Brandon Ashley is over the hurt

Brandon Ashley's Long Road Back (5:21)

Arizona forward Brandon Ashley's season ended abruptly when he tore a ligament in his foot last February. After months of recovery and rehab, Ashley is ready to return and take another shot at the Final Four. (5:21)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The night that Brandon Ashley rifled a remote into his wall and shattered it, he was trapped in bed, recovering from foot surgery.

Two weeks earlier, on Feb. 1, 2014, in Berkeley, California, misfortune sucker-punched a dream.

Ashley, a San Francisco native and Arizona forward, had dozens of family members on Cal's campus for the undefeated Wildcats' matchup against the Bears. His mother, grandmother, cousins and friends were all there.

For the first time in his collegiate career, Ashley had come back to the Bay. His crew was there to watch.

"It's an amazing feeling," he said. "Kind of indescribable, but it's just a great feeling to know that you have so many people that genuinely care for you and that are there to support you, everything that you do."

But the celebration turned into a vigil when an awkward landing and a torn ligament in his right foot ended his night and his season.

Those close to him, the ones who had traveled to see him play, gathered in the underbelly of the Haas Pavilion as he stood on crutches. Arizona, a perfect 21-0 entering the night, lost on a last-second shot by Justin Cobbs. Gone was the unbeaten record and No. 1 ranking. And now, too, Arizona would go forward without its NBA-level forward.

Ashley's frustration festered.

"I won't say he was depressed," Ashley's mother, Lashiem Clark, said. "But he was soul-searching."

He broke the remote to the TV in his apartment during Arizona's loss to rival Arizona State in a double-overtime thriller two weeks after he'd suffered his foot injury.

Alone with his anger, he picked up the clicker and hurled it across the room.

"It was tough to watch," Ashley said. "It was tough. We put up such a fight. And it [was] so early in the process. They [were] still trying to find their way, still trying to adjust."

Ashley had to make a decision that night. He'd either sulk and pout and throw things. Or, he'd tap into his reservoir of strength and construct one of college basketball's most compelling and significant comebacks.

Around 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in late September, Ashley walks through a side door in Arizona's training room, strips down to his black tights and stands on a square. Justin Kokoskie, the team's athletic trainer, pushes a button and the floor drops.

Ashley extends his arms while four jet streams fill the pool around him. Then, he begins to jog atop an underwater treadmill surrounded by waterproof cameras that Kokoskie monitors. He plods through the water. The only audible sound is the one that Ashley makes when his arms throw the waves behind him.

It's a necessary monotony.

For seven months, Ashley jogged through sand, iced his foot, bounced on one leg, hop-scotched through ladders and ran on that underwater treadmill hoping to reach 100 percent by the start of this, his junior season.

"It was depressing, to say the least, because you want to be out there helping your teammates," he said. "It's one of those situations where you kind of have to deal with it. You gotta fight through it. You gotta stay strong. I genuinely believe the hardest part of the injury and your recovery is your mentality."

Athletes are thrown into this awkward anonymity when they're hurt. Fans can't buy tickets to rehab. And that separation from teammates, coaches and competition is not easy to digest. The comeback is always celebrated, but the process that preceded it?

"I've seen so many athletes, when you're in a boot, you're on crutches, it's difficult," Kokoskie said. "It's difficult to keep your mind kind of quiet, and just focus on the day-to-day process."

For six weeks, Ashley was on crutches. He spent the next eight in a boot. He had to hop up stairs. To get to class, Ashley rode on the backs of golf carts driven by graduate assistants.

"Rehab," said Zach Peters, a former Arizona big man who retired from college basketball as a result of his injuries, "it's a whole 'nother sport."

Ashley played it well. Each week, his foot gained more strength. He committed to the arduous demands and experienced results. His body, eventually, began to feel normal again.

But why did he have to go through all that drama?

Ask around and you'll learn that Ashley is one of the good guys. He's mature and measured in conversation. He speaks only when he has something to say.

He's also the kid who never gave his mother any trouble.

He's the one who decided to be the man of the house once his dad left.

He's the athlete who refused to take the full dosage of pain pills after foot surgery because he's so accustomed to being strong for everyone else.

He's the young man who tells his teammates to get on the baseline and run another gasser to support a Wildcat who missed the mark.

He's the one who might make millions in the NBA draft next summer, but if he has an ego about it, it's hidden.

He's the guy who often checks on his teammates and his coaches.

"Love you fam," he recently wrote to assistant coach Emanuel "Uncle Book" Richardson in a text message. "Appreciate it. Hope the road is treating you well and everything is going well on your end."

"It's a lot of dudes out there who aren't doing the right thing," Richardson said. "Let [the injury] happen to them. Why him?"

But Ashley tried to resist that woe-is-me mentality. He couldn't let an injured foot ruin his career, his life or his outlook. He'd worked too hard.

"Actually, I saw this quote earlier today and it said that 'I believed that life was unfair until I realized that it is fair because it's unfair to everyone' and it's like, everyone kind of goes through their own trials and tribulations," he said. "I guess this is just mine."

When it happened, Richardson wiped his tears. Coaches are conditioned to remain stoic on the sideline, but it didn't look good. "When Brandon got hurt," Richardson said, "it was one of those things where you have that big lump in your throat."

Clark thought about climbing over the rail separating the fans from the bench so she could get to her son. Her own basketball dreams had been ruined by a torn ACL. Her daughter, Brieanna, had gone through four major knee injuries during her shortened career at San Jose State.

And now her eldest boy sat motionless on the Haas Pavilion court just minutes into that Feb. 1 matchup against Cal.

Not again.

"I don't think I processed it right away," she said. "I just wanted to make sure that he didn't check out on me. He'd already teared up. I knew that I couldn't."

Kokoskie hustled toward Ashley, who knew something wasn't right. He'd grappled with David Kravish for a rebound and initially thought Kravish had accidentally stepped on his foot, but the video suggests that an unfortunate landing was probably the only culprit.

"I said my foot's broken," Ashley recalled. "It doesn't feel right. I knew for a fact. I knew for a fact."

Still, the severity of it all didn't strike Ashley until Kokoskie told him that he'd probably miss the rest of the season with what was originally called a broken foot, then later deemed a torn ligament.

"My mom was back there. My sister was back there and, obviously, they did their very best to stay strong for me and I wanted to do the same for them, but I couldn't," Ashley said. "I broke down and it took awhile for me to stop crying and get myself back together. You're 21-0. Your team is doing great and then you go down like that."

Ashley's absence changed the Wildcats, not just that night but also in the two months remaining.

"We were lost basically. We were lost," Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. "And we were all looking for something, someone to spark us."

Arizona had been untouchable, but Ashley's injury made the team mortal again.

Ashley is a stretch power forward who anchors Arizona's pick-and-pop game. His length and presence anchored a team that became one of the country's most efficient offensive and defensive units. The Wildcats were 21-0 with Ashley; they were 12-5 without him.

The Wildcats still had enough pieces left to get to the Elite Eight, where they lost a 64-63 overtime thriller against Wisconsin.

In September, Ashley was cleared to play again. In his first pickup game after his injury, Ashley ignored the team's medical staff.

"[Kokoskie] said you can play for 15 minutes and I said, 'All right, we'll see,'" Ashley said. "Get out there on the court and I'm feeling good. Like, I'm moving around making shots and everything. It's my first time playing against anybody. And he tried to call me off the court. I got at least another 15 [in my mind]. I ended up going pretty much for the entire open gym. And he tried to hold me to 15 minutes. Can't let that happen."

He hasn't looked back.

He's at full speed, testing that right foot in sprints and defensive slides, physical drills with the other Arizona big men and agility moves on his own. No hesitation. He still thinks about the foot on certain moves, but it's not his focus. He's comfortable again.

And now, the Wildcats seem complete. The addition of freshman Stanley Johnson should help Arizona, the No. 2 team in our preseason Power Rankings, make a run at the national title. That is, if Ashley can play to his potential all season.

"When he started playing over the summer and he started dunking on people again in the little open runs we had, I was like 'Yeah, he's back,'" Johnson said. "When he got back to playing with us over the summer, that's when our team started really jelling a lot more because he was on the court with us."

Ashley wants to win a national title. And the NBA remains a goal, too.

Yet he's also aware that he can't control everything.

So Ashley focuses on today and tries to enjoy it.

"In all honesty, this injury -- although it was tough to deal with -- I think that it might have actually made me a better person," he said. "I no longer take the game for granted. I realize how important every day that I have is. I respect the game a lot more and I think this situation truly humbled me."