Katenda, Otule refuse to let their eye injuries affect basketball vision
Notre Dame's Eric Katenda severed an optic nerve in his left eye watching a game
Marquette's Chris Otule was born with one eye and has lived with one glass eye
The biggest issue for Katenda isn't physical but mental, his confidence on the court
Eric Katenda was 15 years old when he came to America. He made that decision four years ago, leaving his mother and his sister back in his native Paris, with a singular goal in mind: to earn a Division I scholarship and -- eventually -- become a professional basketball player.
To his credit, Katenda found himself on that exact path. He wasn't being courted by the likes of John Calipari and Roy Williams, but Katenda managed to create enough of a name for himself that he developed into a borderline top-100 recruit. He had offers from a number of high-major programs and a profile on every major recruiting website. In April 2011, Katenda accepted a scholarship from Notre Dame, where he had been recruited as a perimeter-oriented power forward with range on his jumper, to follow in the footsteps of Carleton Scott. Katenda's decision looked even better when, two weeks later, Scott surprisingly decided to enter the 2011 NBA Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.
Those plans were put on hold that summer when Katenda got caught up in the red tape of the NCAA Clearinghouse. Instead of spending his summer in South Bend, Katenda was forced to sweat it out in sweltering Washington D.C., taking a class at a Community College while trying to keep in good enough shape that he would be able to keep pace with his teammates -- and his classmates -- when he enrolled in August.
That's why, on July 8, Katenda wasn't shooting around under the bright lights of the Joyce Center. He was out in the sun, roasting on the blacktop of the courts right behind Banneker High. It was there -- sandwiched between Georgia Avenue and Ninth Street, a stone's throw from Howard University's campus -- that Katenda would suffer the injury that has wreaked havoc on his career as a Notre Dame basketball player.
Much has been written about the freak injury that resulted in a severed optic nerve in Katenda's left eye, but there has been one common misconception in the reporting: that he was playing a pickup game at the time.
"I wasn't even playing. I was just shooting around," Katenda said in a phone interview. "A couple guys came over asking if they could use my ball and two of the guys decide to play one-on-one. I was just standing under the rim, watching them play. One guy jumps from behind him, trying to block him, and missed the ball and his hand went into my eye and hit my eye real hard. I went down for a few minutes. That's when I realized I couldn't see out of the eye."
Katenda didn't leave the park immediately after getting hit. Everyone that has played basketball has gotten poked in the eye at some point, and usually -- after a couple minutes -- the pain subsides and your vision clears up. So Katenda waited. And waited. And after about 10 minutes, he realized something may be seriously wrong. "I was like, 'I still don't see anything.' It was starting to get scary." So Katenda walked back to his guardian's house -- his family is still back in France -- where they called 911 and eventually got the grim news: his vision wasn't coming back.
"My guardian was there crying for me and I was just sitting there thinking, 'Am I going to be able to play again,'" he said. "'Am I going to be able to do the things I used to do? How am I going to look? How's my family going to take it?'"
Marquette fifth-year senior center Chris Otule has had to overcome plenty of adversity in his career. As a freshman, Otule saw his season trimmed to nine games after he broke his left foot in practice. As a sophomore, Otule made it through three games before he broke his right foot in practice. He lasted all the way through his junior campaign unscathed, but as a senior, Otule suffered a season-ending ACL injury just eight games into the year.
Simply put, Otule has spent enough time on the bench as a result of injuries that he's not only earned a fifth year of eligibility for the 2012-2013 season, but there's also a chance he may be allowed a sixth in 2013-2014.
It takes a certain kind of toughness -- both mental and physical -- to overcome that many devastating injuries. The rehab is grueling, the strenuous workouts it takes to get back into shape certainly are not fun, and the disappointment and difficulty in sitting on the bench while watching teammates compete is something that never becomes easy to deal with. But Otule was bred to be a fighter. He may never have experienced what it is like to lose an eye, but that's because he has never experienced what life is like with two eyes.
"I was born with one actual eye," Otule said. "The other one was, I guess you could call it glaucoma. I went into surgery as soon as I was born, I don't know what they did to my eye, but I went into surgery and for the first couple of years of my life I was living with only one eye and the other one just looked pink. At the age of 3 or 4 I was old enough to get a glass eye. Every couple of years I would outgrow it and have to get a new one, and the last time I had to was like two years ago."
The fact that he was born with a single eye makes Otule's situation inherently different from Katenda's. He's spent his entire 22 years with just his right eye while the way that Katenda perceives the world around him has drastically changed over the last 14 months.
What Otule has done, however, is prove that only being capable of seeing out of one eye is far from a barrier to competing in the Big East.
Eye issues aren't a barrier to playing professional basketball, either. Former Duke guard Jon Scheyer suffered a lacerated eyelid, torn retina and damaged optic nerve in his right eye while playing with the Miami Heat in the 2010 NBA Summer League. He still has some vision in right eye, but as he told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer in June, "I wouldn't pass a vision test." Despite the vision problems, Scheyer has still made NBA Summer League teams, tried out with NBA teams and played for Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Gran Canaria and in the D-League. He'll have a long and prosperous (and profitable) career overseas, which may have been a best-case scenario for him as a professional even with two good eyes.
And therein lies the intrigue of eye injuries. With a torn ACL, surgery is required on a knee that could sap the leg of strength and explosiveness. Sprained ankles hurt to walk on, let alone run on. Bad shoulders make shooting and passing painful. But with eye problems, the body is fine. You still can run just as fast and jump just as high and keep the same form on your jump shot.
So how much does it really change you as a player?