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Intestinal Fortitude
Chris Mannix
September 11, 2006
After surgery for colitis, Dajuan Wagner is trying to resume a career that once showed such promise
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September 11, 2006

Intestinal Fortitude

After surgery for colitis, Dajuan Wagner is trying to resume a career that once showed such promise

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When Dajuan 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.

Before his 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 Wagner.

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."

After being 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 shape."

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 wall."