NEENAH – It’s an unusual scene on this early Monday evening in late February, just outside the Neenah High School Fieldhouse.
Zavier Sims, a 6-foot-4 senior basketball player for the Neenah boys’ basketball team, nonchalantly walks to a more private area of the hallway, just outside the facility’s swimming pool, all the while holding onto a replica of his skull as he would a small basketball.
His large hands cradle the skull, and a few of his fingers graze over the prominent, almost rectangular, piece missing from the right side of the cranium — a 21/2-by-41/2-inch piece that was removed during Zavier’s craniotomy in the summer of 2013.
“It’s crazy,” Zavier remarks. “For four months, I went with this just open. I had a little flap and a little indent in my head. I think it was crazy.”
The skull is a striking reminder of a tumultuous summer of 2013. Zavier now has a full head of hair covering the area that saw several surgical procedures performed to relieve him of a bacterial sinus infection that had spread to his brain.
Zavier also battled neuropathy, described as a numbness and tingling in the feet. It’s believed to have been caused by an antibiotic given to him to fight the infection. The result was damage to his nerves in perhaps the most important part of a basketball player’s body.
But watching Zavier during practice and then during a recent game at Kimberly, one would be hard-pressed to see anything peculiar about his play.
That wasn’t always the case as Sims worked his way back to the court. His journey is one few have experienced.
“Yeah, I’m just cruising like this.”
Following his craniotomy, a suggestion was offered by his doctors, and Zavier swatted it away like an opponent attempting a layup in the paint.
“They wanted me to wear a helmet,” he said. “And I said there’s no way I was wearing one of those. So I was extra careful. It was just crazy.
“(Kids) see (the skull) and they’re like, ‘Wow, you had that and you didn’t even have a helmet on or anything?’” And I was like, ‘Yeah, I was just cruising like this.’ So that’s what the indent was for. They thought that was pretty cool.”
Zavier, who had his procedures done in Madison, was visited by several University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team members, including Josh Gasser, Duke Dukan and Frank Kaminsky.
Following the surgery, Zavier was mostly a homebody during the summer of 2013 as the antibiotics did their work. If all went well, a metal plate would be placed over the hole in Zavier’s skull in early Feburary 2014.
The start of his freshman year at Neenah High School was short-circuited by two trips to the emergency room and the onset of the neuropathy. He was unable to walk.
Zavier’s mother, Shelli Klapatauskas, said her son was in constant pain because of the neuropathy, and Zavier said simple movements, like moving from one side of a room to another, were difficult on his own because of the pain.
“I couldn’t walk on a hardwood floor,” he said. “I had to get drug along. I would lay on a blanket and they’d drag me across. The first month or so, it was so bad that I was sleeping with my legs on the floor in an ice bucket. That was the only thing that helped. That was for about three weeks straight and I didn’t get a lot of sleep either because I was in too much pain.”
The following months required more rest for Zavier. To keep up with his academics, he was enrolled in home schooling.
And while Zavier shied away from wearing a protective helmet as his skull healed, there was one time when he relented, his mother said.
“My family is really into deer hunting,” Klapatauskas said. “So they took a snowmobile helmet and painted it blaze orange and he wore the snowmobile helmet and went and sat in the woods so he felt like he was doing something. But that was really the most he really got out. Otherwise, he was pretty much at home during those months.”
Zavier’s surgery to put the metal plate in his skull was on Feb. 6, 2014, and it would be an entire year before he was healed and well enough to resume interscholastic competition.
“His body went through a lot,” Klapatauskas said. “The infection and the neuropathy and all the drugs he was on after the neuropathy. The weight went up and down. He would lose 20 pounds and put 10 back on. Then he had to get into athletic shape.”
The wait was tough mentally on Zavier.
“It was hard,” he said. “I was told I was going to make JV as a freshman, and watching my other buddies go off as freshman on JV, it was hard. I cried plenty of nights. It was a pretty tough time. But my family really helped me through it.”
Zavier returned to the court during his sophomore year — on Feb. 13, 2015, in a JV game against Hortonville.
Within the first few minutes, Zavier scored and then took a charge, terrifying his mother in the process.
But for Zavier, the contact was something he needed.
“I was a little nervous at first,” he said. “But once I took that charge and I was out there with my friends, I felt relaxed and I felt at home. I was out there doing what I love.”
Klapatauskas said that while she may have caught her breath, she knew the doctors would not have allowed her son to play if there was any significant danger of him injuring himself.
“The neurosurgeon totally put my mind at ease,” she said. “He wouldn’t have cleared him if I had anything to worry about at all. And I felt totally comfortable with that.
“But during all that time with his feet hurting him, he never complained and he never whined. He went to practice. He’d come home from a practice and his feet would be sore and he’d soak them. He never let that get him down. He was very resilient.”
The physical therapy, Klapatauskas said, was also aimed at getting her son back the skills needed to perform on the court.
There were setbacks there, too.
“He developed jumper’s knee when he got back,” she said. “He went back and saw his physical therapist and got on a training program. Over the summer he was doing that program and playing AAU basketball and I could see finally that he was back to where he was as the kid he was before he got sick physically.”
Zavier played in 11 varsity games his junior year and averaged just a shade over two points per game.
With an active summer under his belt, he entered his senior year as a starter and is averaging 4.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game for the 14-8 Rockets.
Neenah plays Appleton East in a regional semifinal at Ron Einerson Fieldhouse on Friday. Rockets coach Lee Rabas called Zavier an integral part of the team.
“He’s evolved as a player,” Rabas said. “We use him as a post defender, but we’re actually playing him more as a perimeter player on offense.”
Rabas became Neenah’s coach in June of 2015 and said Zavier has made immense strides over the past few seasons.
“I’ve seen him go through stages of development and probably reacquiring skills and what not,” Rabas said. “That first summer, sometimes his movements weren’t free flowing and they were somewhat segmented. Then in the fall of 2015, in the month of October — and it wasn’t just me, but other (coaches) — we felt he had gone to a point where, all of a sudden, he was starting to move more freely. When you have seven surgeries it’s going to impair your motor movements. And it’s going to take some time to have everything firing like it was before.”
Zavier said it was an “honor” to play for the Rockets and their fan base.
“They love their Rockets,” he said. “I think it’s awesome that I personally got to come back from this and am starting after watching Matt Heldt and Trevor Entwisle and all those guys play. I’m living the dream right now.”
The community support was also evident his freshman year, when the Neenah students raised more than $13,000 for him and his mother during homecoming activities that week in October 2013.
“The whole school helped,” he said. “I was the theme for homecoming and they raised all this money for my mom. I really appreciate that because my mom is a single mom and they did a lot for us. The community and the school. It was a true blessing that they were there for us.”
Rabas also pointed to Klapatauskas’ commitment to find the correct diagnosis for her son.
“I know that when I initially heard Shelli’s version of the story shortly after I was hired, one of the things that struck me was how she was such an advocate for him,” Rabas said. “They had been going back on several occasions to try and figure out what was wrong. To the point where she said, ‘I’m not leaving until you figure out what’s wrong with my son.’
“Her courage and her strength through it all was probably a big part of his getting better.”
The team’s recent Senior Night was emotional for Klapatauskas as she reflected on those tough times three years ago.
“I felt like somebody had asked me his freshman year, ‘Are you going to hold him back?’ Because if I did that, he would have another year of playing,” she said. “But I’m thinking that he does love basketball, but that’s not what it was about. It was about finishing what you’re starting and being with your friends and not letting something hold you back enough to where it changes the course of your life. If he wanted to play basketball, he would be determined enough to bet back to the level that he wanted.
“I think that after missing two years, his confidence was gone and I don’t think he came out his senior year and had the same kind of senior year he would have had had he not gone through any of this. But I was proud of him. He gave it his all.”
Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-7191 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @PCRicardo