Bartlett grad Whitaker focused on his UIC future
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On Nov. 19, the UIC Flames men's basketball team was going through a routine practice in preparation for Northwestern's visit to the Pavilion the following night.
Freshman Lance Whitaker — a promising guard/forward out of Bartlett High School — remembers it well, but not in a good way.
"I was just driving across the lane and went into a jump stop," Whitaker said. "It just kind of gave out on me."
Whitaker's right knee gave out, and one month later the Flames' prized recruit had season-ending surgery at Oak Park Hospital.
Knee injuries are common in most sports, but this one was particularly tough for Whitaker.
Playing in an AAU tournament the summer after his sophomore year at Bartlett High School, the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed his junior season.
At some point, Whitaker is hoping to cross paths with Bulls star Derrick Rose, who missed last season with a left-knee injury and is out this year with an injured right knee.
"I'd really like to talk with him," Whitaker said.
In the meantime, Whitaker is focused on rehabbing his latest knee issue and returning to the court for Illinois-Chicago next season.
Since he played in just three games with the Flames this season — averaging 3.3 points and 1.7 rebounds — Whitaker gained medical redshirt status and has four years of eligibility remaining.
"I was definitely enjoying the start of the season," he said. "It was a process adjusting to the college game and I think I was fitting in and making progress."
When he injured his knee before the Northwestern game, Whitaker's initial reaction was understandable.
"Of course, I had that thought about why me at the beginning," he said. "But now, every morning I wake up and just focus on getting back to 100 percent. I'm doing well. The coaching staff and my teammates here, and my family has been supporting me. I'm doing really well."
Shortly after Whitaker had his second knee surgery in three years, Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith paid a visit and was not surprised by his former player's positive outlook.
"It's a horrible thing to hear, especially when you know the person on a personal level and you know what they've already fought through to get back to the level they were at," Wolfsmith said.
"That makes it worse. But I know Lance and I know he can handle it. He's already been through the process."
Wolfsmith still remembers Whitaker putting his injury aside during his lost junior year and helping the Hawks in any way possible.
"I've been coaching since the school opened 17 years ago and I've been the head boys basketball coach at Bartlett the last seven years," Wolfsmith said.
"Without a doubt, Lance ranks as the best player I've ever coached, and I've coached some excellent athletes, some great talented kids, some hardworking kids.
"What impressed me the most about Lance is, during the first rehab, he immediately shifted from the grieving stage of being upset to the reality stage of, 'What do I have to do to get better and get back?'
"I saw how much time he put into rehab, and he came to all of our practices if it wasn't a rehab time, and he was always working on his dribbling, his shooting, his free-throw shooting, whatever the doctors would allow him to do at the time.
"He still led the team, he talked in the huddle, and he'd talk to kids on the bench during games if they needed some of the knowledge he had.
"When you combine Lance's athleticism, his work ethic and the quality of his character, in 20-plus years of coaching basketball and sports in general, I don't think I've ever met a kid with the combination of those assets across the board."
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