COLLEGE PARK -- Before D.J. Strawberry began rehabilitating his knee, he had to heal his mind. After tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in January, the 6-foot-5 Maryland guard limped around campus with his head down and his knee immobilized in a brace.
"The feeling of being out struck me hard," he said. "I had never really been injured before. ... The first two weeks, I didn't even want to play basketball anymore. For the first two months I was depressed. I was down on myself, asking, `Why did this happen to me?'"
At the time, the men's basketball program was in the process of hiring a new strength and conditioning coach. Strawberry was told to work with Corliss White, who has worked with the women's team for the past three years.
She didn't like his attitude. He didn't like her.
"If I would ask him to do something, he would smack his lips and roll his eyes and huff and puff like he was a 2-year-old," she said.
Eventually, though, both their relationship and his knee became stronger. After nearly four months of rehabilitation, Strawberry returned to the court in late August. He is expected to play a more prominent role for coach Gary Williams this season. Last year, Strawberry was the Terps' top man off the bench, averaging 21.4 minutes and 7.1 points.
It was a Monday practice in mid-January when Strawberry heard his knee pop. He had planted his foot awkwardly, and was told he would be out for at least six months. The date of his surgery, Feb. 9, has been stuck in his head.
"I've been counting down the months until I could get back on the court," he said.Earlier this week, fluid in Strawberry's knee had to be drained, and there was still some tightness surrounding it, along with an elastic bandage, but he said it's not a setback.
White, who has helped athletes recover from as many as three torn ACLs, conditioned Strawberry's leg to handle more than it could before. She had plenty of time to do it. They were stuck together for two hours each day, five days a week and phone calls on weekends.
"If you're willing to do it," she told him, "I'll help you get there."
They shook on it. At first, Strawberry did the bare minimum.
"He was feeling sorry for himself," she said. "We increased the volume by 90 percent."
It began every day at 7 a.m. Strawberry started with sprints on the stationary bike, and then advanced to different programs on the treadmill, which he said was "killer." He lifted three times a week, and did a cardiovascular workout five days per week. He ran with dumbbells in the deep end of the pool to condition his lungs. He was ordered to sprint full court 20 times. Each time, Strawberry had to touch the line with his foot, come back and turn around, hands up within 10 seconds.
"I remember one day I felt like I was going to die," he said.
Strawberry was so exhausted the first couple of workouts, he would go to the locker room and take a nap. There were times he was late for his tutor at 9:30 a.m. An academic adviser snitched.
"Next time I hear about you being late - any problems whatsoever - we're done," White told him. "I'm not doing this because I have to. I am not a fan of yours. I went to the University of North Carolina."
Any time he said the word "can't," she made him do 20 pushups. He wasn't allowed to double over and rest his hands on his knees when he got tired. He was not allowed to lean on the walls. He had to stand tall - even after running 10 flights of stairs in the student section in under eight minutes - the steepest section in the arena.
"Do not show me I am breaking you down," she would tell him. "They're going to expect you to be a step slower."
Strawberry is stronger than he was, but he will naturally be a slight step slower - a difference so small only he and those who know his speed best will be able to notice. He will have to think before he cuts, White said, because his knee is not as stable to move laterally as it was before.
"He still will be fast," White said. "He still will be quick and it's still going to be hard to cover him because now, he's mentally prepared for it."
And Strawberry credits her for that.
"She helped me get my mind-set right," he said. "Working with her every day at 7 in the morning is the reason I'm back today. The days she pushed me through it, it's all worth it to be back on the court playing."