Eric Katenda was 15 years old when he came to America. He made that decision four years ago, leaving his mother and his sister back in his native Paris, with a singular goal in mind: to earn a Division I scholarship and -- eventually -- become a professional basketball player.
To his credit, Katenda found himself on that exact path. He wasn't being courted by the likes of John Calipari and Roy Williams, but Katenda managed to create enough of a name for himself that he developed into a borderline top-100 recruit. He had offers from a number of high-major programs and a profile on every major recruiting website. In April 2011, Katenda accepted a scholarship from Notre Dame, where he had been recruited as a perimeter-oriented power forward with range on his jumper, to follow in the footsteps of Carleton Scott. Katenda's decision looked even better when, two weeks later, Scott surprisingly decided to enter the 2011 NBA Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.
Those plans were put on hold that summer when Katenda got caught up in the red tape of the NCAA Clearinghouse. Instead of spending his summer in South Bend, Katenda was forced to sweat it out in sweltering Washington D.C., taking a class at a Community College while trying to keep in good enough shape that he would be able to keep pace with his teammates -- and his classmates -- when he enrolled in August.
That's why, on July 8, Katenda wasn't shooting around under the bright lights of the Joyce Center. He was out in the sun, roasting on the blacktop of the courts right behind Banneker High. It was there -- sandwiched between Georgia Avenue and Ninth Street, a stone's throw from Howard University's campus -- that Katenda would suffer the injury that has wreaked havoc on his career as a Notre Dame basketball player.
Much has been written about the freak injury that resulted in a severed optic nerve in Katenda's left eye, but there has been one common misconception in the reporting: that he was playing a pickup game at the time.
"I wasn't even playing. I was just shooting around," Katenda said in a phone interview. "A couple guys came over asking if they could use my ball and two of the guys decide to play one-on-one. I was just standing under the rim, watching them play. One guy jumps from behind him, trying to block him, and missed the ball and his hand went into my eye and hit my eye real hard. I went down for a few minutes. That's when I realized I couldn't see out of the eye."
Katenda didn't leave the park immediately after getting hit. Everyone that has played basketball has gotten poked in the eye at some point, and usually -- after a couple minutes -- the pain subsides and your vision clears up. So Katenda waited. And waited. And after about 10 minutes, he realized something may be seriously wrong. "I was like, 'I still don't see anything.' It was starting to get scary." So Katenda walked back to his guardian's house -- his family is still back in France -- where they called 911 and eventually got the grim news: his vision wasn't coming back.
"My guardian was there crying for me and I was just sitting there thinking, 'Am I going to be able to play again,'" he said. "'Am I going to be able to do the things I used to do? How am I going to look? How's my family going to take it?'"
Marquette fifth-year senior center Chris Otule has had to overcome plenty of adversity in his career. As a freshman, Otule saw his season trimmed to nine games after he broke his left foot in practice. As a sophomore, Otule made it through three games before he broke his right foot in practice. He lasted all the way through his junior campaign unscathed, but as a senior, Otule suffered a season-ending ACL injury just eight games into the year.
Simply put, Otule has spent enough time on the bench as a result of injuries that he's not only earned a fifth year of eligibility for the 2012-2013 season, but there's also a chance he may be allowed a sixth in 2013-2014.
It takes a certain kind of toughness -- both mental and physical -- to overcome that many devastating injuries. The rehab is grueling, the strenuous workouts it takes to get back into shape certainly are not fun, and the disappointment and difficulty in sitting on the bench while watching teammates compete is something that never becomes easy to deal with. But Otule was bred to be a fighter. He may never have experienced what it is like to lose an eye, but that's because he has never experienced what life is like with two eyes.
"I was born with one actual eye," Otule said. "The other one was, I guess you could call it glaucoma. I went into surgery as soon as I was born, I don't know what they did to my eye, but I went into surgery and for the first couple of years of my life I was living with only one eye and the other one just looked pink. At the age of 3 or 4 I was old enough to get a glass eye. Every couple of years I would outgrow it and have to get a new one, and the last time I had to was like two years ago."
The fact that he was born with a single eye makes Otule's situation inherently different from Katenda's. He's spent his entire 22 years with just his right eye while the way that Katenda perceives the world around him has drastically changed over the last 14 months.
What Otule has done, however, is prove that only being capable of seeing out of one eye is far from a barrier to competing in the Big East.
Eye issues aren't a barrier to playing professional basketball, either. Former Duke guard Jon Scheyer suffered a lacerated eyelid, torn retina and damaged optic nerve in his right eye while playing with the Miami Heat in the 2010 NBA Summer League. He still has some vision in right eye, but as he told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer in June, "I wouldn't pass a vision test." Despite the vision problems, Scheyer has still made NBA Summer League teams, tried out with NBA teams and played for Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Gran Canaria and in the D-League. He'll have a long and prosperous (and profitable) career overseas, which may have been a best-case scenario for him as a professional even with two good eyes.
And therein lies the intrigue of eye injuries. With a torn ACL, surgery is required on a knee that could sap the leg of strength and explosiveness. Sprained ankles hurt to walk on, let alone run on. Bad shoulders make shooting and passing painful. But with eye problems, the body is fine. You still can run just as fast and jump just as high and keep the same form on your jump shot.
So how much does it really change you as a player?
As you might imagine, Katenda was taken aback at the news of the severity of his eye injury. Let's forget, for a second, that Katenda was an elite athlete that doubled as an 18-year-old kid an ocean away from his home and family.
He's a person. A person that was just informed that he will never be able to see out of his left eye unless, in the future, there are doctors and scientists that develop a way to fix a severed optic nerve. Anyone would have been thrown for a loop.
But here's the thing about Katenda, about the kind of person that he is: that loop lasted all of a few minutes.
"There was no doubt in my mind that I would try to play basketball," Katenda said. "I barely reacted when the doctor told me that. I just stared for a few seconds and walked out. Then I went to my guardian's house and laid in bed and in my mind, I was just like, 'I'm gonna have to find a way to make it happen. I'm gonna have to.' To leave my family as a 15-year-old to go to America and then stop because of this? I'm still going to give it a shot. I'm still going to try. It's not going to stop me because this happened. In my mind, there was no way I was going to walk away from it. I have to try."
He'd have to wait. Since the injury and the surgery kept him out of class, Katenda's enrollment pushed back to January.
"He can't go out and play, he's not coming to Notre Dame in August, and I'm worried about the kid's frame of mind," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I'd call him and he'd say, 'Coach, don't worry about me. I understand the plan. I'll be there after Christmas.' And the first conversation, he said, 'I'm going to play. I'm going to play for you one day.' I said, 'I love it.'
"I've never been around a guy more upbeat, even when he was going through the surgery and just lost the vision, he kind of kept me up. I was so down when I'd call him, he would just say, 'Coach, I'm going to play again, I'll be out there.' He's just a beautiful young man. He's handled it like a man. He's been a great example for guys on this team. He never feels sorry for himself. He never hangs his head."
"I'm never going to complain about it," Katenda said. "I'm going to live with it."
The most impressive part of Katenda's recovery is how quickly he got back on the court and how little he physically feels the effects of losing vision in one eye. Katenda can still see everything in front of him, although it's a bit tougher to look over his left shoulder. He can still see the basket when he shoots, and he can still see the ball when his teammates throw him a pass. Losing an eye doesn't change one's ability to read a defense or crash the offensive glass.
What it does is limit depth perception. It's more difficult to judge just how far you are away from the basket or just how quickly a teammate's pass is moving. But according to both Katenda and his coach, the ill-effects have nothing to do with his vision.
"The amazing thing is that I have not seen anything that he's handicapped by," Brey said. "He plays with us. He goes through the drills. I never see him fumble a ball where you're like, 'Oh my god, he couldn't see it.' I've not seen the vision be a deterrent on the basketball court for anything that he's done."
It took a little while for Katenda to reach that point. "The first few months, my depth perception was kind of messed up," he said. "I had a hard time shooting the ball, I had a hard time even picking up things off the table, but then I guess my brain just adjusted to it."
The biggest issue now? His confidence. It's mental for Katenda, and that's a battle that can only be won by playing.
"I don't even think it bothers me that much," he said. "It's just in my head. When I don't think about it, I play perfectly fine. You wouldn't notice that this happened to me. But as soon as I start thinking about it and I get conscious about it, I start to worry about what I do and I'm not as confident. I'm really selective of my shots. Then I start overthinking, and that's when I really start messing up."
It's the adjustment period that concerns Brey, and it's one of the reasons that Katenda may have to wait until the 2013-2014 season to play for the Fighting Irish. He enrolled in January and immediately started practicing with the team, but at that point in the season, college basketball practices are more about maintaining, perfecting and game-planning than conditioning and teaching the system. For any freshman, it takes time to acclimate to the speed and tempo of the college game.
And most don't have to make that adjustment while learning how to play with one working eye.
Throw in the fact that Katenda isn't even eligible to suit up until after the first semester, and the choice seemed obvious for Brey. "My feeling with him is to just take our time with him," Brey said. "I don't want any pressure on him that he's gotta play for us this year." Patience is a theory that's worked for Brey in the past. Remember, he redshirted Tim Abromaitis during his second season in the program, and that paid off in a huge way, as Abro developed into an all-conference player the following season.
Could Katenda's career follow a similar path?
Don't ever tell Eric Katenda or Chris Otule that there is something they can't do because of their vision. On the court, in the classroom, with an Xbox controller. Anywhere.
"I won't let anybody tell me I can't do something because of what happened," Katenda said, noticeably bristling as he brushed off a question about what this injury means for his basketball future. "I won't let anyone tell me, 'Oh, you can't do that. Oh, you can't shoot. You can't run.' I know I can. I won't let that effect me. Because I know what I can and can't do."
"People are going to try to label you as incapable or handicapped," Otule said. "But don't let anyone put you down. You can do anything that anybody with two eyes can do."
Neither Katenda nor Otule want your sympathy. They don't want to hear about how impressive it is that they are able to play in the Big East without the benefit of two eyes. They don't want to be cut any slack in practice or to have their teammates go soft on them in a workout. Regardless of how well they can see, they are still going to dunk on you when given the chance.
"I don't even like to talk about it," Katenda said. "To be honest with you, I don't think my teammates even think about it because I don't think I've even mentioned it once to them. When I'm out there and I play good or bad, we don't even think about that.
"I'm just the dude wearing goggles."