By Jeff Odom
Sunlake boys basketball player Jonuel Martinez felt butterflies in his stomach when he walked on the court for the first time this season.
His hands shook and his legs quivered as he anticipated touching the ball for the first time since tearing the ACL in his left knee in April.
It wasn’t just the emotion of being on the court that struck Martinez. It was the long, painful journey that was behind him that made him stop and realize how special the moment truly was.
While playing in an all-star tournament during the Seahawks’ (7-16) offseason in April, Martinez was running up and down the court when he felt a pop in his left knee. He went down on the court writhing in pain.
“I was just running with the ball like I always do, when I made a fast break play to attack the basket, and I overstepped,” Martinez said. “My knee just blew up.”
Martinez thought he was okay at first. He told the coaches it was just a little pain, and they allowed him to stay in the game.
But the injury was far more serious.
“I thought everything was good,” Martinez said. “I got up, checked my knee and everything was alright. … I went again and played. Stole one ball and put a layup, but when I came down it was like boom. I knew something was wrong at that moment.”
Martinez’s knee began to swell and he couldn’t bend it after the game. His orthopedic surgeon told him he had torn his ACL, jeopardizing his senior season.
His heart was crushed, but the competitor inside of Martinez knew he would work to get back.
“He checked my knee and said, ‘Yeah, ACL,’” Martinez said. “‘You’re done for eight months.’ I wanted to cry. All of the years working and practicing for my senior year was done and gone.”
The surgery, Martinez said, was the most difficult part of the injury. He was immobile for a week before beginning his rehab, which made him feel better.
Soon, Martinez set a goal to return before the eight-month window was up. He worked hard and began training.
“That was the most important part for me,” Martinez said. “I told myself that I wanted to be back and play this season. So I started working hard, and in only five months and two weeks I was back.”
When spring workouts began, Sunlake coach Mark Hall noticed a familiar face sitting along the row of bleachers — it was Martinez.
Hall would watch his senior go into the next room with a trainer and come back drenched in sweat after the rest of the team was finished with practice. Though he wasn’t allowed to participate, he knew how much the game meant to Martinez.
“He’s unlike some of the others that seem to get hurt and they just disappear for like three months, but not Jonuel,” Hall said. “He was there every spring game, summer game, even though he couldn’t play. Just seeing him every day with the trainer, busting his butt and working hard, I really knew he wanted to come back and play.”
Soon, doctors cleared Martinez to practice, but it was hard for him to get back into a routine. Regardless of how tired they were, a few of his teammates would stick around to run with him or shoot some baskets as a way to encourage him.
“They were always supporting me, telling me to work hard,” Martinez said. “Every practice I was at, they told me to go back to the trainer and work hard, because they wanted me back. They made me feel special. When I came back, they made me part of the team again.”
Martinez returned to the Seahawks’ starting lineup against Countryside Nov. 26, putting up 10 points, a team-high 10 rebounds and three assists.
“After that game I couldn’t sleep all night,” Martinez said. “I kept thinking how it was special and I was like, ‘See, if you work hard, good things will happen.’”
Martinez has become the team’s leading rebounder with 8.4 per game and the second leading scorer with 12.3 points.
“It’s something that is so special for me,” Martinez said. “After this season I will remember that I have passed the hardest test of my life, but it is also the happiest thing of my life.”