Not just another journey

February 14, 2002 12:00 am
Michael Adams said hes just been chilling since his accident. He joined his classmates, Laura Nichols, center, and Raquel Sanchez, during their teams game against Mitchell Wednesday night. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Michael Adams said hes just been chilling since his accident. He joined his classmates, Laura Nichols, center, and Raquel Sanchez, during their teams game against Mitchell Wednesday night. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Michael Adams has made long journeys of courage in his 16 years that render basketball, a game confined to a 94-foot-long stretch of hardwood, insignificant.

But the game is important to him.

Not as important as the right arm he refused to relinquish when it was torn from his body and dropped to the green floor of a Harney County alfalfa field.

Not as important as his life, certainly.

But not such a little thing, either. Not to Adams.

Basketball is a series of short trips, up the floor and down again, back and forth for 32 minutes.

A game, like most games, thats easy to take for granted.

Adams doesnt take it for granted; he doesnt, in fact, take much of anything for granted.

But then he knows, and maybe more than anyone else, just how momentous a single journey can turn out to be.

Adams is a native of Crane, a claim of some distinction considering its rarity.

Crane is a tiny town out in the High Desert way out, you might say, 30 miles beyond Burns, itself a fair distance from anything resembling urban.

Like most boys who grow up in such places, Adams knows ranching, knows alfalfa and how to bring the precious water to it.

On July 17, 1999, Adams, then 13, was moving a motorized sprinkler line in a field a couple miles from town.

As he worked on one motor the gears grabbed his jacket.

He tried to pull it loose but it was stuck fast.

He tried to slip out of the jacket but that didnt work either.

His right arm inched closer to the spinning gears, and Adams couldnt stop them.

Then his arm was just gone.

He didnt faint. He didnt panic. He didnt give up.

Instead, Adams picked up his amputated arm, jumped on his all-terrain vehicle and rode toward town.

A neighbor packed the arm in ice.

Less than three hours later, after one ride in an airplane and another in a helicopter, Adams was in a Portland hospital, where surgeons re-attached the arm.

It was Adams first surgery.

It was not his last.

His eighth surgery (also not his last there will be at least one more) happened Jan. 18 of this year.

It was the surgery that ended Adams sophomore season as a member of the Crane Mustangs varsity basketball team.

And it is the reason he watched, rather than participated, as his teammates beat Mitchell 70-66 Wednesday night in their opening game at the District 4-1 basketball tournament at Baker High School.

During the surgery last month doctors removed a tendon from Adams left thigh and, as he puts it, hooked it up to his triceps muscle.

He describes the rest of the procedure in equally blunt terms, speaking with the analytical tone of a person accustomed to hospital beds and scalpels.

The surgeons, Adams said, tightened up some tendons in my fingers, and put some steel pins in my thumb.

The surgery was no surprise it was scheduled months earlier.

It was scheduled then for a particular purpose.

By undergoing surgery in January, rather than after the basketball season ends, Adams will have time enough to recuperate so he can return to the state track meet, where last spring he competed in the 1,500-meter race.

Adams hopes to run the 800 this year, too.

So he has track to look forward to.

But Adams admits it was more difficult than he expected to hang up his Mustangs uniform.

When the time actually came, I was really disappointed I had to leave, he said Tuesday, the day before the Crane boys and girls left for Baker City.

Adams was having a good season coming off the bench.

He snared 11 steals against Cove, playing, as he must now, as a left-hander.

I was right-handed before, Adams said.

Before and was are two words he uses a lot.

Football was always Adams favorite sport, before.

He went out last fall, too. Played receiver and defensive end.

Then, during the last practice before Cranes first game, Adams hauled in a pass and was immediately hit by the safety.

His right wrist, the one held together by steel plates and screws, broke.

The screws weakened the bone, Adams said. The fracture was right at the spot where one of those screws was sunk in.

Adams football season was finished.

That really ticked me off, he said.

His bone doctor wasnt too happy, either.

I dont think hes all that enthused about me playing football again, Adams said.

He plans to play anyway.

Adams was back on a basketball court barely a year after the accident.

He was a freshman in the fall of 2000, and he admits his stomach fluttered a little when he had to defend the older varsity players.

I didnt really want to play basketball last year, Adams said. I was kind of afraid.

It was kind of intimidating to go out against varsity players. I have one hand, they have two.

His statement is not quite a literal one, but almost.

Adams right hand is there, but it hasnt regained its former abilities as quickly as the rest of his arm.

I can pretty much do everything except some things with my fingers, he said. I can grab, I just cant let go.

Adams said he can dribble pretty well with his right hand. Controlling the ball with it is harder.

All his shots are left-handed.

Reporters have called from Cleveland, Seattle, Portland.

Adams has endured even more interviews than he has surgeries, and he has come to expect certain questions.

The reporters rarely disappoint him.

Do you think about that day often?

Thats an easy one.

I think about it every now and then, really wishing it didnt happen, Adams said. Mostly I remember the trip back.

How did the accident affect your life, other than the obvious physical effects?

In many ways, Adams said, his life hasnt changed drastically.

He still works when he can, although most of his surgeries have happened during summer vacation, prime job-hunting seasons for teen-agers in ranching country.

Almost everyone, and not just the reporters, wonders what Adams thinks of his own story, his own life. Is he inspired by his tale of courage and of beating long odds? they want to know.

He starts to answer this question even before the last syllable is out of the interrogators mouth.

It seems that on this topic, more than any other, Adams feels it is vital that he express himself with complete clarity.

I really dont think what I did was all that great, he said. Something happened, and I went for help.

Adams has a gift for understatement.

The thing is, hes just not capable of thinking of himself as some sort of hero, no matter how many times hes asked the question, no matter how many times someone implies that a hero is exactly what he is.

Adams doesnt think hes special, and he doesnt want anyone else to think he is, either.

When basketball practice started last fall, Adams was glad his coaches and teammates expected him to do just as many jumping jacks and shoot just as many jumpshots as everyone else.

Im glad that people think of me as just another one of the guys, he said.

Im just another player.

And the ATV ride Adams embarked on that July morning was just another journey.