Lawrence High basketball player James Bruestle fights a Ewing opponent for the ball during a 71-32 loss at Ewing Dec. 19, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

James Bruestle is playing basketball for Lawrence High this year, which is a lot bigger deal than it sounds like on the surface. No kid should have to endure what he went through, both physically and especially emotionally, just to get on the court.

After seeing limited time for the Cardinals varsity team as a junior, Bruestle was primed to put his talents on full display this year. But in an innocent family pick-up game, he nearly lost the opportunity.

Flash back to this past Father’s Day. Bruestle was playing a 1-on-2 against his dad, Carl, and 13-year-old brother, Eric at the park. Eric threw a pass to Carl, and Bruestle tried to defend.

“I stepped like I was sliding on defense, and all of a sudden my leg was gone,” Bruestle said. “I heard it pop, I went down, and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ It was not fun.”

The worst was yet to come. Bruestle had an MRI and the radiologist marked down a torn meniscus and torn ACL in the left knee.

“I thought to myself ‘Oh my God, I’m not gonna be able to play this season,” Bruestle said. “So many things were going through my mind.”

The torn ACL was not a definite, however. Bruestle’s surgeon said he would be unsure of that until he performed the operation and actually saw the ACL. That would not be for three weeks, however, leaving him twisting in the wind about whether his career was over. His mind raced from best-case to worst-case scenario and his stomach churned right along with it.

“Those couple of weeks I was just so depressed,” he said. “I had no idea what to think at all. It was either my last year of basketball or not. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through.”

The surgery was performed in early July. When it was over, Bruestle momentarily came out of his anesthesia-induced haze.

“I was so cold, I had no idea what was going on,” he said, laughing at the recollection. “I said ‘What happened?’ I remember the doctor’s assistant said, ‘You’re fine, you’ll play.’ I was like, ‘Thank God’ and I laid down and went back to sleep. It was such a relief.”

The mental anguish was over, but the grind of physical rehab was still to come. After all the uncertainty, that was the least of Bruestle’s worries. He knew it was his road back to basketball and was anxious to get after it.

“I was so dedicated to get back,” he said. “My mom and my dad were like, ‘You should take a break,’ and I said, ‘No, my doctor’s been saying to go every day.’ I never over-did it. That was the last thing I needed to do was over-work it too hard. I just did everything I was supposed to do.”

Confined to a leg brace for six weeks, Bruestle was unable to bend his knee so his activity was limited to leg lifts during that time. They were important, however, as his dedication to that helped put him ahead of the game once the brace came off.

He began walking in August and would stretch every morning and every therapy session. Not once did he wake up and bemoan the workload he faced.

“I was so determined to get back on the court, I never thought ‘Oh I have to do this and I don’t want to,’” Bruestle said. “I just did everything they said, exactly. I never had any pain, I never gave up on whatever they told me to do.”

His impressive dedication paid huge dividends. The early prognosis is that Bruestle would be able to actually play in late December. But on the first day of November tryouts, he was in the gym, ready to roll.

“They thought he’d be back, but they said six months,” Cardinals coach Jeff Molinelli said prior to the season-opener. “I definitely thought he’d lose some games. Somehow with his work ethic and desire to get back, he got himself healthy enough to be ready for game one.

“Our athletic trainer (Hillery Lamb) worked with him four or five days a week. The doctor cleared him the week before tryouts. Probably the only person more excited than me was him and his family. He was ready to go.”

‘He showed up every day to do something, there were some days where I had to tell him to take a day off.’

Lamb said that meniscus recovery time often varies, and a lot has to do with how much pain the player can tolerate.

“After talking with his doctor and his physical therapist, we all just decided we would progress him as well as he tolerated everything,” the trainer said. “There came a point in his rehab, where I told him he just needs to play. The things he was still struggling with were basketball techniques. There weren’t many rehab exercises that we could do that would continue to challenge him. He was ready, he just needed to get out on the court and get back into basketball speed.”

According to Bruestle, much of his stepped-up progress can be credited to Lamb, who offered to put in the extra hours he needed.

“I can’t even begin to explain it,” he said. “She has been such a help to me, it was crazy. As soon as school started this year, every day she was working with me. Even on weekends, she said ‘I’m gonna be here at nine in the morning so come in if you want.’ So I would go to school and do therapy with her. She was unbelievable.”

Conversely, Lamb felt Bruestle was pretty unbelievable himself.

“He showed up every day to do something, there were some days where I had to tell him to take a day off,” she said. “I never had to push him or motivate him, which was awesome. He was committed to getting back on the court as soon as possible. I don’t know if he would have let Jeff sit him until the Christmas tournament, he wasn’t going to settle for that.”

To say that Bruestle’s return was “crucial” would not be exaggerating his importance. He is one of just two players back with varsity experience—limited as it may be—as the Cardinals field an extremely inexperienced team. At 6-foot-3, he will play center and also serve as captain.

“He’s a program guy, he’s been in our program for four years,” Molinelli said. “He works his butt off in practice and he’s always trying to make everybody better. He can shoot a little bit down low. He’s a good rebounder. He talks, he keeps everybody on the same page. The most important thing with him is being our leader, making sure everyone ‘s focused on practice and games.”

Molinelli said Bruestle looked to be 100 percent with his mobility during the Cardinals first scrimmage, and marveled at the fact he was on crutches in October and on the court in November.

There was, however, a time when Lamb needed to give a little pep talk.

“I did have to reassure him and get the mental aspect ready,” she said. “Obviously, for good reason, he was hesitant at some points when it came to getting back on the court, but I think once he realized that he looked and felt pretty good during the on-court rehab, he was excited.”

He was also a little wary, admitting that, “I was a little nervous when I first came back, because I had problems with my knee in the past. I just kind of let it come natural.”

Molinelli didn’t sense any apprehension on Bruestle’s part.

“He was in tryouts, running and diving,” the coach said. “I keep trying to remind him, ‘Dude, I’m not your knee, you gotta let me know if it hurts. I know you’re a tough kid, but if it hurts and you don’t tell us, it will do more harm in the long run.’”

That might be tough for Bruestle, who just loves to play. His lone experiences outside of high school was playing in the Lawrence rec department and against his dad, a former Montgomery High standout.

Bruestle had an early career setback when he got cut in 7th grade trying out for the Lawrence Middle School team. He came back to become one of the top players in 8th grade; played on the LHS freshman team in 9th grade and was on the JV as a sophomore.

He admitted last year was frustrating sitting on the bench, which made him all the more excited to return this year. After having that nearly taken away, Bruestle has an even greater appreciation for basketball.

“I’m taking in every second that I can,” he said. “I don’t think it really hit me yet that I’m a senior, but that will definitely come. Right now I’m just happy to be able to go on the court after all the rehab. It feels great.”

It’s only fitting; for when a person puts so much effort into something, they deserve to feel great.