George Mason basketball: Ryan Pearson is scarred but not slowed by childhood accident

George Mason University junior forward Ryan Pearson recounts the car accident that changed his life, leaving him with two different sized legs and a new outlook on life. George Mason University basketball coach Jim Larranaga talks about Pearson's maturation into a team leader.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:06 AM

Ryan Pearson's basketball shorts hide almost all of the pink scar and 32 pairs of staple marks running like a fault line down the outside of his right leg and past a persistently swollen knee.

The blemishes aren't visible to those watching Pearson perform in the trenches for the George Mason men's basketball team, but for the junior forward, it serves as a constant reminder of a summer day in 2001 when, at age 11, he was hit by a car and "broke everything in my knee."

Damage to a growth plate caused his right leg to develop slower than the left and, upon maturation, left a discrepancy of almost an inch; it also put stress on joints and muscles throughout his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame. His sneaker was fitted with a customized gel insert, and although it provides relief and balance, Pearson has not been able to shed an unintentional swagger caused by the injury.

"That's not a strut," strength and conditioning coach Robert Handerahan said, "that's a limp."

The imbalance, combined with his rugged determination to get to the basket and an awkward-looking style of play, often sends him bouncing off bodies and crashing to the court.

"When I don't have the orthotics in there, I'm wobbling around," he said. "Last year, one of the guys on the team was calling me 'Happy Feet.' It's something I just live with."

Despite the challenges, Pearson has made himself into a formidable player since arriving from Christ the King Regional High School in New York. For the second consecutive season at George Mason, he is second on the team in scoring (14.3 points per game) and first in rebounding (six per game).

With Pearson infusing an inside presence, the Patriots (18-5, 10-2) have won eight straight Colonial Athletic Association games to claim a share of first place heading into Saturday afternoon's sold-out showdown in Fairfax against preseason favorite Old Dominion (18-5, 9-3).

"It's a challenge for him every day," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "Whatever obstacles he has had to overcome, he has done it. He has found a way."

The obstacles formed in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a rough area of Queens pinched between John F. Kennedy International Airport, Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. His mother, Leslie, who works in the New York City Police Department's school safety unit, tried to shield him from trouble and cultivate a strong bond.

"Whatever I have going on in my life, she is the first person I tell," he said. "She is really the only person I can express myself to. Whether it's wrong or right, she will always give me a straight-up answer. She led me on the right path."

Which is why Pearson was burdened by guilt when, 91/2 years ago, "I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be," he said. "I thought it would be harmless."

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