When Chris Otule suffered a torn ACL 10 months ago, a range of emotions went running through his head.
It was the his third season-ending injury in four seasons, this time more severe than the broken feet he suffered – once his freshman year and again as a sophomore – and an injury that would not simply heal over time in a cast.
This time recovery meant months of strenuous, daily rehabilitation without the guarantee he would ever be healthy enough to play again in a Golden Eagles uniform. That was something he wasn’t sure he wanted.
“I was like, ‘Man, this probably was not meant for me. This is not what I’m supposed to be doing,’” he told Paint Touches on Monday.
Otule seriously contemplated hanging up his Jordans, ending an injury-riddled career that was cut short by 55 games in three-plus seasons.
After a few days of personal reflection, the 6-foot-11 center made the decision in January to go through with the necessary surgery and begin the work needed to strengthen both his knee and his confidence to help him return for his second senior season.
And through five games, a fully healthy Otule is providing Marquette with a boost no one, not even he, believed possible.
“I’ve been through a lot over the years, but it feels good to be out there. And I’m having a decent year so far so it’s just good to be out there and be involved and that’s what I’m happiest about,” Otule said. “A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Every day you do extra work and it helps you build your confidence, and that confidence leads onto the court.”
Otule spent nearly every day of his 10-month rehabilitation with trainer Ernest Eugene and strength and conditioning coach Todd Smith, but that hasn’t stopped just because he’s back on the hardwood.
On top of his regularly-scheduled workouts with the team, Otule continues to play catch-up after missing a majority of the offseason. He comes in up to two hours early to strengthen his knee with Smith and improve his conditioning and range of motion with Eugene.
But Otule didn’t need to only hit the weight room and trainer’s table. He is a basketball player after all, and Buzz Williams said he took the same approach on the court he did off it.
“He shot 1,000 of those (shots) every day when he couldn’t move, literally taking it out of the coach’s hand, shoot it. Take it out of the coach’s hand, shoot it. Change sides, do it again, again,” Williams said. “Absolutely love who he is. He’ll have a job with me as long as he wants a job. You think about his career here, it’s amazing that he even puts on a uniform.”
Jake Thomas, who spent last season ineligible per NCAA transfer rules, was with Otule for much of the center’s post-surgery workouts. When the team traveled for Big East road contests, Otule and Thomas stayed behind in Milwaukee.
“It’s awesome to see. All the hours he put in, on top of basketball, on top of working out, to see that paying off is really nice,” Thomas said.
Otule’s debut post-surgery was postponed two days after the Carrier Classic debacle, but when he took the court against Colgate on Nov. 11 – 10 months and one day after his surgery – no one was sure how he would play, a nerve-wracking thought to him.
“Even before tip, you feel like, ‘What if I don’t perform well? I need to perform well.’ When the tip goes off you have to go off what you did every day for those 10 months,” Otule said. “You just have to have confidence and use it.”
And how did Otule respond to his first live action in almost a year?
11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in 17 healthy minutes.
He is averaging a career-best 8.5 points on better than 68 percent shooting, the highest mark in the Big East and 17th best in the country. His defensive presence is easily seen and, though he still has work to do conditioning-wise, his past injury is unnoticeable save for a black brace on his left knee.
Ten months ago Otule was writhing in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor, unsure if his latest injury would be the final setback to a successful yet shortened career.
Monday night in Milwaukee, however, he showed just how far he has come. Late in the game he stood in front of a driving Ryan Cook for a blocking foul – one he and Buzz Williams both agreed should have been a charge – and went tumbling to the floor. He got up.
Later in the half he hustled for and tracked down a loose ball near Marquette’s bench to save a possession.
Both plays may have made Marquette fans cringe, but Otule is looking forward, not backward, from anything that would have otherwise limited him.
“You have to go hard,” he said. “I’m gonna go after every loose ball, take all the charges. You can’t hold back.”
When asked about his 4-of-7 shooting performance in Monday night’s 79-46 win over UMBC, Otule seemed more focused on the shots that didn’t fall, noting he “missed some easy ones” against a smaller Retriever frontcourt.
But the truth is Otule has never had an “easy one” in any aspect of his five-year Marquette career. Buzz Williams said at this year’s media day that anyone who enters the fraternity that is Marquette basketball will be tested, and that he will try as best he can to push those people out to test their determination and commitment to the program.
Otule epitomizes Williams’ statement. In four-plus seasons, Otule has had plenty of options to choose from that would have led him out of the Marquette fraternity. Yet each day he continuously makes his own decisions to work the hard way to make both he and the program he chose to return to successful.
“It just feels really good to be out there again.”