley's favor is the timing of a new VHSL rule that allows year-round practice for all sports, which will give him an early start.
"It'll help him," Kecoughtan coach Ivan Thomas said. "We do a lot of conditioning and weight-lifting along with basketball, and it'll be easier to get him into the team concept a little quicker. He's a determined kid.
"He had a few tough breaks when he came over. He waited patiently to be cleared to play, and then this happened. I feel badly for young people when they have injuries, but he took it in stride and looked at it as another obstacle."
An obstacle he's a lot closer to clearing than anyone would have guessed.
"The doctors told me it was all on me and how quickly I wanted to come back," Motley said. "I just had to work my butt off and do everything they told me and more to get back faster. And now, I'm back. I look at it that I'm blessed. All across the board — just blessed."