AS EARLY AS AGE FOUR, MIKE SCOTT WAS READYING HIMSELF FOR BIG-TIME BASKETBALL. Never mind that he had neither a ball nor a basket, the preschooler was resourceful. "In the cafeteria at school I'd take my hat off and throw it in the trash pretending it was a hoop," says Scott, now a fifth-year senior at Virginia. "I got in trouble all the time for that." If Mike was trying to send a message, it worked: After repeated lunchtime transgressions, his father came through with a regulation hoop.
Last year Scott, 23, faced a far more challenging situation when, nine games into the season, he injured his left ankle. Until that point the 6' 8" forward was having his best year: He'd had six double doubles and was leading the Cavaliers in points (15.9), rebounds (10.2) and free throw shooting (88.1%). Hoping for a quick fix, Scott had arthroscopic surgery to remove loose pieces of cartilage and returned on Dec. 22. A few practices later the ankle locked up again.
When an MRI showed that major surgery would be necessary, Scott applied for a medical redshirt and had the season-ending procedure to remove additional cartilage as well as bone spurs on Jan. 30. He was disappointed but got encouragement from his coach, Tony Bennett, whose career with the Charlotte Hornets had been cut short by chronic knee and foot problems. "I remember thinking, Are you kidding me? How could this happen?" Bennett recalls of his own experience. "But it's like that movie Pay It Forward. How can I use my experience to help someone else going through it?" So Bennett and Scott talked about patience and what Scott could do to help the team and himself while he recovered.
The five-month hoops hiatus was the longest Scott had been away from the game since before his lunchroom days. The son of a Marine staff sergeant, he had moved frequently as a child, but his father, Michael, sought out a rec league for Mike in every new location.
Scott admits that being idle last season got to him. "Your first reaction is to go crazy," he says. He found himself logging many more hours on his Xbox, and his weight spiked from 242 to 255. An anthropology major, Scott spent extra time on his schoolwork, and Bennett also saw an opportunity for Scott on the sideline. "I said, 'You're not going to sit here and twiddle your thumbs. You're going to coach.' " Bennett challenged Scott, who tends to lead more by example, to speak up. "We're huddling at half-court, and I'd say, 'What do you think, Mike? Say what needs to be said.' " Gradually he embraced the role. "I could see things that my teammates on the court couldn't," says Scott.
His improved basketball IQ is one of several reasons that when asked whether he'll play as well as he did last fall, Scott is quick to say, "I'll probably be better." He lost the excess weight, getting down to 237, and coaches have noted a improvement in his speed and mobility. During his time on the bench, he recognized weaknesses in his own game and, as he rehabbed his ankle, Scott paid extra attention to his dribbling and his shooting range.
Scott has dubbed himself the "grandpa" of the team and says that he's eager to be a mentor. Nine months ago his father told him, "This [injury] could be a blessing in disguise." Now Grandpa Mike is excited to introduce his better and wiser self to the world.