Bryan Talley actually doesn’t have to wear both his knee braces. You’d think any 6-foot-7 basketball player hoping to shield their troubled past from college basketball scouts would wear as little shiny metal machinery on the most prized part of their big-man body as possible, but not Talley.
“I wear it because I feel like it balances things out,” Talley said. “With just one, it feels off. When I wear both, I just feel a lot better, running-wise. I just feel balanced.”
The Rancho Mirage junior wears his pair of knee braces, giving him the look of a modern-day Forrest Gump in a basketball jersey instead of a fully-buttoned blue shirt and tan suit, with pride. To him, they not only symbolize where he’s been, but how hard he’s had to work to get back to playing at a high level.
“Some colleges might not look at me, but I think both these braces show how much passion and heart I have for the game,” Talley said. “In my opinion, with these injuries, I’m a harder worker than any other player out on the court.”
Those injuries Talley refers to — ACL and meniscus tears in both his knees which he tore in consecutive seasons the past two years — nearly ended the promising star’s basketball career.
A laundry list of college and professional athletes have recovered just fine from one reconstructive knee surgery, as medical technology and professional precision has improved drastically in the last two decades. But far fewer have made full comebacks after surgeries in both knees.
Just ask Robert Griffin III, the NFL’s 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Derrick Rose, the NBA’s 2010-2011 MVP.
But in the moments where Talley’s future looked most bleak, a friendship forged through Facebook and FaceTime helped lift the junior’s spirits far more than any amount of work from a physical therapist could.
Now, after Tuesday’s quarterfinal victory, 363 days after Talley’s second devastating tear, the junior finds himself with a chance to start in a CIF semifinal game after watching last season from the bench as the team he’d help lead toward perfection for 30 games fell one game short of a CIF title.
“Honestly, I’m just looking forward to playing each and every game of basketball, and I’m glad God gave me another chance to do what I love to do,” he said.
Talley’s knee injury began on a basketball court, but not in the way you’d think.
Twenty-five years ago on a carpeted basketball court, Paul Talley was enjoying an ordinary game of pick-up basketball at a rec center.
“Until I just felt it tear like a piece of paper,” Bryan’s father said about the ACL tear in his right knee more than two decades ago. “My knee swelled up like a volleyball for a while.”
The doctors misdiagnosed Paul Talley’s injury, and it took him two years to finally undergo surgery. He said he still walks gingerly on it and has never felt the same since.
“It’s always been a concern of mine that something might happen to one of my boys,” he said. “What else is a 6-7 kid going to do?”
Until eighth grade, that 6-7 kid of his, the middle child in a family of five, had been drawn to soccer and played basketball only recreationally.
But basketball came naturally to Talley. As a freshman on a young Rattler team with budding talent, Talley averaged a double-double, despite his scrawny frame and lack of experience. After a loss in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs, Talley was primed for a full spring, summer and fall that, with coach Rob Hanmer, means countless hours in the gym, lots of travel, playing more games in a single weekend than some valley teams do in their entire offseason, and eventual college scout exposure.
“Just before he got hurt, someone from ESPN interviewed him at a summer game,” Paul said. “He was the high scorer, and some people were looking at him, and he wanted that.”
Not long after, the left knee pain began. Ironically, the scenario started similarly to Talley’s father’s. Some intense knee pain led the Talley family to the doctors, who they would soon become friends with fast.
“I remember asking if we should get an MRI, and he said ‘No, just stay off it for a bit and go back to playing when you feel comfortable,” said Bryan’s mom, Lisa. “It’s just something that got by the doctor. It could have just been a meniscus tear at the time.”
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After a couple weeks of rest, Talley was back at practice. Then, his mom got the phone call she feared.
“I wanted to do some dribbling drills and thought I could handle it, and I turned the wrong way,” Talley said. “It just gave out.”
Paul didn’t believe the injury was an ACL tear at first, but an MRI erased any doubts.
“He didn’t feel a lot of pain on the first one. He just felt like something popped,” Talley’s father said. “When I did mine, I was rolling around on the ground because it hurt so bad.”
Although Paul had his own experience with the same knee injury, the first experience took the whole Talley family by storm. With Bryan, a teenager who wears his emotions on the cut-off sleeves of a basketball jersey, out of sorts – “mopey” as he described himself – his parents and brothers had to band together.
But a single ACL tear, though not pleasant, wasn’t impossible to come back from. Talley turned his frustrations with not being able to bond and practice with teammates who were quickly becoming best friends into a laser focus in his physical therapy sessions, which both parents said he attacked as hard as anything.
Six months after the initial injury, on Thanksgiving weekend, the then-sophomore was cleared to play.
While healthy enough to begin regular basketball activity again, Talley still faced an uphill battle to regain his regular basketball strength. His team’s season began in less than a week.
Hanmer restricted Talley’s minutes, and those months of missed practice, combined with a lack of in-game experience, made the sophomore feel like the games were moving at a breakneck pace. Imagine missing the first month of a college-level calculus class and trying to learn old material while new stuff is being thrown in your face.
“He really struggled at times because he was trying to find himself as a bigger, stronger kid,” Hanmer said. “The game was really fast for him, and obviously we were really good last year.”
But the Rattlers managed just fine, stringing together 27 regular season wins, on their quest for a perfect season. By the time the Rattlers earned a 105-81 second-round playoff win against Adelanto, Talley looked like his old self again. He scored 13 points in the playoff win, but he crashed the boards with ferocity and exuded a new confidence.
“That Adelanto game was huge. He was such a big presence, and everything he did was strong and physical,” senior guard Charles Neal said. “He wasn’t as rushed. He seemed like he was getting more comfortable with the game, and the atmosphere brought out the best in him.”
Paul Talley recorded video highlights of each Rattlers’ game for an end-of-the-year montage, but there’s one clip he still can’t bear to watch.
“I was just in shock. I saw him go down, and the way he went down … it didn’t look good,” he said.
It was still early in the first quarter of a quarterfinal game at Ocean View High School, and the sophomore found himself streaking down the court for a breakaway layup. After the prior game, he thought any apprehension of going up strong and banging with opponents had finally ended, but sometimes self-doubt is the hardest thing to heal.
“I saw another player coming after me, chasing me down,” he said. “As I went up, I just went up weak, saw him behind me and was already scared.
“I jumped off my right leg (for a left-handed layup) and somehow landed on it, too, which shouldn’t happen. I knew it was a tear.”
Talley can’t be certain about anything else the rest of the game, but family members fill in the details. His younger brother, David, came onto the court and helped him limp off. His father and mother stayed in the stands a few minutes in utter shock before Paul made his way down to the bench and asked how he was feeling.
“He told me ‘Dad, it feels the same as last time’,” Paul remembers.
On the insistence of his son, Paul stayed behind the bench with his hands on his son’s shoulders. At halftime, Bryan wrapped his arms around his dad as the two tried to hobble Bryan to the team’s halftime huddle. Once they got there, the team was already done.
Despite his Rattlers’ 24-point victory, the Talleys rode silently the two hours home. Three days later, they watched in similar disbelief in separate corners of the Rancho Mirage gym as the Rattlers fell in the semifinals to Chaminade, 64-58.
“Even being there was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Bryan said. “I thought if I could have played, maybe I could have made a difference with one more basket or one more rebound.”
For a few months, Bryan stayed away from basketball completely, not even attending practices. His sixth period class with Hanmer and the rest of the basketball team in the gym was almost more than he could bear.
For a while, Talley was telling close friends he didn’t think he’d ever play basketball again. To his coach and teammates, he appeared a shell of his former self walking through the Rancho Mirage High School hallways.
“It’s hard when you want something so bad, and you see other people enjoying it,” Lisa said. “After a month or so, he was starting to come out of it, but it was still hard to talk to him about it.
“I just didn’t go there for a while.”
As tough a position as Bryan found himself in, his family hurt with him every step of the way. Though the familiarity with the doctors and the surgery process lent itself to an easy recovery, the fact that the summer before Bryan’s junior year seemed like a mirror image of the previous one was a tough hurdle.
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“I’ve seen other families where you’ve got an overbearing dad pushing their kids in other directions, and I’ve never wanted to be that dad,” Paul said. “I’ve always wanted to be the one who supports him in anything he does, and if he chooses things, to help him achieve his own goals.”
But when your son is going through the motions of the same rehab process, how do you rehash the same clichéd sayings without sounding fake? Paul and Lisa had to chart those waters themselves.
“I was thinking in my mind that I wouldn’t blame him at all to decide not to come back because I know how much it hurts,” Paul said. “You burn yourself in a fire, and you know what it feels like and you don’t want to go back near the fire again.”
After Bryan’s first ACL tear, his mom researched different athletes at every level who had come back from a similar injury to lift her son.
“The first time, we had a lot of optimism and hope, because this had been done before,” Lisa said.
But try doing a Google search for athletes recovering “as good as new” from multiple ACL tears, and your list becomes short, if not nonexistent.
Instead, one spring day while browsing her own Facebook feed, Lisa came across a story that changed their family’s lives. She read about a high school basketball player, Josh Braun, with mid-major Division 1 college offers who tore his right ACL during an AAU game after his junior season. After rehabbing for six months, Braun returned to the court and regained many offers he’d lost, as well as a few from even bigger programs. But he only lasted two months before he tore his other ACL.
Rather than playing at a national powerhouse, Braun stayed locally at Grand Canyon University, an Arizona college transitioning to a Division 1 program.
Add on two meniscus surgeries and three others, and Braun had undergone seven surgeries in the last five years. It was hard to imagine finding a basketball player who had gone through more than Bryan was about to endure, but Lisa had found it.
So she sent an email to the team’s sports information director, Charles Hampton, asking to set up a phone call between the two boys. It turned into a FaceTime call with the whole family that lasted an hour.
“It was tough to see the position he was in, ‘cause I could totally see myself there,” Braun said. “You lose a lot of hope, and you’re frustrated, angry, especially when you make it back and do it all over again.
“It’s a strain on you mentally, physically and spiritually, the whole deal. You get hit with everything.
“It’s hard to do it alone.”
On the phone, Talley mostly listened to Braun detail his journey through multiple injury recoveries. It wasn’t the sole moment where he decided to make his second comeback – there isn’t a single moment or day he can trace that back to, he said – but his parents see it as the catalyst when things started to change.
“Boy, Josh Braun, what a blessing that guy is to our family,” Paul said. “I thank the Lord for my wife for a lot of reasons, but this is something I never would have done.
“He’s become a real friend of our family, and it was a lifesaver for us to talk to someone who’s gone through some of the same things we’ve gone through.”
The phone call didn’t turn things around right away, but Paul said from there on, especially after discussing the future of his son and the Rattlers with Hanmer, he could see things inside his son change, even if he wasn’t always ready to fully commit to a comeback.
“There were times when he would talk about it, his indecision, but I saw what he did, and he was ridiculous on his rehab,” Paul said. “The second time around, he looked like he had something to prove. I don’t know what it was or who he was trying to prove something to – maybe it was himself.
“He has an iron will. When he decides he wants to do something, it’s just going to get done. There are some things I’d like him to use that on, like mowing the lawn, which he doesn’t quite get to when I want it to be done, but when it comes to something he wants, he puts everything into it.”
In July, Talley visited Braun at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Before the Rancho Mirage junior left, he said he looked forward to when the two could play one-on-one next time they met.
“It was neat to see and hear that joy start to come back,” Braun said.
When he returned to the court in October, Talley reminded Hanmer of the cocky freshman he once knew, but he’s picked up the skills and respect during his journey to earn the title.
“He came into high school, and he was going to be the dude, the man, and everybody knew it,” Hanmer said. “He’s the captain for us, and that probably wouldn’t have been the case if he hadn’t gone through what he has.
“He’s matured and had to grow up probably a little faster than other kids.”
On the court, Talley said he’s gotten used to going up to the basket full-strength, unafraid of fighting for layups he normally would make or cutting to the basket on a dime. Running and dribbling with both knee braces, he said, is still a bit of a work in progress.
“Your legs are bigger … and it’s a little difficult sometimes, ‘cause they slide around and move,” he said. “Sometimes they clip onto each other.
“But I’ll wear them if that’s what it takes to be a part of this team.”
Both Talley and his parents know, especially from their relationship with Braun, that another injury can come at any time. Paul remembers a play against Coachella Valley toward the end of the regular season where his son went up hard in the paint and landed on his back and didn’t get up right away. It was just the wind being knocked out of him, but seeing his son motionless on the ground, even for a second, will never be easy anymore.
But he’s glad it’s a decision his son ended up making.
“It’s real easy in life to be safe. You can stay home and be fine, but Bryan has made the decision to be a basketball player,” Paul said. “That means putting another injury on the line. Some people would call that dumb, but I call it valiant.”
Tuesday, in a tight quarterfinal game against Schurr, as the Spartans hung around in the fourth quarter down 13, still enough time to forge a comeback, junior teammate Koby Alvarez grabbed a loose ball turnover and looked up the court, Talley streaking up the left side.
After catching the pass, Talley drove to the basket with a purpose. Rather than a left-handed layup with a Spartan hand in his face, Talley slammed it home with his left hand.
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Though it got the Rattler crowd rocking, it didn’t make much of an impact in the game’s outcome. To Talley, it made all the difference.
“It means the world to me to have this chance and play in this game,” he said. “I was so upset last year that I couldn’t help my team in the semis, but now I’ve got another chance to get that ring again.”