CHARLOTTE, N.C. — During one of Boston College’s recent basketball practices, first-year Eagles coach Jim Christian challenged a visitor to identify the player who hadn’t played in almost two years because of a chronic left knee issue.
The visitor was stumped as he watched the Eagles glide up and down the practice court at Power Memorial Gym.
“He couldn’t pick him out,’’ Christian said. “It took him about five guys before he finally got to Dennis Clifford.’’
A year ago, that might not have been the case. The 7-foot center from Bridgewater and Milton Academy would have been an obvious choice. He would have been the player who was wracked with so much knee pain it was a struggle for him to walk to class, negotiate a staircase, or, even, get in and out of a desk. He was limited to just two games last season.
To see him now in practice, running the break effortlessly, cutting and jumping on the court with fluidity, Clifford looked as though he had been liberated.
“This was a guy who struggled to get up stairs,’’ said Christian during the ACC’s Operation Basketball at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte. “Now he’s 100 percent and he’s going to be a difference-maker. It’s like getting a new recruit who’s established, and played, and effective.’’
Now that his health has vastly improved, through the help of Waltham orthopedic rehab specialist Hank DeGroat, Clifford was eager to get back on the court. He was excited to give the Eagles a stable frontcourt presence they so sorely lacked last season.
“He’s looked good the whole summer, even before practices started, to be honest,’’ said junior guard Olivier Hanlan. “Obviously, in practice, that’s when you really get to see how much he’s improved. Just being away from the game so long, obviously, was not that fun for him, but I felt he learned a lot from watching other guys and he’s a lot more mature on the basketball court.
“We haven’t seen much of him these last few years, but him playing with no pain this preseason is only going to help us a lot in just having that true 5 down low.’’
As a freshman, Clifford was one of five players to appear in all 31 games, making 25 starts and averaging 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in 26.9 minutes. Although he missed only three games, Clifford’s playing time declined to 14.6 minutes per game as a sophomore when he began experiencing knee pain, which led to offseason surgery. He missed the first 14 games last season.
“For me, personally, it was tough watching the team go through what it went through,’’ said Clifford, who was awarded a medical redshirt last season. “I think the most frustrating part for me was hearing everybody say stuff like, ‘Oh, they don’t have a center,’ so that definitely made it hard.’’
Clifford couldn’t help the Eagles salvage something out of their worst season in school history. But his visits with DeGroat and BC’s medical staff helped Clifford solve his chronic pain.
“He wanted to get it out of my head that I had this chronic condition,’’ Clifford said. “He wanted me to focus on how my body was moving, what muscles I was using, what weaknesses I had that was causing tension and pain.’’
It was a gradual but painstaking process to “re-sync my body,’’ Clifford said. But one morning this spring he got out of bed pain-free.
“Usually, I’m crawling out like an 80-year-old person,’’ he recalled. “The first day I squatted out of my bed without pain, I remembered looking around and going, ‘Holy smokes, that’s something I haven’t felt in the last two years.’ That was like a miracle. It felt like I was getting out of a wheelchair.
“So that was really cool for me, to be able to do normal stuff throughout the day, like walking to class and going up the steps, getting in and out of a desk pain-free, that was like amazing. I felt I was ready to come back.’’
His return to full physical contact on the court was a deliberate process as well.
“In the summer, we had these one-hour workouts for eight weeks,’’ Clifford said. “I started out posting up, taking contact, and dunking against somebody with a [blocking] pad. Then, just running the floor and getting dunks in transition was definitely important.
“But the first time I could box out a guy and pick up and then go get the ball that was important, because it was one of the hardest movements that I had after my knee injury. It was a gradual thing, but now I have no problems in practice.’’
Now that he is able to stand his ground in the paint, defend his position and run the open floor without any limitation, Clifford hopes to make a difference for the Eagles, who were picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the ACC’s preseason media poll.
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Orthopedic rehab specialist Hank DeGroat’s name was misspelled in earlier versions of this story.