If you were a NBA general manager looking to pick up a big man in the 2002 NBA draft, you would have been thinking about Amare Stoudemire and Jason Fraser, a pair of 6-10 McDonald's All Americans who were rated as the high school seniors most likely to make the jump straight to the pros.
Stoudemire was taken No. 9 overall and went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. Fraser was considered only a slightly less attractive prospect, and almost certainly would've been picked soon after his friend, securing a three-year guaranteed contract worth about $8 million. But Fraser, the oldest of seven kids raised by a single mother in Amityville, N.Y., chose instead to attend college. Was he crazy? Or did he simply plan to spend one year developing his game at Villanova before cashing out as an even higher pick?
Thoughtful and well-rounded, Fraser talked about preparing for the unexpected things life throws one's way, about philosophy and religion, about growing as a person and about networking with his upwardly mobile peers. He wasn't crazy. He just really wanted to go to college. For anyone who seemed incapable of buying into his sincerity, Fraser would glance down at his own muscular but wiry body and deadpan, "Have you seen Karl Malone?"
Since then we have seen Malone retire, but we've seen little of Fraser. Before he played his first game for Villanova, he was slowed by tendinitis in both knees. He gimped through the first few months of the 2002-2003 season until a stress fracture in his left foot sidelined him. That spring he had surgery on each knee. After a summer of rehab, his sophomore season started with another stress fracture, this time in his left heel. He returned in December 2003, only to suffer a relapse that put him out until mid-January -- and even then he was not at full speed.
His junior season kicked off with arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. After having the knee drained again in December 2004, Fraser returned and seemed to be playing with less pain. His resurgence was capped by a 25-point, 13-rebound, five-block performance against Providence last January. Here, finally, was the player who was projected as a high first-round draft pick out of high school.
It was too good to be true. After the Providence game Fraser learned he'd broken a bone in his hand and later that week he underwent surgery to have a screw implanted. He came back four games later and played the rest of the season, highlighted by a 21-point, 15-rebound performance against Florida in the NCAA Tournament.
After the season ended with a Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina, Fraser endured another surgery on his hand and micro-fracture surgery on both knees. The procedures brought Fraser's total over three years to seven surgeries -- three on the left knee, two on the right and two on his hand.
More amazing than the medical math is the psychology: Fraser's resolve never wavered. His grades are among the best on the team, he hosts recruits, represents the university at alumni functions, talks freely with anyone who approaches him, and from his spot on the trainer's table, has remained a team leader and inspiration.
In a fair and just universe, Fraser, now a senior and relatively pain-free for the first time in his college career, would stay healthy, have a monster year and get his NBA payday. Our world is neither of those things, and so there persists the strong possibility that Fraser will miss at least some time this season because of injury.
He deserves to be Sportsman of the Year because it doesn't matter. No matter how the basketball season ends, come May, Fraser will have a degree, a smile, and a bright future. Most important, he will have finished his college career leaving everything that he has touched -- his classes, his teammates, his fans, his university and the game itself -- better for his having been a part of them. As simple a thing as that sounds like, it is increasingly rare.