As Duquesne men’s basketball center Mike Hughes ran down the practice court on an August morning, there was the slightest smile present. It would be hard to blame him.
Hughes, who sat out the 2017-18 season with the Dukes after transferring from Akron, is not coming off an ordinary redshirt year. Hughes is coming off bilateral surgery that required two plates and six screws in each leg after experiencing stress fractures.
“It honestly feels amazing to be back on the court. It’s been a long journey,” he said. “Going through 11 months of surgery and rehab is a humbling experience to be honest. It takes you away from your passion and love and makes you reevaluate your passion, your drive for the game. I spent this past year keeping myself in check, making sure that I know this was not going to hold me back.”
Hughes is determined more than ever and working to get back to full strength in order to receive as much playing time as possible for the upcoming season.
Hughes vividly remembers when he was four and his uncle from St. Louis came to visit. Though Hughes had played in both church and recreational leagues to that point, his uncle said something which really hit home: “You have no confidence”.
Eager to prove his uncle wrong, Hughes went to the back yard accompanied by his uncle, dad and brothers, set a goal and started shooting. There was nothing holding the hoop, so the brothers had to do the holding and every make would provide a tough test to keep the basket up.
That passion continued through high school, to Akron and then to Duquesne, when Hughes followed Keith Dambrot to Pittsburgh.
In terms of his progress, Hughes credits Duquesne head athletic trainer Brian Beck for helping him through the process, one that started at Akron and though he is practicing in full with his teammates, continues.
While the injury definitely could have been draining mentally, Hughes considers himself fortunate. Sure, he was riding an exercise bike while his teammates were battling in practice every day, but it was his redshirt year and a good opportunity to recover.
“It’s just basically by the blessing of the lord the right place at the right time for me to be able to attack this and have it under control so I can do what I do best,” said Hughes. “As soon as I got hurt, I got down about it, but gave it 24 hours and then it was time to move on. You can’t let life keep you down. This whole process I told myself I was unfazed by adversity, that’s just how you have to attack it.”
From there, Hughes looked to appreciate every little milestone and he later stated it was big to him when Kobe Bryant reached out to Gordon Hayward when the latter broke his leg during the first regular season game played with the Boston Celtics.
Bryant provided the same message, not to think about the end of the path but rather appreciating the little moments that come with recovery.
When Hughes first ran on the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill, the familiar feeling and smile returned.
“I was doing something and I was enjoying all of the little milestones, they kept me going knowing soon enough I would be back,” Hughes said. “I think I’m really approaching 100% really quickly because of the work we have put in with this training staff of John Henderson getting my strength back and Brian Beck.”
The moment which stood out for his was his first dunk without any pain and when Hughes finally allowed himself to look ahead to the final step that he has been working toward for over a year.
“I just knew I felt better than I did before,” said Hughes. “I am ready to go, I am just counting down the days. I am working on pushing myself to get in shape so I can play high minutes and do great things for this school and this team.
While Hughes is working towards a high minutes count, Dambrot understands that this recovery is one which takes progress. Hughes certainly fits what Dambrot tries to incorporate on both sides of the ball, but in his mind, there is more work to be done to earn increased minutes.
“He’s recovered, he’s just not in very good shape,” Dambrot said in August. “Right now we’re going to play him like a hockey player. He’s doing a good job, he’s missed a whole year really. He has done a good job with his body but he is not ready to play a lot of minutes, by any means.”
However the season shapes up for Hughes, he has gained a deeper appreciation for both basketball and his surroundings. It is unknown how that will translate on the court, but Hughes certainly is excited to find out.
“After being hurt, there is no invincible player, but when you have that mindset you have your ego in front of yourself,” he said. “I feel Coach D and my mother have done a great job to make sure my ego doesn’t come into play because no one likes someone with a big ego. You want someone that puts the team first.”