As soon as his he hit the ground on that July evening, Chattanooga’s Dontay Hampton knew something was wrong. He just didn’t know how wrong.
Hampton, working out by himself that night, thought he had simply tweaked his knee when he landed awkwardly after firing a jumper. He thought he could have toughed it out, but he decided to call it quits for the night.
Days later, an MRI revealed the severity of the 6-1 point guard’s injury. Hampton had to listen to what no athlete ever wants to hear, especially one entering his final year of eligibility
He had torn his ACL, a dreaded injury that years ago was seen almost as a death sentence to athletes. Medical advancements have significantly shortened the recovery time for major knee surgery, but Hampton was still in a race against time to get back on the court.
It was a crushing blow to Hampton, who, after undergoing surgery in late July, would be confined to the bench for the first 15 games of the season. He’s had to endure every second of Chattanooga’s up and down early season from the sidelines, which has been tough for a player like Hampton.
“Dontay is a great leader, but he’s not a vocal leader,” UTC coach John Shulman said. “He's a leader by example, and he hasn’t had the opportunity to lead by example. He does now.”
Hampton will make his long-awaited season debut Thursday night at The Citadel, the first stop of this week’s two-game road trip to Charleston, S.C.
He won’t start. He doesn’t even know how much he’ll play. Hampton knows one thing, though. He’ll stop getting asked the same question over and over.
“Right now I’m getting the ‘when are you playing?’ still,” Hampton said. “It feels refreshing and I’m ready to get back out there with my teammates and start playing.”
And while it hasn’t been a full six months (the average recovery time required for ACL surgery), Hampton is convinced he’s ready to play.
“I feel very good,” he said. “I’m not going to be out there being risky or hoping that I don’t get injured again. I’m just going to play free. ... I just want to get out there. If it’s five minutes, 20 minutes, whatever.”
Freshman Farad Cobb will start at the point against the Bulldogs (3-9, 0-2 SoCon), while Hampton will, at least initially, serve as the backup at the position.
“(Hampton’s) just got to get in the mix,” Shulman said. “He knows what we want; he knows how we want to play, so I’m not worried about that. He’s not a chemistry killer, where all the sudden you bring him in and we’re not rocking and rolling anymore.”
That’s a good thing, too, because, after all their early-season lumps, the Mocs have finally found a groove. They’ve won four of their last five, including last Saturday’s 74-70 win at Samford for the team’s first SoCon road win since last February.
“I don’t know how it’s going to evolve,” Shulman said. “Dontay is going to play the point, but he can also play the two. Right now I see him backing up at the point to start with and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Cobb has made great strides over the last four games, despite an occasional freshman mistake. Freshman Gee McGhee has become a staple at both ends of the court for the Mocs, while freshman walk-on Alex Bran has gained valuable experience at the point in recent weeks.
Some, if not all, of that might not be true if Hampton had been the starting point guard since day one.
“You have to take the good with the bad,” Shulman said. “There has been a lot of bad, but we found some good in it. If Dontay is playing, Ronrico (White) is probably starting at two, so you don't know where Gee's progress would be. Gee and Farad are really good players now because they got thrown in the mix.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.