For sixth-year Illini Tracy Abrams, it’s a fight to the finish
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Tracy Abrams was propped up on a trainer’s table in the locker room Tuesday in St. Louis, one night before Illinois’ 75-66 victory over Missouri in the annual border showdown.
Fortunately, the sixth-year senior guard and South Side native — an inspirational figure in the Illini program after overcoming a pair of major injuries — wasn’t in need of any sort of medical attention.
It was merely a good place to take a load off while doing an interview.
Abrams, a former Mount Carmel star named first-team all-state by the Sun-Times after the 2010-11 season, was 18 years old when he arrived in Champaign to play for the Illini and then-coach Bruce Weber. Now 24 — in his fifth season under the wing of Weber’s successor, John Groce — he’s playing perhaps the best basketball of his life.
On the court again for the first time since the 2013-14 season, Abrams is scoring a career-high 11.9 points per game and shooting a scalding 59.2 percent from long distance. Nationally, only two players averaging at least two made threes per game are shooting better. Had Abrams — who is 29-for-49 — buried just one more of his attempts thus far, he’d be at the very top of the list.
Two weeks ago, he blazoned his remarkable comeback by pouring in a career-high 31 points — going 7-for-8 on threes — in a victory over Central Michigan. The Illini are 10-3, and Abrams has been one of their top performers.
“I’m having a lot of fun right now,” he said. “The first part of the season has been great. We’ve learned a lot about who we are.”
Yet it’s whom Abrams is that long has inspired and motivated the Illini.
He tore his right ACL in September of 2014 and missed what would’ve been his senior season. That was bad enough, but then came the left Achilles tendon tear during a July 2015 practice. Abrams was forced to miss yet another full season.
Time to hang it up? Or at least wallow in misery for a while?
“Not this guy — not a chance,” Groce said. “Tracy hates negativity. That’s not who he is.”
Instead, Abrams recovered from a second surgery and went back to work on his body. He spent another season watching practices and games alongside his coaches, refining his understanding of the game. Along the way, he took what had been a glaring weakness in his game — the three-point shot — and turned it into an asset.
What else has he done? He topped his undergraduate degree in communication with a master’s degree in recreation, sport and tourism. And how about one more? Halfway through his sixth school year, Abrams is on track for a second master’s in education policy, organization and leadership.
“I’m forever grateful for the position I’m in,” he said. “Gaining more education was another blessing I got from being hurt. As much as it was a negative, there were a lot of positives in there.
“I have another graduation to look forward to in May, so that’s a big deal.”
MORE PAIN, NEW GAINS
Malcolm Hill leaned front-first against a wall, his head in his hands.
Abrams was on the floor. It was his Achilles, though he didn’t know it yet. He just knew it was bad.
“He was screaming, crying, almost laughing, like, ‘Why me?’ and, ‘It’s over,’ ” recalled Hill, a senior and the Illini’s top player. “It was hard to look at. It was so sad.”
Seventeen months later, Groce likens Abrams’ second major injury to the “popping of a balloon” throughout the program.
“The guys knew everything Tracy had been through to get back from the ACL, how hard he’d worked, how great his attitude was, how great of a teammate he was even when he wasn’t playing,” the coach said. “They love him. We all do. I love him because of who he is as a person and student and player. It’s easy to love him. He does a lot of things right.”
Although his career was in jeopardy, Abrams’ attitude didn’t take long to come back around. Sitting in a doctor’s office, the injury freshly diagnosed, Groce told Abrams he was going to be “one of the best success stories in college athletics.”
Abrams called his mother, Felicia Sales, hoping the news wouldn’t make her cry, which might make him fall apart, too.
“But the first thing she said was, ‘You’re going to be all right,’ ” he said. “Just to hear her say that — she didn’t freak out, was very composed — it helped me out a lot. I was like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”
Enter Adam Fletcher, who was hired a month later as the basketball program’s strength and conditioning coach. The first time the two met, Abrams still was getting around on a scooter.
“I figure out of the next 365 days, 350 of them we spent together,” Fletcher said. “There certainly were ups and downs, but every single day he just responded at such a high level.”
Fletcher quickly determined that Abrams’ right knee still needed strengthening to catch up to his left one. They worked on re-establishing the range of motion and flexibility throughout Abrams’ entire lower body. Next came what Fletcher describes as “fine-tuning Tracy’s nervous system to turn him back into a basketball athlete.”
Abrams became a new-and-improved version of himself — stronger in the weight room, increased straight-ahead speed, body fat lowered from 15 percent to 6½ percent. Believe it or not, his vertical jump even got better.
Fletcher, who played center — and suffered an ACL tear of his own — at Miami (Ohio), is only five years older than Abrams. Not surprisingly, the two of them bonded.
“As much as Tracy may think I’ve done for him, what he’s done for me has been priceless,” Fletcher said. “When you’re working with a man like him, you don’t have too many bad days because he’s such a strong person. I’ve learned more from him than he’ll ever know. He’s an incredible person.”
ONE LAST SHOT
One thing a rehabbing basketball player can do before just about anything else is catch and shoot. Abrams did it religiously for much of the last two years.
“I thought about it: If I could start over playing, what would I change? I really wanted to work on my shot.”
Growing up in Woodlawn, Abrams and his friends hung crates in alleys. For them, basketball was all about ball-handling and toughness — being able to get to the “rim.”
“I guess I’ve come a long way since ‘crate ball,’ ” he said.
The three-point improvement has been staggering from a player who shot 25.7, 27.2 and 27.0 percent in his first three seasons at Illinois.
Groce knew Abrams would shoot a better percentage this season. What he didn’t know — couldn’t know — was if Abrams would get all the way back to his former fearless, hell-bent self. Until, that is, a preseason practice in which Abrams went all-out for multiple loose balls.
“He dove like Pete Rose,” Groce said. “I looked at one of our trainers and said, ‘The bulldog’s back.’ ”
Abrams hopes to play professionally after college. He thinks about being a school principal or an athletic director someday, or maybe even a coach. Eventually, he intends to return to Chicago and work with young people — “change as many kids’ lives as I can,” he said.
Before all that, he’d like to help the Illini get back to the NCAA Tournament — which Abrams got to experience as a sophomore — for the first time since 2013.
But what he wants most of all at the moment? Simply to make it to the finish line.
“To play the whole season, man,” he said. “I’ll never take that for granted. I’m grateful for all these games. I thank the Lord for each one I’m able to play in. I’m grateful every time I’m able to lace ’em up.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.