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Love, basketball aid Larry Gibson's recovery

It all still lives in Larry Gibson — the warm lights of Cole Field House, the coaching assistant who told him to remember "1, 2, 3, swish" before free throws, his shots that beat No. 1 Notre Dame and sent Maryland fans streaming onto the court on Super Bowl Sunday 1979.

It is through pulsating, basketball-filled nights — through memories of sweat and rebounds and cheerleaders and fight songs — that Gibson, now 55, returns to his aging teammates in fleeting moments.

"Notre Dame," he'll say in a low, flat voice as he tightly grips a wood-framed team photo of the 1978-79 Terrapins in his large right hand — a man trying to hang on to his past.

And his old coach, Lefty Driesell, wonders: How much does he remember of that Notre Dame game, when a 23-year-old senior — a Larry Gibson from a lifetime ago — stepped to the foul line with one second to go and delivered a one-point win for a Maryland team with three future NBA players (Buck Williams, Albert King and Lawrence Boston) whose names he still utters?

That Larry Gibson, a star at Dunbar and one of the best rebounders in Maryland history, receded from them on a warm Halloween night in 2004 when his Isuzu Trooper rolled and struck a tree on Virginia's Interstate 66, leaving him unconscious and pinned inside the vehicle. Police reports on the incident were purged after three years — there is no indication that Gibson was charged — but more than 500 pages of hospital and emergency-treatment records provide a description of the crash. It was the same night that, hours earlier, he had proposed to the woman who is now his second wife, Delores Hicks-Gibson says.

Days later — as he remained semiconscious, with five fractured ribs and on a ventilator — she was given the clothes that emergency workers peeled from his body. He had carefully selected them to wear on their dinner date on Washington's Southwest waterfront. "I remember he had on black pants and a nice sweater. When I got them back, the sweater was like a lion had shredded it," she said, holding her hands in front of her like claws. Sitting in the passenger seat, she had escaped the accident without lasting harm.

For a long time, he barely moved his eyes or 6-foot-9 frame. After nearly three weeks, "he began to gradually respond with his eye movements and on Nov. 19, [2004], began to follow commands for the first time," according to medical records obtained from Inova Fairfax (Va.) Hospital.

Later, doctors used Ritalin and antidepressants to try to further revive Gibson. His brain condition, known as abulia, is characterized by a lack of will. Its grip on him is evident. Six years after the crash, he cannot live independently and his speech, gait and gestures are chronically slow.

But those who saw him after the accident describe an unmistakable brightening over time.

For all his physicians' efforts, it was love and his basketball memories that slowly began to bring him back.

His progress, which Baltimore brain-injury specialist Dr. Michael Makley calls "miraculous," speaks to the bonds with his wife, his former coach and teammates — who contributed up to $10,000 for his rent and expenses — and to his basketball experiences.

With the NCAA tournament approaching, college basketball continues to be dogged by recruiting and academic scandals. But there is no denying the game's intensity — the fact that it feels important even to those players who gave up the game decades ago.

"Memory is an interesting thing, particularly in someone who's had a crash," said Makley, director of Kernan Hospital's brain injury unit. "The more distant memories can be more firmly encoded. Certainly, something like the 1979 Notre Dame game is gilded into the memory, but periods of time approaching the accident may be lost."

His wife isn't sure he remembers much about the eight or so hours when she gained a fiance and almost lost him, all in the same long night. He was in ill health — he suffers from hypertension and diabetes, records show — and his wife said those conditions had gone largely untreated. He also had a few drinks that night and was tired, she said. Hospital records show the accident occurred shortly after 2 a.m. While the records aren't definitive as to who was driving, her account that he was at the wheel is backed up in one detailed document calling him the "driver of auto roll-over which struck object — side collision."

Asked if he has a recollection of the crash, Gibson shakes his head and murmurs, "No."

Legacy

But he remembers basketball.

"Ernest," he says softly, referring to former teammate Ernest Graham.

It is the afternoon before Super Bowl XIII — the Steelers were to beat the Cowboys. Cole Field House is packed and the Terps have lost their 12-point lead and trail the top-ranked Irish, 66-64, on national television despite Graham's 28 points.

With five seconds remaining, Maryland's Greg Manning passes the ball to Gibson, who immediately looks to pass.

That was typical of Gibson, who was called "the silent senior" in The Baltimore Sun's account of the game. To this day, Gibson retains a softness — a sweetness — that seems at odds with his former role as a shot blocker and rebounder.

"Larry was very, very easygoing, about as easy as you're going to get," Graham recalled recently. "Maybe sometimes you wanted him to be more aggressive. But that was L.G."

Notre Dame's defense keeps fading back, as if daring Gibson to shoot. He finally does, banking it in as he is fouled by Bruce Flowers to tie the score.

Moments later, he makes the winning free throw — "I taught him to say, '1, 2, 3, swish,' before he shot," recalled team adviser Joe Harrington — handing one of Notre Dame's best-ever teams its second loss in 14 games and sending the sellout crowd spilling onto the floor in one of the arena's most memorable games.

Recovery

Twenty-six years later, Graham arrived at Gibson's rehabilitation hospital in Baltimore carrying a DVD.

Graham, who is two years younger than Gibson and also attended Dunbar, remains familiar to Gibson — a touchstone.

Together, he and Gibson were two of Maryland's biggest Baltimore recruits ever. Graham still holds Maryland's single-game scoring record of 44 points. Gibson ranks seventh all time in rebounding at Maryland and helped lead Dunbar to one of its greatest victories — a 1973 triumph over an DeMatha team led by Adrian Dantley.

Graham — who has been running an after-school program to steer kids away from the drug temptations that he says he once could not avoid — inserted the DVD. It was a 1978-79 video of the two stars playing against Duke and its 6-11 center, Mike Gminski.

"We watched Gminski, and I'd say, 'Larry, why didn't you block that?' He didn't say much, but he smiled and pointed at me like he understood," Graham said.

Patients in Gibson's condition often end up in nursing homes prematurely.

"I saw him in March 2005," Makley said. "I remember trying to throw everything in the book at him. We tried some serotonin agents, we tried Ritalin" to try to jolt Gibson out of his lethargy. "We tried Sinemet, which is the medicine they use for Parkinson's."

Five years later, Makley saw Gibson again and could immediately tell something had changed. It was as if his brain had been massaged and had perked up.

Makley asked Gibson to recite the day, date and month. He named them all. He could not name the year.

"I thought he was actually pretty coherent with life," the doctor said. "He was smiling, he was reactive.

"It's miraculous compared to what I remember seeing of him five years ago, and I didn't even see him at his worst."

Makley could only conclude that Gibson had been cared for — not just in a physical sense, but emotionally. Somehow, with the help of those who love him, he had made a transition to a challenging new life.

Family

The letter, written in pencil, was dated June 8, 2006 — more than 19 months after Gibson's accident.

"Dear Lefty," it began. "Thank you for remembering me when so many have forgotten me. Please call. Thanks."

It was signed "Larry."

Driesell — whose Terps won 348 games in his 18 seasons — had resigned under pressure in the dark period of 1986 after the cocaine-induced death of star player Len Bias. But Driesell's son, Chuck, was later to become a Terps assistant, and the elder Driesell has long kept ties with his former players.

"I think that is something a lot of people don't know about Lefty," said Tom McMillen, who starred for Driesell in the 1970s and is a former congressman.

Driesell had mixed feelings when he read Gibson's letter. He was pleased to hear from Gibson, one of his favorite players ("He didn't have a mean bone in his body.") But there was something about the letter — "He could hardly write," Driesell said — that confirmed what he had heard about Gibson's condition. "I knew when I read the writing that Larry was in bad shape," Driesell said.

Gibson and his wife were struggling to pay rent and other bills. Gibson, who returned to earn his Maryland degree in 1987, has a divorce, three grown children from his first marriage and bankruptcy in his past. The divorce was finalized after the accident. Gibson, who had played professionally in Europe for about 10 years and been driving a truck for United Parcel Service before the crash, "wasn't attentive to money," said Delores Hicks-Gibson, who has held a succession of jobs.

The Gibsons had mostly been living in a Frederick apartment while he attended an adult care center on weekdays. The apartment seemed too small for the former player's body.

"The soap dish was pulled down and the towel rack was gone — he would reach for them and they would just come down," said his wife, who met him in 2002 when she was working at a law firm and he was making a UPS delivery.

Driesell decided he would try to help Gibson.

The retired coach circulated word of Gibson's struggles among former Maryland players — Graham, David Henderson, Buck Williams, Rich Porac and others — and about $10,000 was quickly raised to help pay expenses for Gibson, who recently moved to a larger place.

Porac, a Hagerstown dentist, had played for Maryland several years before Gibson, but knew who he was. When Porac heard that Gibson was suffering tooth pain, he agreed to work on him for free.

Gibson entered the dentist's office with the aid of a walker, and his speech was slurred. "It's kind of sad to see a guy who was so athletic in that condition," Porac said.

What struck Porac was his patient's attitude. "He thanked me about five times," Porac said. "He was grateful to be alive."

But Driesell wanted to do more to lift Gibson's spirits. He instinctively believed the best way to do that would be through basketball.

So, on a February night, Gibson returned to the lights.

Fans at last season's Maryland-Georgia Tech game at Comcast Center were greeted by the sight of Driesell accompanying a lumbering man in red sweat pants and matching sweat shirt onto the court. The crowd applauded — some fans stood — when Gibson's and Driesell's names were announced.

Gibson smiled as he reached the court. He held his walker with his left hand and looked into the stands. With his right hand, he raised an index finger high in the air.

Memory

On a humid afternoon last summer, Larry Gibson sat in a friend's backyard wearing shorts and a print shirt. He had brought an old team photo and a white jersey with "Maryland" across the front.

Occasionally, he looked over at his wife, as if for reassurance, as he talked about games from more than 30 years ago.

It speaks to the mysteries of the human brain that not even his doctor knows just how much he can remember. When basketball moments return to him, there is a satisfied look of recognition as if someone has momentarily turned up the volume to a favorite song.

Often, Gibson speaks a word or two and leaves it to others to uncover the meaning — the pictures in his mind's eye.

"North Carolina," he says. And then there is a pause. "We won that one," he says, nodding his head and smiling.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker



Gibson's condition



Larry Gibson's 2004 auto accident left him with a brain condition called abulia. The word is from the Greek meaning "non-will."

The condition, characterized by a lack of drive and expression, can sometimes be mistaken for depression. People with abulia will react — maybe even laugh — but are typically passive.

Dr. Michael Makley, director of Kernan Hospital's brain injury unit, said Gibson is limited but is reactive and "pretty content with life." He is not expected to make more significant progress.

"We all have a presence," Makley said. "We might be thinking about having a dentist appointment tomorrow or stopping to buy milk on the way home. I really think maybe he doesn't work on those parallel paths, but he's able to articulate and make funny jokes. He seems rather content, actually."

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