In the painstakingly minutes after Bronny James collapsed on the Galen Center court this past July, as Boogie Ellis and his teammates waited anxiously in the locker room, he was mired in a state of disbelief. It had barely been a year since another highly touted teammate — center Vince Iwuchukwu — suffered sudden cardiac arrest in strikingly similar fashion, collapsing during a summer run of five-on-five.
“I was like, ‘This can’t be happening again,’” Ellis said Monday.
DJ Rodman had a similar thought in that moment. The fifth-year senior wing had just transferred to USC after four years at Washington State. During his tenure in Pullman, two teammates suffered similar cardiac events. The fact that he was now a part of a third life-threatening event was too overwhelming to take.
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“I couldn’t handle it,” Rodman said. “I had to run out because I couldn’t handle another one.”
Fortunately, like Iwuchukwu, James was saved by USC athletic trainers, who sprung into action, once again deploying a defibrillator and immediately calling 911. James was later diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, giving his family and USC teammates hope that James will return to basketball “in the very near future.”
James wasn’t present for USC’s first practice of the season on Monday, and coach Andy Enfield wouldn’t comment on a possible timeline for him to return to the court, other than to say that the freshman was “doing very well” and that he’s “around the team when he can be.” But the fact that James will return at all this season was a major relief to his teammates who for the second time in a year found themselves faced with a traumatic, life-threatening incident.
“It’s one of those lessons where, it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how invincible you think you are, it can happen to anyone,” Rodman said. “I’m not taking anything for granted. I know Bronny never took anything for granted. I’m just happy that Bronny is OK now.”
Even before the ambulance arrived that morning, there was optimism about his status. Fifteen minutes after he collapsed, Rodman said, coaches told the players that James was sitting upright and cracking jokes.
“It was like it never happened.” Rodman said. “It speaks to his character. He’s just a very positive guy. Every time I see him, he’s got a huge smile.”
His teammates visited him in the hospital shortly after that and have kept in close contact as James makes his recovery. It seems only a matter of when, not if, he returns as a key contributor to a team with serious Pac-12 title hopes — and possibly more.
Enfield said that he expects James to be “a very valuable part of our basketball team.”
“But that’ll be all sorted out. We recruited him for a reason.”
It’s also unclear when USC will add a healthy Iwuchukwu back to the rotation after the 7-footer missed most of the summer dealing with back issues. Enfield said Monday that Iwuchukwu “feels the best he’s ever felt” and is expected back “very quickly.” But as practice opened, he’d yet to be cleared for contact.
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For now, the focus remains on integrating a host of other talented newcomers, among them Isaiah Collier, the five-star point guard, and Rodman, the Washington State grad transfer, both of whom have already established themselves as critical cogs in USC’s rotation alongside Ellis, Kobe Johnson and Joshua Morgan.
Collier and Ellis have been especially close all summer, working out and spending as much as possible together with plans to form one of the most formidable backcourts the Trojans have had in years.
“That’s like my best friend. We’re together all the time,” Ellis said. “We have a certain standard, and were trying to bring everybody with us.”
When he does finally return, it will likely to take some time for James to find the same rhythm in USC’s rotation. Last season, it took Iwuchukwu six months after his sudden cardiac arrest incident to make his return to the court.
But Enfield isn’t worried about that at the moment, as James focuses on other parts of being a new freshman.
“We’re really excited for him,” Enfield said. “His grades are excellent right now.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.