Cornell's Gant back on feet

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The worst moments came in the middle of the night. Unable to sleep, Khaliq Gant would lie in his hospital bed and stare into the darkness. Paralyzed with two dislocated vertebrae in his neck, he remained upbeat and positive during the day, but sometimes at night, fear would creep in.

"I remember having pain in my leg and not being able to massage or scratch it," he said. "It was the only time fear entered into my mind because I couldn't do anything about it."

On Jan. 24, 2006, Khaliq Gant dove for a loose ball during basketball practice at Cornell University.

Two days earlier, the Big Red had lost at the buzzer to Columbia, blowing a nine-point lead in the final minutes. So the intensity ran high at practice at Newman Arena.

"The guys were playing extremely hard," Cornell coach Steve Donahue recalled. "It was exactly what you hoped to see."

Then came the loose ball. Gant collided with three teammates and they all went sprawling.

"I look and, oh man, I'm waiting for blood," Donahue said. "And then I see Khaliq about halfway across the lane."

"I remember having pain in my leg and not being able to massage or scratch it. It was the only time fear entered into my mind because I couldn't do anything about it."
-- Khaliq Gant

Gant, a 6-foot-3 guard, had fallen on top of Ryan Rourke. Two Cornell players had hopped up, but Gant's head and neck draped across Rourke's legs. Gant wasn't moving; his body was limp.

Gant, who was conscious, knew something was wrong.

What happened next was a serious lifesaving circumstance.

First, Rourke had the presence of mind to see that his teammate was seriously injured. He didn't move and he didn't try to move Gant, either. Trainer Marc Chamberlain, who was riding an exercise bike off the court and less than 20 feet away, rushed to Gant and kept his head and neck still. A 911 call went out, and paramedics responded in 10 minutes. They gave Gant steroids, which was crucial. In the case of neck or spinal trauma, steroids given within 90 minutes can reduce swelling and help recovery.

Gant was taken by a medical helicopter to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y.

Donahue went to his office to call his wife, Pamela.

"My office overlooks the gym," Donahue said, barely able to hold back tears. "You can't imagine what that was like. I get emotional now."

The operation

Dana Gant is a nurse in the Atlanta area. As Steve Donahue and Chamberlain talked to her by phone, she immediately took the news to Khaliq's father, Dean Gant.

"She came to my place instead of calling me," Dean Gant said. "She was pretty hysterical. She couldn't even really tell me. It took a while before I could get all of the facts. But the way she was, I knew the seriousness of what had happened."

Khaliq Gant had suffered a 50 percent dislocation of the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae. He had no movement from the neck down and there was a strong chance the paralysis would be permanent.

It took a day for the Gants to put together the arrangements to get to Elmira. They arrived at Arnot Ogden on Jan. 26.

They got their first look at Khaliq in a harness support.

"He said he'd be OK," Dean Gant recalled. "That made us feel better even though it didn't look like he would be OK."

In a seven-hour operation, doctors at Arnot Ogden removed a piece of bone from Gant's hip and used it to fuse together the vertebra in his neck.

Cornell assistant coach Zach Spiker, recruiting in Minnesota when the accident happened, didn't get to see Gant until after the operation.

"I come back and go straight from the airport in Syracuse to Elmira," Spiker said. "Khaliq's on a mechanism that rotates him every 30 minutes to an hour. I get there and he's face down. At that point, the reality set in."

Spiker had a handful of cards and letters from friends and athletes at Cornell. They were supposed to be an icebreaker upon entering Gant's hospital room. But Gant couldn't hold the cards or see them in his inverted position. So Spiker crawled under Gant's bed, reading the cards and then holding them so Gant could see them. Then Spiker got to one from Cornell baseball coach Tom Ford's son, Matt.

"It was just a young kid writing a get-well card," Spiker said, pausing to collect himself. "It took every ounce not to have the emotion that I'm having now and just start crying in front of Khaliq."

Gant would have no such self-pity.

Aside from the brief nighttime worries, Gant knew he would recover.

"I never heard that I wouldn't walk again," he said. "I guess they were telling my parents and other people. Even if they had told me, I wouldn't have paid any mind to it. I was trying to remain positive."

The healing power of music

The Gants, who lived in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, moved Khaliq to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta because of its reputation as a catastrophic care hospital specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

After the plane carrying Khaliq from Elmira landed at an airport in Lawrenceville, Ga., Dean Gant received a call from the father of Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard. Khaliq had played AAU ball with Howard on a team coached by Dean Gant. Howard had heard about Gant's injury. Orlando was scheduled to play the Atlanta Hawks the next night, and Howard's father was calling to set up a visit.

"They came to the hospital the next day," Dean Gant said. "They saw Khaliq and prayed with him. We all visualized that he would walk out of Shepherd."

As a self-employed music producer, Dean Gant put his projects on hold and moved into the hospital to be with his son. Dana Gant relieved Dean whenever she could leave work, sometimes for two or three days at a time.

There was a problem immediately after arriving at Shepherd.

Khaliq had never taken any form of medication. It was something the Gants didn't believe in.

"He'd never had so much as a Tylenol," Dean Gant said. "He went from that to being pumped full of steroids to reduce the swelling and the anesthesia for surgery and the morphine and the blood thinners after surgery."

Khaliq reacted to the drugs. He was agitated and sleep-deprived. He would grit his teeth and contort his face. His rehabilitation was put on hold since he couldn't respond to his therapist.

Dean Gant found a way to connect to his son.

Khaliq had inherited his father's love for music. Dean Gant is a composer and music producer, and Khaliq has an eclectic musical taste. His computer hard drive is full of music, including some of Gant's creations. He never went anywhere at Cornell without his iPod.

When he was being airlifted to the medical center in New York, the first thing he asked was, "Get my iPod."

So at Shepherd, father and son began communicating through beats and songs and rhythms. They seemed to calm Khaliq; the two bonded through music.

Finally, an antipsychotic drug took the edge off Gant's reaction. His recovery began, and the athlete in him took over.

He started in a sip-and-puff wheelchair. A puff on a straw made the wheelchair go. A sip made it stop. It was tough at first, but he got good at it.

"He told me the injury was a blessing," Gant's father said. "He felt that he'd never really been challenged. He was able to see things in a whole different light. He felt he was going to become a much stronger and better person."

The Cornell assistants took turns visiting Gant in Atlanta. Spiker's brother lived in Atlanta and his place became the staff's headquarters.

Spiker brought tapes of Cornell's games and scouting reports with Gant's name on it just like the players received before each game. Spiker brought a favorite -- 5-inch cookies from the Shortstop Deli in Ithaca.

"We'd take them down and sneak them in," Spiker said. "Eventually, we gave them to his instructors and said, 'This is the carrot to dangle.'"

"He told me the injury was a blessing. He felt that he'd never really been challenged. He was able to see things in a whole different light. He felt he was going to become a much stronger and better person."
-- Dean Gant, Khaliq's father

Gant moved from the sip-and-puff wheelchair to a motorized model. He organized a wheelchair race in the hospital's hallway with a fellow patient.

"I'm sure the staff there wouldn't have liked it, but it was a straightaway," Gant said. "It was pretty safe -- just testing the raw speed of the chair."

He still wasn't walking, but Khaliq Gant was back.

"I generally liked working out," Gant said of his rehab. "That aspect I enjoyed. The toughest part was minor stuff, like my muscles didn't remember how to walk. I had to concentrate on bending my knee and walking heel to toe and keep doing it correctly.

"But I liked trying to walk. I broke into a sweat and it felt good. It made me feel like exercising again."

Gant returned to Cornell on May 5 for Slope Day, an annual spring concert and festival. Spiker went to Atlanta to escort Gant back to Ithaca.

"I made all the arrangements going down for the trip back," Spiker said. "I said, 'I've got a guy who's going to need a wheelchair.' We're on the way back and he walks right by the wheelchair."

Gant still needed crutches and he tired quickly, but his return to campus and his progress stunned friends.

"Slope Day was the highlight," Gant said.

Gant returned to Atlanta, where he remained at Shepherd on an outpatient basis. He lived with his father in an apartment near the clinic and continued rehab.

Chamberlain visited in June while attending a national convention for athletic trainers in Atlanta.

"We went to see Khaliq before we went to the hotel," Chamberlain said. "He was in a pool, jumping up and down doing a plyometric exercise. Then, he walked out of the dressing room. I was just blown away."

Return to school

When Cornell's fall semester began in August, Khaliq returned as a full-time student. He remains a member of the team and has a page in the school's media guide just like the other players. He works out under Chamberlain's supervision.

"We're working mostly on muscle strengthening," Chamberlain said. "He's still having trouble being very stable when he's walking so we're working on leg strength and muscle strength."

He lifts weights with the basketball team, but some of Gant's best workouts come from walking the hilly Cornell campus overlooking the southern end of Cayuga Lake.

"The hills are definitely a task," Gant said, laughing. "I was complaining today about walking up a hill."

Gant has lost 10 percent of the normal range of motion in his neck. Still, he hopes to play again.

"My goal is still to play basketball again," he said. "I'm an optimistic person. It doesn't seem too lofty in my mind."

Said Donahue: "I don't know if he'll ever play again, but after seeing how far he's come, I'm not going to be the one that tells him he can't."

One of the last muscle groups to recover has been Gant's shoulders. For a long time, he couldn't raise his shoulders above his head.

That meant he could not shoot a basketball.

Then one day last week, Spiker was in the coaches' office overlooking the Newman Arena court.

"I looked out from the office a few days ago and he's in the gym," Spiker said. "He shot a basket. I did a double-take. Khaliq just shot a basket."

Spiker's voice dropped to an emotional whisper: "Khaliq just shot a basket."

Mike Waters writes for the Syracuse Post-Standard. He can be reached at mwaters@syracuse.com.