Wagner looks at the seven-inch scar that runs down his abdomen, he remembers
the pain, a searing sensation as if someone had rammed a butcher knife through
his navel. It was the kind of pain that can derail a career.
In 2002 the
Cleveland Cavaliers had taken Wagner with the sixth pick in the NBA draft. Just
19, Wagner was already accomplished. He had scored 100 points in a game for
Camden (N. J.) High (SI, Jan. 29, 2001) and was the state's alltime leading
scorer before he spent a year at Memphis, leading the Tigers to an NIT title.
As a rookie with the Cavs, Wagner averaged 13.4 points. By the end of the
season, however, something didn't feel right.
freshman year at Memphis, Wagner had begun feeling sporadic stomach pains. With
the Cavaliers the pain grew more intense; he also suffered torn cartilage in
his right knee. As his health declined, so did his scoring average. Playing in
only 44 games in his second season, Wagner averaged just 6.5 points a game.
Finally, in January 2005 he went to the Cleveland Clinic, where doctors found
that he had ulcerative colitis, which causes inflammation and sores in the
large intestine. After 11 games, Wagner's season was over. "For an athlete,
colitis can be devastating," says Andrew Shelton, a colorectal surgeon at
Stanford University Medical Center in California. "Severe pain, weight
loss, fatigue, cramping are all symptoms."
Adding insult to
injury, the Cavaliers, who had drafted LeBron James with the first pick in
2003, chose not to re-sign Wagner in the summer of '05. "I understood,"
says Wagner. "They made a business decision."
He returned home
to West Deptford, N.J., where he saw a specialist who recommended surgery to
remove his inflamed colon. "I had to do it," says Wagner. "The
medication I was taking just wasn't helping." In October, Wagner had his
colon removed and replaced with a small pouch made from part of his small
intestine. The next day he awoke feeling a blinding pain where the surgeons had
made the incision--but no cramps. "I never felt them again," says
He was released
from the hospital with one caveat: no physical activity. "For six months I
couldn't do anything," says Wagner, who lost 35 pounds. "Just a lot of
sitting around the house."
cleared to play in April, he contacted Omar Wellington of Nexxt Level Sports, a
personal training company that operates out of the Cherry Hill ( N.J.) Health
& Racquet Club. "When he came in, his body was at ground zero,"
says Wellington. "He couldn't have been in worse shape." Wellington
started Wagner on a five-day-a-week program that included one hour of
basketball drills followed by an hour of weightlifting. By August, Wagner had
put back on 30 pounds. He was also showing flashes of brilliance on the court.
In back-to-back summer league games in August he scored 65 points in one game
and 67 the next night.
NBA teams have
taken notice. Last month Wagner worked out for the 76ers, and five other teams
have expressed interest in him. "His skills right now are just O.K.,"
says one Eastern Conference assistant coach, "but I do think he can work
his way back because he's still a natural scorer and physically he's in great
No kidding. While
watching Wagner play last week, former Raptors guard Alvin Williams heckled him
about a summer league game they had played the day before. "Hey,
Dajuan," he said, "you get my text last night?" Wagner shook his
head no. Williams said with a laugh, "It said we kicked your ass." As
Wagner smiled and walked away, Williams said, "I was going to say something
tougher, but do you see those arms? I was afraid he might throw me through the