By Adam Lucas
Medically, Dexter Strickland is cleared to play basketball.
Mentally, however, he's not yet full speed.
Strickland played pickup with his teammates last Monday, the first time he had been back on a court with them since tearing his right ACL in a game at Virginia Tech on January 19. It was a relief to run the floor again, to get back to what had been normal for most of his life.
But even as he was pleased to rejoin the normal rhythm of offseason basketball, Strickland knows he's not fully back yet.
"Running up and down the court was different," Strickland said. "I still have a little limp because of just that mental hesitation. I'm still cautious about what I do and how I do it. I'm not sure yet how much weight I can put on my knee or how fast I can cut."
It might sound a little alarming that even when given full medical clearance to play, Strickland still has some hesitation. But the Tar Heels unfortunately have some experience with torn ACLs-just in the past four seasons, Bobby Frasor, Leslie McDonald and Strickland have had the once-devastating injury-and all involved have noted there's a physical rehab process which is then followed by a mental rehab to get back to the fearlessness needed to compete at the ACL level.
Frasor, in fact, said one of the toughest parts of his rehab was "learning to trust my knee again."
That's what Strickland will do as he eases back into the pickup regimen. Most of his teammates are playing essentially every day. But being medically cleared doesn't necessarily mean jumping right back into the schedule. After playing Monday, Strickland took a couple days off to see how his knee recovered. When he gets back on the court, he thinks he'll be able to take one more small step towards being the player he wants to be for his senior season.
"You can't second-guess yourself or think about the injury too much when you're on the court," he said. "When you think about it or don't go as hard, that's when you get hurt. The biggest thing for someone coming back from an ACL tear is that you have to trust your body. That's why rehab is very important, because you have to get that strength back in your knee, so that when you make those cuts and sharp turns, it's not as big a stress on your knee."
Of course, preparation for the season is about more than just playing pickup. Strickland has developed a routine of early-morning shooting at the Smith Center-with classes at 9 a.m., he tries to be on the court by 6:30. On many nights, he's doubled his shooting with an additional late-night session, sometimes around 11 p.m.
Mostly, the extra shooting is intended to replace the repetitions he missed last season when he was sidelined. But it might also have a tangential effect on some of his teammates. As the lone scholarship senior, Strickland will have a leadership role on the 2013 team, a subject new assistant coach Hubert Davis-himself the lone senior on his 1991-92 Carolina team-recently addressed with him.
"We talked about doing the right thing on and off the court," Strickland said. "Things like being at class on time, being at meetings on time, and setting great examples for the freshmen. I need to do little stuff like texting the freshmen just to check in. Coach Davis mentioned to me that he wasn't as much of a vocal leader, but that he led by his example and with his actions. He said I could be both a vocal leader and lead by action."
With that, Strickland is off. He's got a rehab session that begins on the floor of the Smith Center, the stands pushed back to give the players more room to work in the offseason. Across the court, his teammates begin another pickup game.