Flash back to April 1, 2004.

Phil Dokas
(RODRIGO GAYA/Daily)

You will see a sophomore cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden following an impressive 62-55 Michigan victory over Rutgers to win the National Invitation Tournament.

And this wasn’t just your ordinary sophomore. On a team filled with young talent, this 6-foot-6 wing averaged more than 13 points a game, tops on the team.

This was a player who was on the fast track to stardom. Later that offseason, he was named a tri-captain for a 2004-05 Michigan squad that was expected to do big things.

But the high of that NIT Championship just made the fall back to reality hurt that much more. Little did Lester Abram know, the next two years would be the most difficult in his basketball career.

At least he looked good on the sidelines

Last Friday night in Michigan’s opening exhibition game against Wayne State, it looked like the Abram of old was back. He sunk threes with ease, took it to the hole with authority and established himself as one of the premier scorers on this year’s Wolverine squad. But when you think about it, the old Abram never really left. His body just didn’t let him play basketball.

Entering the 2004-05 season, Abram was supposed to be a key cog alongside then-junior Daniel Horton, in the effort to lead Michigan back to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament. He started the first two contests of the season, but would play just one more game the rest of the year. Following Abram’s brief appearance against Notre Dame four games later, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker announced that the junior would need to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.

With Abram in the lineup that season, the Wolverines went 3-0. Without him, they went 10-18.

After toiling away at rehab for months on end, it looked like nothing had changed – well, except his jersey number. Through 16 games as a tri-captain in 2005-06, he was averaging 12 points, more than three rebounds per game and shooting more than 45 percent from 3-point range. He also got to wear his old No. 32 jersey, which he donned during his days at Pontiac Northern High School. It looked like a new beginning for Abram. His body was letting him do what he does best: play ball.

But then there was the Jan. 21 game against Minnesota. Abram knifed into the lane, made a spectacular layup and drew a foul in the process. The ecstasy of the basket was short-lived, as Abram lay on the floor, grasping his ankle in pain.

And from there, frustration began to set in.

“I just wanted to go play ball, instead of . watching my teammates,” Abram said. “I didn’t want to be dressed in warm-ups and street clothes looking good on the sidelines anymore.”

Abram made two more brief appearances the rest of the season, but he was never the same. And neither was his team. With that win over Minnesota, Michigan had an impressive 14-3 record. The team then stumbled to a 5-7 mark to close the regular season and missed the NCAA Tournament for the eighth consecutive year.

Over two years, that’s a 17-3 record with Abram, and a 15-25 record without him.

The silver lining in all of this is that Abram is back for his fifth go-around with Michigan. After that season-ending surgery in 2005, he applied for, and was granted, a medical redshirt. Which brings us back to last Friday, when the old Abram began a familiar journey. He is once again the captain of a Michigan team fresh off an NIT finals appearance, longing to be a part of the Big Dance.

He can still ‘bring it’, but for how long?

Although he’s a fifth-year senior on a team with seven freshmen, Abram said he doesn’t feel out of place. The other seniors – guard Dion Harris, forward Brent Petway and center Courtney Sims – have been along for all the ups and downs, too. And with his continued pursuit of a degree, Abram doesn’t regret his decision to return for the 2006-07 campaign.

“A lot of my friends who graduated always tell me they wish they were still in school,” Abram said. “I’m like, ‘School is fun to me.’ I’d rather be in school playing basketball than working right now.”

But just playing basketball has been an issue given the amount of games he has missed the past two seasons. And it was obviously a concern for Amaker, because he surprised many when he put Abram on the Big Ten Foreign Tour Team that played games in Australia this summer. Ordinarily, the roster for such tours are comprised of younger players looking to gain more experience.

The coaching staff was worried that Abram lost some of the explosiveness he had prior to the ankle injury. It is his ability to slash into the lane that injured his ankle in the first place. But Abram eased some of those concerns with a strong showing, leading the Big Ten team in scoring.

“In (Australia), I thought Lester was the Lester of old; fearless and attacking,” Amaker said. “He showed no signs of being shy about the injuries that he’s had the last two years. I was very pleased with his production.”

Abram’s performance in Australia, combined with his offseason workouts, convinced Amaker to appoint Abram as the sole captain of this year’s squad. Originally, Harris and Petway were to be tri-captains as well.

But don’t expect Abram to change just because he’s the only official leader. Just like in his previous two stints as captain, he plans to lead by example on and off the court, leaving the vocal stuff to others.

“Lester is just a guy who everyone can look to,” Petway said. “You can’t really question whether Lester is going to bring it, because he always does. You always know that Lester is going to do what he has to do. . If Lester is doing it I have to do it too. I’m going to step up like Lester is stepping up. He’s a real quiet guy, but when you look at him performing, he’s always bringing it.”

Abram is adamant that these two injury-plagued seasons haven’t changed his game. But unlike the past two seasons, in which Abram could always look to Horton to pick up the scoring burden on the occasional off night, it will now fall upon his surgically repaired shoulders. Devastating injuries change one’s perspective.

“I think there’s a hunger there for Lester, and it should be,” Amaker said. “(You have) been out of doing something for two years that you really love and you get a chance to get back at it and you have a senior year at it, I’m sure there is a purpose and a hunger about that kid. . He’s been out of the equation for a while for us and it’s nice to be able, right now, to have him back in there.”

Every day Abram takes the court, his presence serves as a reminder of the potential Amaker’s vaunted first recruiting class had – and because of Abram, still has. Horton and former forwards Graham Brown and Chris Hunter came and went without an NCAA Tournament appearance. Now, Abram has one last shot at redemption for a class that has taken its fair share of ridicule over two disappointing seasons.

“I would like to have made (the NCAA Tournament) while they were here, but unfortunately, we didn’t make it,” Abram said. “It’s time to move on, and I feel like we have a real good chance with the team we have here now. It’s up to us to focus every day and come to practice, working hard everyday.”

Moving on from injuries isn’t just about healing physically. Sometimes injuries can have unforeseen mental effects on a player’s game. And with the slashing, physical style that characterizes Abram’s game, there is a concern from outsiders that he won’t be the same player he was before the injuries. How will the Abram of old deal with these new mental challenges ahead? Well, the Abram of old doesn’t worry about stuff like that.

“You can’t have fears playing basketball,” Abram said. “You can’t be scared. I just try to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens.”

No one at Michigan is sure if Abram will last a full season. He hasn’t done it in two seasons. No longer a na’ve sophomore, this grizzled veteran is ready to put the past two years behind him and let his play do the talking.

One thing is for sure: The old Lester can’t flourish if he can’t play.

“I wish I was made out of titanium, so I couldn’t break,” Abram said. “It would be impossible for me to get injured. But I’m only human. Sometimes things happen, and it’s up to you to overcome them.”

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