In January of 2010 one of our players at RIC, a center named Mike Akinrola, was out with a broken hand. He went to see a hand surgeon and had surgery so that he could get back to work as soon as possible, but he had missed about 6 weeks, and hadn’t really played much as a freshman. Mike was a center who would go on to be first team All-League twice and score over 1,000 points. But to that point, his career hadn’t really started yet.
Mike came back to one practice in January, the day before we played a game. He looked fine in practice, although he was naturally not in great shape because of all the time off. We went up to Plymouth State the next day, and Mike was fully cleared by the training staff to play, but I didn’t play him. At that point I was concerned with a couple of things – one being just how effective he could be after so much time off. The second thing concerning me was our culture and the way we practiced. We had clearly established that playing time was earned in practice, and to bring him back after one day and give him playing time ahead of guys who’d been there every day would be tough. You run the risk of undermining your culture a bit. Finally, I was worried about the injury. Even though a kid is cleared to play, practices are different than games. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable competing every day and playing hard, and not tentative worrying about injuring himself again.
So we went up to Plymouth State and I didn’t play Mike Akinrola. He was dressed, but I made the decision not to play him for the above reasons. We didn’t play well, and we got beat. We had a really good team that year, one that would go on to win the Little East and go to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, that was the only time we lost to Plymouth in my 9 years at RIC. It wasn’t a game we were supposed to lose.
Three days later we went to Western Connecticut for a huge game, one that would determine first place in the league at that point. Western was really talented and a legitimate contender to knock us off. Mike had practiced again the two days before the game, and we brought him off the bench. As soon as he got in the game, things changed. He was dominant. He was just a natural. He played really hard, played physical, and just knew how to put the ball in the hoop. He had something like 19 points in 17 minutes. He was unstoppable, and we won the game and stayed in first place the rest of the way. I remember joking with him after the game, saying “If I knew you were going to do that, I would have played you on Saturday.” In all honesty, after the Plymouth game I really didn’t regret not playing Mike Akinrola because we lost. I still thought it was the right decision. After the way he played on Tuesday, I started to think I’d made a mistake.
I thought about Mike Akinrola and his hand on Friday morning. Issac Vann had practiced for us for the first time in 7 weeks on Thursday. He looked fine, but it was the first time in 7 weeks he had done anything live with a basketball. Given that he had an ankle injury, I was worried about his comfort level coming back. He was cleared to play by our doctors and trainers, but I still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. In an injury situation, we’ll always think of the best interest of the players first. If we can we’ll even see if we can get them compensation for it, either by contacting a legal firm such as lamber goodnow or by doing an internal settlement. It’s actually more common than you’d think for preventable injuries to be followed up with by legal proceedings where people contact the likes of attorneys Springfield IL, though this perhaps wasn’t necessary in his case. After practice on Thursday Issac and I talked, and he said he felt fine. But I told him not to expect much, I wasn’t sure he’d play. When I left the office Thursday I wasn’t going to play him.
I thought about it all night and when I got up in the morning and went to the arena I spoke with my staff. Each of them said they definitely felt Issac had to play. Bring him off the bench, see how he looks, but he’s cleared to go so we need to get him in there. They were pretty decisive, and made some really good points. I was still pretty concerned about the intensity of the game being different and something Issac wasn’t yet comfortable with again.
I spoke with our trainer Stephanie and asked her if she had any concerns at all about Issac. She said “Absolutely not, he looks and feels great.” I went to the locker room and spoke to Issac, and asked him how he felt. He said he felt good, there was no pain in his foot at all. I asked him to be 100% honest with me because I didn’t want him to play if it still hurt, that would only cause more damage. I said I would get him some of the CBD oil UK teams use to manage pain but he insisted that there was no pain and he was fit as a fiddle. He said he was ready to go, so I told him to be ready, I might give him a shot.
I sure am glad I listened to my assistants. I’m also glad I coached that situation with Mike Akinrola at RIC. Your experiences every day make you better as a coach, and so do great assistants.