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As Jay Burson watched his life as a college basketball player flash before him on the evening news in Columbus, Ohio, he kept his hands busy. With one hand he held a few cards from a half-played game of euchre; with the other he grasped the hand of his girlfriend, Leanne Lenhart, who sat beside him on his hospital bed. A plastic brace encircled his neck, while atop his closely cropped blond hair rested a pair of gag glasses, complete with bulging nose and black mustache. He trained his gray eyes on the TV set and took in the flickering images and the commentary.
Jay Burson's career at Ohio State is over.... It was so hard for coach Gary Williams not to cry.... We have the play against Iowa three nights ago when the Buckeyes' fifth alltime scorer and the top scorer in Ohio high school history was hurt.... If the fracture to his neck heals as expected, Burson should be able to play again.... The Buckeyes are 17-7 and will have to adjust without their playmaker.... He could be a quadriplegic right now.... Someone must be looking out for Jay Burson....
Such reports of Burson's injury ruled the local airwaves. On Feb. 16 the startling announcement that Burson, senior guard at Ohio State and, at 22, a legendary figure in the state, would no longer suit up for the Buckeyes had a stunning impact. Governor Richard Celeste even paid a condolence call to Burson's room at University Hospital. Amid flowers and balloons, family and friends, the subject of the news himself wrestled with the event's significance. He had devoted his short life to points—reaching them, proving them and, above all, scoring them—and now the climax of his college career had been snatched away. "Shoot," Burson said softly. "If someone is looking out for me, then I'd like to know what he's been doing."
But then, things are rarely what they seem with Burson. He's the kid from rural Ohio—New Concord (pop. 1,500)—who assaults the hoop with inner-city flair. He's the son of a coach, but he's not that fundamentally sound a player. He's the short (barely six feet), slender (156 pounds) player who dominated the burly Big Ten, averaging 22.1 points a game this season and becoming the leading candidate for conference Player of the Year. He's the guy who few coaches figured would be strong enough to last in big-time competition, but he survived injuries that threatened his limbs—and life. And when his Buckeye career ended seven regular-season dates early, somehow no one expected that, either.
With about 12 minutes to go in the first half of an 83-75 loss at Iowa on Feb. 13, Burson picked up a loose ball and drove upcourt. His plan of attack was typical. Though 6'8" Ed Horton of the Hawkeyes loomed on his left hip and unguarded teammate Grady Mateen trailed him, Burson zeroed in on the hoop. "Jay would sometimes upset his teammates on the break because he was so narrow in his thinking: 'I'm going to put this ball in the basket and nothing's going to stop me,' " says Williams. "But that's what made Jay the scorer he was." As Burson went in for the layup, his eyes locked on the rim, Horton's arm brushed his head and knocked him into the basket support. Burson went down and immediately grabbed the base of his neck.
He was on the floor only briefly before getting up and shooting his free throws—he missed the first and made the second. It was with 35 seconds left that Burson finally was helped off the court, and then it was because of a mild concussion he received after banging heads with Iowa's B.J. Armstrong. He wound up playing 36 minutes and finished with 25 points. The next afternoon, after he spit up blood, Burson anxiously called his father, Jim, the basketball coach at Muskingum College in New Concord, who ordered him to see Dr. Robert Murphy, the Buckeyes' team physician. Tests revealed that Burson had a compression fracture on the anterior side of his fifth cervical vertebra, an injury that could have resulted in paralysis had it occurred on the posterior side, nearer the spinal cord.
"I must say I'm surprised Jay could play with a fracture," Murphy says. "There is [internal] bleeding that comes with that, a lot of swelling." On Feb. 17, doctors surgically attached a metal cage, called a halo traction brace, to Burson's head by drilling four screws into his skull. For three months his neck will be immobilized to allow the bone to heal; for another two or three months he will have to gradually rebuild his neck muscles. Then he should be able to play basketball again. "If I know Jay, he'll be out shooting jumpers with that brace on," says Ohio State forward Jerry Francis.
Oddly enough, Burson had recently seemed to be contemplating a life without basketball. A few weeks before the fateful game in Iowa City, he had told his mother, Sondra, that it was time to "shop for a new suit." He was tired of getting pounded, he said; he had proved to himself that he could play the big-time game, and he was ready to use his business major in a job away from basketball. But a hospital gown and halo brace didn't confirm this inclination; they reversed it. "Everyone says you have to prove to other people you can play," says Burson. "I have to prove it to myself, and at the end of these four years, if I'd finished the way I wanted to, I think I would have proven it. Then this happens. I didn't play my whole life to leave the game like this."
It appears he will have his shot at the pros. "If Jay wants his chance he'll get it," says NBA director of scouting Marty Blake. "I think he can create and he's exciting to watch."
Already, Burson is up and about. He appeared at Ohio State's St. John Arena for the Buckeyes' game against Michigan last Thursday and got a one-minute standing ovation when he walked from the locker room to a swivel chair next to the Ohio State bench. He watched helplessly as Michigan beat the Buckeyes 89-72; he wasn't even able to check any of the scoreboards because of his brace.