BUBBA WILSON'S SPIRITS REMAIN HIGH
By Gene Phelps
Bubba Wilson was sprinting down court on a fast break, looking over his shoulder for a pass from his teammate. The ball was thrown behind him. He twisted his tall frame around to catch it. His left knee twisted, too.
Wilson, a 6-foot-10 Parade All-America center for Stone County High School, felt a sharp pain. Then it briefly went away. The knee started to swell.
"I thought, 'This can't be happening,' " he said.
But it had. Wilson, rated the nation's No. 2 high school player at his position by The Sporting News, would find out the next day that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in the second game of his senior year.
His season was over.
"There's no way I'll ever forget that game," said Wilson, now a senior backup center for Mississippi State. "We were playing in a tournament at Perry Central in New Augusta. We were playing George County. It happened so quick."
Wilson, whose future looked so bright, was about to begin a struggle with his knee that plagues him even today. He had surgery on the same knee his sophomore year after tearing cartilage in it coming down on a rebound against Auburn.
"It's been a struggle ever since I injured it the first time," he said, rubbing the tender, brace-enclosed knee following a practice at Mississippi State. "Before I injured it, I moved a heck of a lot better. I could run, jump."
Despite the injury, Wilson was recruited by MSU, Kentucky, Florida State, Alabama and Tennessee. There was never any doubt where he was going.
"I would have come here (State) anyway," he said. "This is where my mom (Willie Mae) wanted me to come. She felt safe with me coming here. She wanted me surrounded by good, caring people."
Wilson is still the highest-rated player to ever sign a scholarship with Mississippi State during the 10-year tenure of head coach Richard Williams.
He came to MSU hailed as the big man to take the Bulldogs to the next level. Instead, his start was delayed. He sat out his freshman season while continuing to rehabilitate his knee. By the time he stepped on the court for the 1992-93 season, he hadn't played in nearly two seasons.
"The knee set him back two years," Williams said. "It's been a problem for him. It has taken away a lot of his lateral movement. He doesn't have a lot of cushioning in his knee and it limits him."
During that redshirt freshman season, Wilson started in 10 games, averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds. His sophomore year he was named the team's most improved player after averaging 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds as a backup to newcomer and eventual All-SEC center Erick Dampier.
Last season, Wilson played a reserve role in the Bulldogs' run to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
Wilson admits that he never mentally overcame the first injury and it hampered his play on the college level.
"I've always thought too much about it (the knee)," he said. "It's a scary feeling. I try not to think about it, but I still do."
Wilson's personality he's a gentle giant has interfered with his playing career. In college basketball, the man in the middle has got to be aggressive.
"He's not an aggressive person," Williams said. "Sometimes that hinders his play."
This season, his final at State, Wilson is again a reserve, averaging 1.6 points and 1.8 rebounds a game. The knee is bothering him more this year than any other. There are some days when the pain and swelling is too great and it keeps him off the court.
"I try to go out every practice and do my best," Wilson said. "There are some things I can't do because of my knee. A couple of years ago, I could run, jump and block shots. I can't do those things now."
Dampier appreciates the effort Wilson puts forth in practices.
"He works really hard in practice," Dampier said. "He helps me."
Wilson, who will graduate in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, once had dreams of playing professional basketball. But he has persevered despite the injuries and the fact that he's not the team's inside superstar.
"I don't worry about the expectations of people (the fans and the media)," he said. "I understand my role on the team. I want to be prepared for whenever I'm called, even if it's to play just one minute."
Said Williams, "Bubba Wilson is very unselfish. He has been a wonderful part of our program. He is always willing to do what he can to help the team."