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The Long Road Back
Tim Layden
May 23, 1994
Five months after his near-fatal automobile accident, Sacramento King guard Bobby Hurley recovery
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May 23, 1994

The Long Road Back

Five months after his near-fatal automobile accident, Sacramento King guard Bobby Hurley recovery

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The Floor of Arco Arena is bare, and the building is quiet, save for the swish of brooms that workmen are using to clean the concrete aisles. Brilliant sunlight streams through the open doors at one end of the arena, and from beneath the basket at the far end of the floor, one can actually look out across empty parking lots, over sheep pastures, clear to the modest skyline of downtown Sacramento, five miles to the south.

Suddenly the silence is cut by the squeak of sneakers grabbing wood, a basketball bouncing and the abrupt, unsympathetic voice of Al Biancani, strength and conditioning coach of the Sacramento Kings: "Come on, Bob-oh, come on, you dog, come on, man...." From foul line to basket, Bobby Hurley retrieves and scores, retrieves and scores, his breathing becoming heavier with every layup, his skin turning deeper shades of red with every sprint back to the free throw line to pick up a ball Biancani has placed there.

Nearly five months have passed since the automobile accident that should have killed Hurley but instead left him limp and broken, with seemingly no future in his sport. Hurley, bent at the waist and clutching the hem of his baggy shorts in the universal sign of basketball exhaustion, says to Biancani, "Can I shoot some jumpers now?" Hurley looks familiar, recognizably the same six-foot waif who helped Duke win two NCAA championships and then signed a six-year, $16.2 million contract after the Kings picked him No. 7 in the 1993 NBA draft.

But the 22-year-old Hurley looks different, too—thinner (though at 160 pounds, he has gained back all but five of the 25 pounds he lost after the accident) and more frail. There are also thick purple scars crossing his back and torso, and another running from his left eye to the tip of his left ear. These are reminders that the simple question "Can I shoot some jumpers now?" is evidence of a small miracle. Before this day is finished, Hurley will drill for 75 hard minutes under Biancani, a man given to the politically incorrect practice of telling malingerers that they are wearing "pink panties." Hurley will run on the court, he will lift weights, and he will lie on the floor of the Kings' locker room, flushed and hollow-cheeked after more than 500 sit-ups. Panting, he will say, "I'm finished...cooked...done."

Yet the day will be a triumph, because, as Biancani says, "from where he was to where he is now is truly unbelievable." Where he is now is another day closer to a comeback that once seemed impossible and now is likely.

"I'm totally committed to playing," Hurley says, setting his sights on the Kings' preseason training camp, still more than four months off. "I realized by having the time off that I'm happiest when I'm playing basketball. I've found other things I like to do, but I miss it. I miss the life out there. It's going to be rough, you saw me struggling out there. But from this point, it's only going to get better."

On the night of Sunday, Dec. 12, Hurley played 19 minutes, failed to score and handed out seven assists in a 112-102 King loss to the Los Angeles Clippers at ARCO. It was a poor performance but not atypical in a difficult rookie season during which Hurley, seen by some basketball observers as potentially the next incarnation of Utah Jazz play-making star John Stockton, averaged 7.1 points and 6.1 assists in 20 games. Shortly before 9 p.m., Hurley drove from the players' parking lot in his 1993 Toyota 4Runner. Moments later, making a left turn at a rural intersection, he was struck broadside on the driver's side by a 70 Buick station wagon loaded with paint cans. According to police, the wagon, driven by Dan Wieland, a 37-year-old house painter, was traveling from Hurley's left at or near the 55-mph speed limit with its headlights off. Wieland will stand trial on June 13 on misdemeanor charges of reckless driving, causing injury and driving without a valid license.

The impact threw Hurley's Toyota 127 feet and onto its right side. Hurley, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and landed in an irrigation ditch. His sneakers were ripped from his feet and lay on the pavement. Hurley remembers little of that night: leaving the arena, making the left turn, briefly seeing the other vehicle before it struck his...and then sitting in the ditch. "I thought I was paralyzed, because of how bad my back hurt," he says.

Much took place that evening that serendipitously enhanced Hurley's chances of survival, including swift action by several other drivers who stopped to assist him. One such motorist, Mike Batham, found Hurley facedown in 18 inches of cold water and pulled him to a sitting position. "My first thought," says Batham, a 46-year-old engineer from Yuba City, Calif., "was that he was going to drown if I didn't do something."

Hurley's teammate and fellow rookie, forward Mike Peplowski, had left the arena a few minutes after Hurley and was the third person on the scene of the accident. Peplowski wrapped Hurley against the 40° chill in a hunting jacket from his truck and after emergency personnel arrived, helped them carry him from the ditch. Three months later, while they played golf together in Sacramento, Hurley and Peplowski would discuss what happened that night, a needed catharsis for both of them. Peplowski told Hurley how Hurley had kept asking, "Am I going to die?" and how the one sensation Peplowski couldn't shake from that night is that Hurley's breath bore a horrible stench. "It smelled like the deer I gutted last fall, and that's when I knew something was seriously wrong, that Bob probably had internal injuries," Peplowski says.

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