The play was beautiful. The punctuation was sickening.
Early in the second half of Saturday night’s game against Minnesota, Michigan guard Daniel Horton stole the ball and sprinted the length of the floor. He drove hard toward the right block and kicked it out to forward Graham Brown at the foul line. Then, Brown made a beautiful touch pass to wing Lester Abram, who was charging hard toward the left block. Abram caught the ball on the move, went up for the shot and sank it while being bumped by Minnesota’s Vincent Grier.
But while Michigan’s players celebrated the perfect fast break and the and-one opportunity, Abram crumpled to Williams Arena’s raised floor. Even from the nosebleed press seats where I was sitting, it was obvious Abram was in intense pain. He writhed on the hardwood, holding his left ankle.
“I was worried, because he’s a tough guy, and he was screaming on the floor,” junior Courtney Sims said. “If he’s screaming like that, you know it’s something bad.”
Last Wednesday against Northwestern, Horton went down in a similar fashion. Saturday night, he showed no ill effects whatsoever, scoring a career-high 32 points. But I don’t think Abram will have it so easy.
Abram left the locker room on crutches, taking care to avoid putting pressure on his left ankle, which was in a boot.
“We still don’t know the complete diagnosis of his injury,”
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said after the game. “I believe it’s an ankle sprain. I don’t know the severity of it, or whether it’s a high ankle sprain.”
I’m no medical expert, but I know injuries classified as “ankle sprains” can mean almost anything. As Horton optimistically suggested, Abram could be back as early as Wednesday’s showdown with Michigan State. Or he could be in crutches for a month.
It’s impossible to say when Abram will return to the lineup, but there’s no doubt that recently, his injury luck has been downright unfair. After a shoulder injury kept him out of all but three games last season, the Detroit native came into the 2005-06 campaign healthy and ready to improve upon his impressive sophomore showing. He seemed to be well on his way to doing so, averaging double-digit point totals and showing off his consistent defensive play. But during the nonconference season closer – a yawner against lame Chicago State – Abram suffered a toe injury that kept him out of Michigan’s first two Big Ten games.
Without Abram, the Wolverines simply weren’t the same. Michigan nearly knocked off Indiana at Assembly Hall, but couldn’t come up with the big bucket or key stop down the stretch. Then, the Wolverines struggled mightily against a horrendous Purdue team, squeaking by with a 68-65 victory at home.
The sad fact is that consistent effort doesn’t translate into guaranteed health. Abram’s injuries can’t be attributed to a lack of conditioning, physical strength or toughness. Instead, they were three random, unrelated ailments that have conspired to keep one of Michigan’s best players off the court for too much of the past two seasons.
Of course, no one ever said sports were fair.
“It’s all part of the game, and we realize that,” Horton said. “(But) when you see a guy go through that much, you have to feel for him.”
Although the Wolverines should empathize with Abram, they must avoid feeling sorry for themselves. On Saturday, at least, Michigan passed that test with flying colors. After Abram went down, the team didn’t miss a beat. rattling off an 11-4 run and extending its lead to 17 points.
Abram’s backcourt mates, especially, were up to the challenge. Horton was on his way to a career night before Abram’s injury, and continued his torrid offensive spree afterward. Junior Dion Harris also picked up the slack, netting 13 of his 16 points in the second half.
The Wolverine guards also stepped up on the defensive end. Abram shut down Minnesota’s star small forward Vincent Grier for much of the first half, holding him to just two points. When Abram went down, Michigan didn’t miss a beat. Using a combination of zone and man-to-man defenses, the Wolverine guards continued to hound Grier. The Gopher failed to find a rhythm and settled for just four points on the night.
Even though Michigan’s other guards performed admirably for the last 17 minutes of Saturday’s game, in the long term, there is no replacing Lester Abram. Now, all the team can do is hope that, in the near future, Abram will return to health – without any harassment from the injury bug.
-Matt Singer can be reached at email@example.com.