By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; D07
George Mason men's basketball player Cam Long had tried almost everything to combat muscle cramps, debilitating spasms that had led to blood tests, genetic evaluation, a visit to an endocrinologist, needles inserted into his leg to measure nerve condition, relaxation techniques, heat pads under his shorts and use of a stationary bike behind the bench.
His concerned mother suggested drinking vinegar water, which tasted so foul he would stir it in Gatorade. "It was still bad," he said, wincing.
The contractions would develop in his stomach and hamstrings, calves and back. When afflicted during a game, he would make eye contact with Coach Jim Larranaga. Nothing needed to be said, and he would gingerly walk off the court.
Last year, after a scrimmage at Georgetown, he experienced a frightening full-body cramp. "All I could do," he said, "was lie down and yell."
Doctors and specialists could not find any serious underlying issues. The solution, they concluded, was better nutrition, improved sleeping habits and an emphasis on conditioning.
But part of the cure was also found in a little plastic cup available in the refrigerated aisle of any grocery store: Jell-O.
These days, the wiggly product is stacked in the Patriots' locker room -- strawberry and orange flavors, mostly -- and is made available for meals during road trips.
It is Long's snack of necessity, recommended by a sports nutritionist. "It's a great mix of protein and carbs," George Mason athletic trainer Debi Corbatto said. "We tried everything else, why not that, too?"
Long, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, has been mostly cramp-free since early December. Combined with a recent position change, he is enjoying the finest stretch of his college career in leading a young Patriots team (13-7, 8-1) into a three-way tie for first place at the midpoint of the Colonial Athletic Association schedule.
In the past three games, all road victories, he averaged 24 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 22 of 31 from the field and 11 of 17 on three-pointers. On Wednesday night against Delaware (6-14, 2-7) at Patriot Center, he will attempt to become the first George Mason player since George Evans in November 1998 to score 20 points in four consecutive games.
Muscle cramps, caused by fluid or electrolyte deficiency, are common in athletes and usually remedied by increased hydration. However, "in Cam's case," Corbatto said, "the extra fluids just made him go to the bathroom more."
Long had to leave each of the first several games this season with cramps, resulting in less than 30 minutes of playing time and subpar production.
After administering numerous tests, medical officials concluded that the answer, in part, was the need for lifestyle changes: more nutritious food, especially on game day, and eight hours of sleep instead of five.
"Ever since I changed my diet, cramping has definitely slowed down," he said. "On a normal day, I would grab something quick -- McDonald's or maybe pizza, and that was it. No more. Now I eat real stuff: pasta, steak, potatoes. I am very aware."
Besides being in better health, Long has also benefited from an on-court adjustment. Burdened by the responsibility to handle the ball, score and guide a team with 10 freshmen and sophomores, he moved from point guard to shooting guard this month. Sophomore Andre Cornelius is now the primary ballhandler, a switch that allowed Long to roam for quality shots and orchestrate the offense.
"The cramping issue was a distraction and I struggled," Long said. "But also part of it was that I felt like I had to score, I had to get assists, I had to motivate everybody. It seemed like I had so much on me. But now I feel like I am at a level where I just have to worry about playing and enjoying yourself. I have a little smile."
That enjoyment translated into a career-high 27 points plus seven assists against Hofstra last Wednesday and two consecutive three-pointers in the late stages of an uneasy victory over last-place Towson on Saturday.
"The problem we were having with Cam [at point guard] was when he gave up the ball, he rarely got it back," Larranaga said. "We would throw it to him with two seconds on the shot clock. It was like, 'Okay, thanks fellas!'
"Andre liked the idea of having the ball in his hands more and Cam was happy about having the ball a little less. With the adjustment came immediate results, which doesn't often happen."
The change has also enhanced team chemistry, resulting in higher shooting percentages and at least 80 points the past three games after an average of 52.3 the previous three.
Long "was trying to force shots for himself because he wasn't getting the shots he wanted," said Cornelius, who is averaging 15.3 points the past four games after failing to reach double figures in seven of the previous eight. "Now he has more room to shoot. He looks for me, I look for him, and we're getting shots."
Long arrived at George Mason from Freedom High School in Woodbridge, where he was a first-team All-Met as a senior. He is originally from Palm Bay, Fla., where a disciplinary problem -- he declined to elaborate -- midway through his sophomore year prompted his mother, Myrtle, to send him to live with his brother, Rendell, a former Florida State fullback who worked at Fort Belvoir and is 16 years older than Cam.
"Losing all my friends, losing the environment, coming up here, I felt alone, felt by myself, no one to help out, no one to talk to," he said. "I was close to my brother, but he had to work."
His mother joined them a few months later, and by Long's junior year he was one of the top prospects in the area. His coach at Freedom, Ahmad Dorsett, played for Larranaga at George Mason.
Long entered every game as a freshman, almost all in reserve, before becoming a full-time starter in 2008-09 and averaging 11.7 points and 3.2 assists. This season he produced quality performances against Indiana, Tulane and Creighton but struggled with his shooting and was hampered by the physical problems.
These days, before he takes the court, Long prepares himself with a hearty meal, a salt tablet and several cups of Jell-O -- a pregame gelatin binge now shared by his teammates.
"I used to get on him about not eating much before a game," sophomore forward Ryan Pearson said. "Now if he sees me not eating enough, he'll get on me. He says, 'Listen, man, you don't want to go through what I did.' "