On the college basketball calendar, October marks the springtime of hope and optimism. The approaching new season brims with possibilities. Winning games. Swishing shots. Basking in the cheers. And perhaps truer at Kentucky than anywhere else, making the dream of playing in the NBA come true.
This was Twany Beckham’s mindset in the October of five years ago. He had played sparingly in UK’s previous season as a mid-year transfer from Mississippi State. In anticipation of a breakout senior season, he had worked out with a personal trainer in Atlanta that summer. “I had gotten into, like, the best shape of my career,” he said.
He saw an opportunity, at long last, for significant playing time in the 2012-13 season. Kentucky had reloaded with freshmen. And the point guard, Ryan Harrow, “was kind of a question mark,” Beckham said.
Then suddenly, without warning, everything changed. The basketball dream was over. His optimism was not only bridled, it was euthanized.
“A couple weeks before Big Blue Madness, I woke up one morning in my dorm and I had no feeling in my legs,” Beckham said when asked recently about the moment his life changed.
He walked to class, thinking his legs were just still asleep. But by the time he went to UK’s practice that afternoon, his legs were still numb. He told the trainer he had no feeling in his legs.
Doubt and worry filled his mind.
“It’s one of those things, you look around and think, ‘Who do you think is going to believe you when you tell somebody you can’t feel your legs an hour before practice?’” Beckham said. “I just thought they would think I’m just trying to get out of practice or ‘This guy can’t be serious (about basketball).’”
Beckham tried to practice. He stopped trying when he shot an air ball on his turn during the layup line warm-up.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging revealed two herniated discs in his back. Three times doctors tried epidural procedures to return feeling to Beckham’s legs. The first restored feeling for about a week. Then the feeling went away. The next two epidurals had no effect.
On Jan. 29, Beckham underwent back surgery. His basketball career was over. UK’s memorable victory at Ole Miss that night (Nerlens Noel blocked 12 shots) provided a momentary respite from a grim new reality.
“It was devastating,” Beckham said. “My teammates, they were devastated for me, too, because I had grown to try to be a leader for that team. To tell my teammates I’m not going to be with you all no more is kind of heartbreaking.”
After sniffling once or twice, Beckham added, “I get emotional because it’s special to play at Kentucky, and to have your senior year taken away from you, I can’t put that in words.”
Beckham retreated. He confided in no one but his mother.
“He was getting into, like, a depression mode …,” Deborah Beckham said of her son. “This was his chance to go for it. For him not to be able to play his senior year, that really took a toll on him. That’d take a toll on anyone. You’re happy. You’re excited. You’re going to start. All of that came crashing down. That was sort of a bummer.”
Beckham, who grew up in Louisville, believed this was not just a personal setback. He had dreamed of a basketball career that brought financial benefits to his family.
“You just think you’re letting so many people down,” he said. “Your family is depending on you, especially when your family is in poverty. You want to help them. So I took it really hard.”
His mother, the one person he would listen to, tried to assure him that he had not let anyone down. “I just told him, ‘Don’t worry about me,’” she said. “‘It’s your life.’”
A month ago, Hall of Famer Bill Walton spoke at Lexington’s Saint Joseph East Hospital about his own return from a dark, seemingly hopeless place. The life-changing benefits of a spinal procedure rescued Walton, who had contemplated suicide before the surgery alleviated his back pain.
Walton invited Beckham, who was in the room, to speak to the audience about overcoming his own obstacle.
“I lost all hope,” Beckham told the crowd of about 90. “I thought my life was over.”
His basketball life was over.
“I can still dunk a basketball, which is intriguing to me …,” he said more recently. “Since my surgery, I’ve probably dunked a total of five times. And each time I dunked, it’s like everybody in the gym knows I dunked. I yelled.”
With his life in limbo, Beckham began attending church regularly. He believes God led him to a new purposeful life. As a UK senior, he wrote a book about his struggle titled “Full-Court Press: Conquering Adversity under Pressure.”
Since June of last year, he has worked as the wellness director for the Kentucky Employees’ Health Plan. His job is to engage, encourage and promote wellness activities across Kentucky.
His life is part of his message to Kentuckians.
“I’m alive,” he told the audience at Saint Joseph East. “I’m living and I’ve been blessed. Do not wait. Start living healthy.”
Meditate to win?
During the SEC’s media day Wednesday, a reporter noticed a wristband with the word “Breathe” on the right wrist of new LSU coach Will Wade.
Wade is a proponent of meditation. He said that before every practice, the LSU players meditate for three minutes.
“Kobe (Bryant) does it,” Wade said. “LeBron (James) does it. Some of the best athletes in the world do it.”
With Wade’s help, players decide on a mantra to use during meditation.
“We just talk about it,” Wade said of the process of picking a mantra. “(It is based on) kind of what their thoughts are. Find one that kind of fits their personality some.”
For example, the word “one” can be a mantra, he said. It signifies taking one play at a time or returning to the basics of oneness.
Wade said he had a player at VCU that was enthusiastic about meditation. Breathing techniques and a mantra helped this player to twice make winning free throws in the final second of games.
The meditation helped the player “focus on something other than everybody going crazy around him,” Wade said.
The player was JeQuan Lewis, who made winning free throws in back-to-back games against St. Bonaventure and George Washington.
Two memorable quotes from SEC Media Day:
▪ When asked about Georgia missing J.J. Frazier’s full-court playmaking this season, Coach Mark Fox said, “He was the rocket man before this fool over there in North Korea.”
He — Frazier, not Kim Jong-un — is playing professionally in France this season.
▪ Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy joked about how often Kentucky comes up in media day questions about his Rebels. “I’m going to try to answer every question without referencing (Kentucky),” he said.
When asked if he dreamed of a day when he was not asked about how to beat Kentucky, Kennedy said, “I dream of the day we don’t have to come to this day.”
Jack Givens, who scored 41 points in UK’s national championship game victory over Duke in 1978, wore a protective boot on his right foot at Big Blue Madness. He tore his right Achilles tendon while playing in the UK charity game a few weeks earlier.
Givens said he is trying to wean himself out of the boot. “In another week or so, I’ll be able to play golf, which is what I’m really trying to get in shape for,” he said.
Givens and his wife, Linda, postponed a trip this fall to Greece to celebrate his 61st birthday (Sept. 21) and their 32nd wedding anniversary (Oct. 5).
Because of the Achilles injury, “there’s no way I could get around,” Givens said.
The trip is tentatively planned for late May/early June next year, he said.
Then and now
Against a backdrop of alternating UK and Nike logos, ex-Cat Larry Stamper saw an obvious contrast to when he played in the pre-Madness era.
Of the beginning of basketball time at UK in the early 1970s, he said, “All we got to do was look forward to practice, and getting out of a running program.”
To Kyle Wiltjer. He turned 25 on Friday. … To former UK football coach Bill Curry. He turned 75 on Saturday. … To Stacey Poole. He turns 26 on Tuesday. … To Dan Issel. He turns 69 on Wednesday. … To former Indiana coach Bob Knight. He turns 77 on Wednesday. … To Transy coach Brian Lane. He turns 50 on Wednesday.