George Mason basketball: Ryan Pearson is scarred but not slowed

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; D02

Reprinted from yesterday's editions

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."

It wasn't. And the timing and circumstances deepened the anguish. Leslie was two weeks away from getting married to Pearson's soon-to-be stepfather, Derrald Curry, and had gone to Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City on Long Island to buy her son a video game - a reward for winning a recent basketball tournament.

Instead of heading home after shooting hoops with friends, he defied her and followed them to Mott Avenue, Far Rockaway's busy commercial stretch, to torment a dollar-store owner. Anguished by what was unfolding, Pearson said he waited on the corner as his buddies knocked over a sidewalk rack of toiletries.

The owner rushed out, the boys ran. Pearson followed. He didn't see the white Mercedes until it was too late.

"I remember being under the car," he said. "The driver backed up and I'm lying in the street. I looked at my leg and my kneecap was over to the side, going the other way. It was so twisted. Basically, I broke everything in my knee."

The thigh and shin bones had separated at the knee, a major dislocation. The next day, surgeons inserted two screws. A cast covered the entire leg for two months. A brace and crutches followed. The accident also damaged a growth plate. "The doctors didn't know if he'd ever walk normally," said Leslie Pearson, who home-schooled her son while he recovered.

He began to heal, and grow. Basketball reentered his life the following summer. Over time, though, his right leg did not expand at the pace of the left.

"The knee got better. I didn't really let it bother me," he said. "I fell in love with basketball and I was dedicated to it. I was just focused on developing my game."

Pearson developed a spin move, a signature shot throughout high school, where he averaged 25 points as a senior. At George Mason, he has learned to score with clever moves in the lane and developed a three-point stroke. He was never much of a leaper, and at times he seems rooted to the court.

"Are there any words to describe his style?" Patriots junior forward Mike Morrison said. "When I first saw him, I thought his shots were lucky, and still to this day, I am always saying, 'How'd you make that?' "

Said Larranaga: "A lot of what he does doesn't look fundamentally sound but really is. His spin move doesn't look like Magic Johnson's, because he's got a herky-jerkiness to it, but his footwork is excellent and his ability to balance and absorb contact is exactly what you try to teach players."

While Pearson's skill set was in place when he arrived in Fairfax, his posture was a mess. Over the years, because of the difference in leg lengths, his body adapted and compensated in order to function physically. When he tried to do squats, he had trouble with the barbell because one side of his back would take all the weight.

Pearson continues to work with Handerahan and athletic trainer Debi Corbatto to build strength evenly in his legs and become more flexible. He's usually in the training room long after his teammates have retreated to the dorms. As Pearson's physique improved, so did his fitness level, resulting in greater durability and consistency. His rehabilitation is an ongoing process, however, and without vigilant conditioning, the aches and pains will continue to affect him.

In Wednesday's victory over Hofstra, he had his most productive game of the season with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists. On Saturday, his biggest fan, his mother, plans to travel to Fairfax and attend the game.

"He was always so determined," Leslie Pearson said. "He had a hard time [with the injury], but that wasn't going to stop him. He wanted to go on and achieve things. He's made me so proud."

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