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December 14, 2012

GASKINS: Etherington remains positive

IU player’s family has a long history of injuries and comebacks.

I was sitting at my desk in our office Saturday night. No. 1-ranked Indiana’s game against Central Connecticut State was playing on the television, but I was focused on work and paying little attention to the game until I looked up and saw a player down on the floor, surrounded by medical personnel.

I was unable to immediately see which player was injured, but I had a bad feeling that it was Hamilton Heights product Austin Etherington.

Sure enough, it was the 6-foot-6 sophomore forward on the floor with what turned out to be a broken patella in his left knee.

I felt bad for Etherington, who was carving out a role on a team that will challenge for the national title. And I felt bad for the Etherington family, which has dealt with more than its fair share of injuries.

When Austin Etherington was removed from the Assembly Hall floor on a stretcher Saturday night, I immediately thought back to his brother Alex’s injury in Hamilton Heights’ 2010-11 regular-season finale at Peru. Alex went up for a dunk, was undercut by a Peru player, and took a frightening head-first fall to the floor. He briefly was knocked unconscious and also briefly lost feeling in his extremities. He was removed from the floor on a stretcher and transported by ambulance to a trauma center in Fort Wayne. He had a severe concussion.

The family’s injury history runs deeper. Austin had cartilage reconstruction surgery on his right knee in seventh grade and the same procedure on his left knee in high school. Alex had a stress fracture in his back the summer after his freshman season.

“Alex’s [head injury] was the hardest to deal with because you couldn’t see progress. You knew you just had to wait,” said the boys’ father, Brett, who is one of Western’s all-time greats and a former Butler player. “He sat out basically six months after that. It really took him another three months to be 100 percent.

“Austin’s first surgery was when he was a seventh grader. After that point, you learn there is nothing you can do but look forward and be positive. I think in the long run, it teaches you to cherish your health and your ability to play because of what you have been through. They truly appreciate what they get to do, I think, more than a lot of kids might only because of what they’ve had to go through.”

Brett’s youngest son, Aaron, recently added his name to the family’s injury report. A sixth-grader in the Hamilton Southeastern system and a promising player, he fractured a thumb a couple weeks ago. He had his cast removed Thursday, just in time for his birthday and for a game that night.

“He has been initiated. He can officially say he’s an Etherington now,” Brett joked.

Brett said Austin is doing well following surgery for his broken patella.

“He is prepared because he’s been through [surgeries] before. So in that regard, he is ahead of the game, but obviously disappointed. He made the comment to me in his hospital room Saturday night, ‘I finally felt like I had turned a corner,’” Brett recalled. “His strength in that leg ironically had really increased over the last few months and he finally was able to do some squats, which he had never been able to do because he had those cartilage issues in the past. He had finally gotten to the point where he was doing normal things with that leg and then this happens.

“That was probably the biggest bummer for him. In his mind, he was getting ready to get more quality minutes and his confidence was as high as it had been.”

Brett noted Austin is in good spirits.

“He has the best attitude and it shows when adversity sets in, because he is still such an upbeat kid,” he said.

The Hoosiers are a close-knit team and will offer Etherington their support on his road to recovery. He will need to keep the injured leg immobilized for eight weeks, but then will be able to jump right into rehab. He should be ready for summer workouts.

“It didn’t affect any of his cartilage or ligaments so I actually see him recuperating pretty quick from this,” Brett said. “If it had damaged the cartilage, I don’t know if he would have been able to come back from that. With this being a bone injury only, I don’t see any problem at all.”

Alex is now a senior at Hamilton Heights, which is off to a 2-0 start (1-0 Mid-Indiana Conference) heading into a game against Western tonight.

“We’re a much more balanced team so there’s a lot less pressure, I think, on Alex to carry the load,” Brett said. “I think this is as strong a team as Austin’s senior year and probably more athletic. We have good shooters, we have good athletes, we just don’t have any size.”

Alex is receiving Division-I interest and could follow Brett (1987) and Austin (2011) as an Indiana All-Star.

Bryan Gaskins is the Tribune’s sports editor. He may be reached at bryan.gaskins@kokomotribune.com or 765-454-8567.

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