Katenda, Otule, eye injuries (cont.)
As you might imagine, Katenda was taken aback at the news of the severity of his eye injury. Let's forget, for a second, that Katenda was an elite athlete that doubled as an 18-year-old kid an ocean away from his home and family.
He's a person. A person that was just informed that he will never be able to see out of his left eye unless, in the future, there are doctors and scientists that develop a way to fix a severed optic nerve. Anyone would have been thrown for a loop.
But here's the thing about Katenda, about the kind of person that he is: that loop lasted all of a few minutes.
"There was no doubt in my mind that I would try to play basketball," Katenda said. "I barely reacted when the doctor told me that. I just stared for a few seconds and walked out. Then I went to my guardian's house and laid in bed and in my mind, I was just like, 'I'm gonna have to find a way to make it happen. I'm gonna have to.' To leave my family as a 15-year-old to go to America and then stop because of this? I'm still going to give it a shot. I'm still going to try. It's not going to stop me because this happened. In my mind, there was no way I was going to walk away from it. I have to try."
He'd have to wait. Since the injury and the surgery kept him out of class, Katenda's enrollment pushed back to January.
"He can't go out and play, he's not coming to Notre Dame in August, and I'm worried about the kid's frame of mind," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I'd call him and he'd say, 'Coach, don't worry about me. I understand the plan. I'll be there after Christmas.' And the first conversation, he said, 'I'm going to play. I'm going to play for you one day.' I said, 'I love it.'
"I've never been around a guy more upbeat, even when he was going through the surgery and just lost the vision, he kind of kept me up. I was so down when I'd call him, he would just say, 'Coach, I'm going to play again, I'll be out there.' He's just a beautiful young man. He's handled it like a man. He's been a great example for guys on this team. He never feels sorry for himself. He never hangs his head."
"I'm never going to complain about it," Katenda said. "I'm going to live with it."
The most impressive part of Katenda's recovery is how quickly he got back on the court and how little he physically feels the effects of losing vision in one eye. Katenda can still see everything in front of him, although it's a bit tougher to look over his left shoulder. He can still see the basket when he shoots, and he can still see the ball when his teammates throw him a pass. Losing an eye doesn't change one's ability to read a defense or crash the offensive glass.
What it does is limit depth perception. It's more difficult to judge just how far you are away from the basket or just how quickly a teammate's pass is moving. But according to both Katenda and his coach, the ill-effects have nothing to do with his vision.
"The amazing thing is that I have not seen anything that he's handicapped by," Brey said. "He plays with us. He goes through the drills. I never see him fumble a ball where you're like, 'Oh my god, he couldn't see it.' I've not seen the vision be a deterrent on the basketball court for anything that he's done."
It took a little while for Katenda to reach that point. "The first few months, my depth perception was kind of messed up," he said. "I had a hard time shooting the ball, I had a hard time even picking up things off the table, but then I guess my brain just adjusted to it."
The biggest issue now? His confidence. It's mental for Katenda, and that's a battle that can only be won by playing.
"I don't even think it bothers me that much," he said. "It's just in my head. When I don't think about it, I play perfectly fine. You wouldn't notice that this happened to me. But as soon as I start thinking about it and I get conscious about it, I start to worry about what I do and I'm not as confident. I'm really selective of my shots. Then I start overthinking, and that's when I really start messing up."
It's the adjustment period that concerns Brey, and it's one of the reasons that Katenda may have to wait until the 2013-2014 season to play for the Fighting Irish. He enrolled in January and immediately started practicing with the team, but at that point in the season, college basketball practices are more about maintaining, perfecting and game-planning than conditioning and teaching the system. For any freshman, it takes time to acclimate to the speed and tempo of the college game.
And most don't have to make that adjustment while learning how to play with one working eye.
Throw in the fact that Katenda isn't even eligible to suit up until after the first semester, and the choice seemed obvious for Brey. "My feeling with him is to just take our time with him," Brey said. "I don't want any pressure on him that he's gotta play for us this year." Patience is a theory that's worked for Brey in the past. Remember, he redshirted Tim Abromaitis during his second season in the program, and that paid off in a huge way, as Abro developed into an all-conference player the following season.
Could Katenda's career follow a similar path?
Don't ever tell Eric Katenda or Chris Otule that there is something they can't do because of their vision. On the court, in the classroom, with an Xbox controller. Anywhere.
"I won't let anybody tell me I can't do something because of what happened," Katenda said, noticeably bristling as he brushed off a question about what this injury means for his basketball future. "I won't let anyone tell me, 'Oh, you can't do that. Oh, you can't shoot. You can't run.' I know I can. I won't let that effect me. Because I know what I can and can't do."
"People are going to try to label you as incapable or handicapped," Otule said. "But don't let anyone put you down. You can do anything that anybody with two eyes can do."
Neither Katenda nor Otule want your sympathy. They don't want to hear about how impressive it is that they are able to play in the Big East without the benefit of two eyes. They don't want to be cut any slack in practice or to have their teammates go soft on them in a workout. Regardless of how well they can see, they are still going to dunk on you when given the chance.
"I don't even like to talk about it," Katenda said. "To be honest with you, I don't think my teammates even think about it because I don't think I've even mentioned it once to them. When I'm out there and I play good or bad, we don't even think about that.
"I'm just the dude wearing goggles."
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