July 18, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- There are a couple of items in Josh Gasser's locker that the Wisconsin guard has drawn strength from during his recovery from knee surgery that cost him the 2012-13 season. One is a clipping on how the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose improved his shot during his own rehab because he spent so much time shooting when he was limited physically do anything else on his knee but shoot. The other is a picture of Gasser's face superimposed on a Sci Fi Transformer with the caption, "Bigger, better, faster, stronger.''
Both items are linked to a UW strength coach, past and present.
More recently, Gasser has derived inspiration from watching old game films. In particular, he has studied the form of a defensive-minded backcourt player who started 30 games as a freshman, had a 3.31 assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big Ten, beat Michigan with a last-second 3-point bank shot and recorded the school's first triple-double. The same player started 36 games as a sophomore and scored in double-digits 13 times while ranking third in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage (.452).'
The player? Josh Gasser, pre-injury, pre- the fateful practice last Oct. 27 during which he was trying to finish at the basket off a steal when he wound up tearing his anterior cruciate ligament; a season-ending injury that necessitated surgery in early November and forced him to redshirt as a junior. "Sometimes I forget how I played,'' Gasser confided. "So I like to watch some old games of myself to kind of motivate me to get back to that point and to get back even better.''
Asked this week about his timetable, he said, "I'm hoping to be back as soon as possible. It's definitely not going to be in the near future. Obviously, I want to be 100 percent by our first game (Nov. 8) and I want to be there for our first practice. We have the Canada trip coming up (Aug. 20), if I can somehow get myself on the floor then, it would be great. If I feel good, if I can play, I'm going to. But if not, that's perfectly fine with me, too. It's all based on the next couple of weeks.''
Gasser got up around 6:45 Wednesday morning, ate breakfast and headed over to the McClain indoor facility for a team workout. Running on the new artificial turf, he had a flashback to his football playing days at Port Washington. He was a quarterback, which is not surprising, because he has the same instincts on the basketball floor. On this morning, he was bathed in sweat, so were his teammates. However hot and humid it was outside, it was twice that inside the facility adjacent to Camp Randall.
"It was super hot,'' Gasser said. "Before we did anything, we were all sweating. Matter of fact, our trainer, Henry Perez-Guerra was sweating and he was just standing there watching.''
Perez-Guerra has spent a lot of time watching over Gasser since the injury. This day was no exception though he was there for all of the UW players. Gasser took part in everything, the flexibility drills and speed work and the 100-yard tempo runs. "It's a fast jog at about 75 percent pace,'' Gasser said. "We do a 100-yard run; take 20 to 30 seconds of rest, run again, rest again. You're not trying to kill yourself out there or necessarily trying to race anyone. But it's a good cardio workout.''
Overseeing the 45-minute session was Erik Helland, the UW's new strength coach for basketball. For the last 25 years, he has been with the Chicago Bulls, hence his connection with the aforementioned Derrick Rose. (Helland, an Edgerton native, replaced Scott Hettenbach, who left Gasser with the doctored Transformer picture.) "The first time I met him (Helland),'' Gasser recounted, "he said to me, `I love ACLs, I love working with them.' That kind of struck me that he was all in for me and he was going to try and help me out. Personally, every time he talks, I'm listening, I'm taking in everything he says.''
After the morning workout, Gasser returned to his apartment and hit the books for a few hours - he's taking a three-credit business course on-line this summer - before showing up around noon at the Kohl Center training room to rehab with Perez-Guerra. After loosening up on a stationary bike, he got some massage therapy and exercised his quads and hamstrings to build up the muscle around his knee. On this day, Gasser also got his monthly check-up from Dr. Ben Graf, who performed the surgery.
"He seemed pretty happy with the progress,'' Gasser said. "And so was I.''
The Badgers practiced at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, one of the 10 "Canada'' practices, which are allowed under NCAA rules in advance of the eight-day, five-game swing through Ottawa and Toronto. Gasser didn't participate; he's not ready yet for five-on-five, but he continued to rehab alongside of his teammates in the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion. He ran through ladder drills, shot layups and got some backboard touches. "Otherwise, I was watching and trying to be a part of the team that way,'' he said.
His mere presence in the gym is critically important from the standpoint of staying connected to what's going on. "It's something I really love about being on a team - being with the guys and participating that way,'' Gasser said. "That's why I come here for rehab usually two hours before a practice so I can get the majority of my work done. I could just as easily stay in the training room and do it while they're practicing. But I'd rather do most of it beforehand and spend my time with them.''
Throughout the rehab process, Gasser has encountered some good days and some setbacks, which is the norm. He would like to accelerate the recovery at times but he knows that patience is a virtue. "Sometimes it is a struggle for me,'' he said. "I'm always trying to get Henry to add another exercise or let me shoot a couple of extra shots. There are times when he won't let me, knowing that the next day I'll be pretty sore. I've just got to listen to him because he knows what he's talking about.''
Some things just have to be experienced, for better or worse, when rehabilitating from a serious knee injury. "You want to keep grinding and moving forward,'' Gasser acknowledged, "but you're going to have days when you have to rest even when you don't want to. It's definitely tough mentally because you think you're losing some time in your recovery. But one of the most important things in this whole process is getting your body healthy and feeling good and that starts with my knee.''
What might be some of the bigger challenges ahead in terms of returning to full-go? "I really don't know but I've thought about it a lot,'' he said. "Conditioning is going to be a little tough. Really the only way to get into basketball shape is by playing and I haven't been able to play for awhile. Obviously the mental aspect of getting used to cutting and jumping with people around you - and having people under you - might be tough. Just shaking off the rush will be tough. All those factors play into it.''
While monitoring practices, he has gotten an early read on the freshmen. "They are a great group, on and off the court, they fit in really well,'' he said. "There are some talented kids and they're not only going to be great players in the future, but I think a couple of them are going to contribute this year. They're adjusting quickly. I don't know that I was this good as a freshman coming in.''
Oh, yeah, Gasser was that good; good enough to equal the school record for most games played (34) by a freshman; good enough to be the first Big Ten freshman to author a triple-double - 10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists at Northwestern - since Magic Johnson pulled off the feat at Michigan State in 1977. Gasser, though, is always looking to get better which is part of his makeup as a team leader.
"I try my best to stay around and talk to the younger guys and voice my opinion,'' he said. "Last year, before I got hurt, I was kind of the guy on the floor that was the voice at times. I know coming into this year I've played more minutes than anyone on the team, so I have a lot of experience even though I didn't play last year. I think coach (Bo) Ryan and the players trust me to be a leader.''
They do, and they can't wait to get Gasser back. "The past couple of weeks, I've added some new exercises - whether cutting, jumping on the move or shooting fadeaway shots - and I try to judge how I felt,'' he said, adding that he has measured his progress at these various junctures along the way. "Each week, I feel a little bit better. I think I'm progressing and hopefully it continues.''