Moon Township, Pa. - Senior Lijah Thompson's senior season at Robert Morris University isn't exactly what he hoped it would be.
The 6'7" center will miss this season because of a serious knee injury. And with injuries, there are no guarantees.
"That would be the hope, that he can play next season,'' coach Andrew Toole said. "But it's something we'll have to discuss with him and see how recovery goes.''
"I'm just waiting for the surgery and seeing how everything turns out,'' Thompson said. "Hopefully everything works out for the best.''
If everything had worked out for the best, Thompson would play this season. He anticipated a strong year playing beside fellow seniors Velton Jones and Russell Johnson and being part of a Colonial team that originally returned all but one key player (the graduated Lawrence Bridges) from last season's 26-11 team.
"I know he's real hurt about it,'' Jones said. "He was really looking forward to the season. He was starting to get healthy and play the way we know he can play, and to see him go down is a hurt piece for us. I feel bad for him.''
Thompson, from Philadelphia's Monsignor Bonner High School, was bothered by foot problems last season, but those were behind him.
"This was my senior year,'' he said. "I was supposed to have a real big year. Coming back from a broken foot, it was like, ‘Why is this happening again?'''
It happened Sept. 29 during a two-on-two drill. Thompson caught the ball and started into the air to make a move. He heard something pop in his knee - turned out to be a torn ACL - and just like that his season ended before it began.
"My knee just gave out,'' he said. "It felt out of place. I didn't know what was wrong. I just knew I couldn't stand. I was quite surprised to be hurt that bad.''
One of his first thoughts?
"I felt like I was letting my team down,'' he said.
There's no question a healthy Thompson would have strengthened the Colonials this season as they try to get back to the Northeast Conference championship game for a fifth consecutive year.
Last season, he averaged 7.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. He also helped by continuing to be an effective shot blocker. He shot 46.7 percent from the field and a career-best 79.4 percent from the free throw line.
"Mentally, I'd been trying to get back to 100 percent even with my foot,'' Thompson said. "This is just an added on obstacle I have to clear.''
Clearing this obstacle might be more difficult once the season begins and Thompson isn't on the court.
"I think it depends on your mental makeup about how you're going to approach the injury and approach getting healthy and what your next step will be,'' Toole said. "I know personally if I was in that situation I'd be devastated, but I can't speak for everybody.''
Thompson seems OK at the moment.
"I still feel part of the team,'' he said. "They still look at me as one of the big mean leaders. I'm still trying to teach. If they can't understand from learning from coach Toole, then hopefully I can teach them. I'm just using this time to help the younger guys, and hopefully everybody can get into a routine and we can have a real good year this year.
"What I can do right now is help teach my teammates and learn more basketball from watching.''
Thompson can't do much basketball-wise except work on dribbling drills while standing and doing some flat-footed shooting.
"No running. No jumping,'' Thompson said.
No dunking, either.
"I miss dunking,'' he said, laughing.
It's not lost on Thompson that during his freshman season Colonial senior guard Jimmy Langhurst, on his way to finishing a probable 1,000-point career and what turned out to be a chance to play against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament, also sustained a knee injury that ultimately ended his career.
Langhurst tried to get a medical redshirt season, but he'd played in too many games his senior season.
"He was just out of luck,'' Thompson said. "I still have time to get a medical redshirt.''
And maybe he will. Thompson, who changed his major from biology to psychology and thus might need another semester of classes to finish his degree next academic year, hopes to come back.
"When (the knee injury) happened, I'm thinking, ‘Really? I have to be here another year?''' Thompson said. "I was really hoping to get out of here this year - have a good season and get out of here this year. But I still will have great teammates here (next season). Unfortunately, we're losing Russell and Velton, but we have a real good team coming back next year. Hopefully I'm able to add to it.''
That remains to be seen, of course. There are a lot of days and nights between now and then for Thompson to ponder what happened and what might have been this season and what could still be next season.
"I think the further you get into your career, the more understanding you have about how valuable your career is and how short it really is,'' Toole said. "And now for (a player) to get hurt as a senior hopefully it really is some kind of a wakeup call (for the underclassmen) about how fragile this whole thing is.''