Path of least resistance

Basketball: Former Maryland center Obinna Ekezie is preparing for June's NBA draft by spending a lot of his time in a swimming pool, gently building strength in his right foot and the Achilles' tendon he ruptured in February.

April 20, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie wants to make a splash in the NBA draft in June.

First, he must jump in the pool. For Ekezie, who was Maryland's center, the swim he takes three or four times a week in the Campus Recreation Center is far more than a dip. It's therapy to strengthen his right foot and the Achilles' tendon he ruptured at practice Feb. 11.

The injury abruptly ended the senior's college basketball career and assured that he'd spend the months preceding the draft in rehabilitation. Now, after surgery and five weeks in a walking cast, it's time to test the waters.

Clad in Terrapin-red trunks and goggles, the 6-foot-9 Ekezie plows across the shallow end of the pool, feet churning, fingers nearly scraping bottom. He dwarfs those in adjacent lanes -- to his left, an elderly woman in a bathing cap interrupts her languid backstroke to look -- and his figure draws the eye of Jim Wenhold, the Maryland swim coach whose team is practicing nearby.

Shades of Mark Spitz?

"There are some great sprinters, between 6 feet 5 and 6-8, but they're all lean guys," says Wenhold, eyeing the 255-pound Ekezie. "Obinna's height is right, but that's a lot of mass to pull through the water."

Ekezie presses on. He swims one lap and walks the next, alternating to beef up sluggish arms and legs. Wading through water waist-high, he moves like a man tromping through a blizzard. For 30 minutes he navigates the 75-foot width of the pool nonstop, flexing flaccid muscles in a buoyant, weightless world.

No pain, big gain. That's the point of aqua-therapy, says John "J. J." Bush, the Terps trainer who oversees Ekezie's workouts.

"It helps his legs, his stamina, his cardiovascular system," says Bush, standing at poolside.

Ekezie also practices basketball moves in the water, backpedaling defensively and scuttling laterally, like a crab, on Bush's command.

"The progress is exciting. I feel my legs get stronger every day," Ekezie says. "The first day [swimming] I ached, but afterward I could move a lot better.

"Now, I'm barely walking with a limp."

Connecting the calf muscle to the heel bone, the Achilles is the body's largest and strongest tendon. Ruptures occur most frequently in older weekend athletes, but occasionally strike those as young and as fit as Ekezie, 23.

His work ethic has accelerated his recovery, his surgeon says.

"Obinna is a little ahead of schedule" to play this fall, should he go in the June draft, says Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the Terps' team physician. "He'll start running next month, once his muscles regain their mass."

Why the long wait? Ekezie has been mending for two months. Why must he pamper his foot in a pool, when he could be out jogging around campus?

"The tendon has to heal, and that healing takes time," Curl says. "We don't want to do anything early on to overwhelm that process and cause [the Achilles] to re-tear. Our goal now is just to work that tendon in a protective environment."

Ekezie is willing. He hits the pool at precisely 3: 30 p.m., slipping into the water with barely a ripple.

"I'm smooth, man," says the big Nigerian, who starts practice with a brisk one-lap swim.

"Obinna is a pretty good swimmer," says Bush. "He had to move fast to outrace all those piranhas in the rivers back home."

Ekezie rolls his eyes.

"I hear jokes like that every day," he says. Truth is, he took swim lessons as a child in a private club near his home in Port Harcourt.

Here in the $40 million campus rec center, Ekezie works out alongside other students, alumni, faculty and their families. Rarely does he see another member of the Terps' basketball team. One day, he found himself swimming next to his physics professor.

"He seemed surprised to see me there," Ekezie says. "I didn't expect to see him, either."

Pub Date: 4/20/99

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