Collision changes D'Andre Bell's life, direction

Moments after D'Andre Bell collided with teammate Zachery Peacock in a preseason basketball practice a year ago, he lay on the floor with no feeling in his arms.

In the scariest 90 seconds of his life, a beautiful thing happened: Fate forced Bell to let go of his burdens. In the months that followed, he started on a path of self-discovery that changed his direction both as a player and a person.

A diagnosis of spinal stenosis and subsequent surgery cost Bell a season of basketball. He returns Saturday when Georgia Tech hosts Florida A&M in its season opener.

But in the year away, he found answers to questions he has had for years, about mystifying physical problems, about pressures to support his family through basketball, and about a mother who had left him as a toddler, battling drug addiction.

"For everything to happen the way it did was a gift and a curse," Bell said.

Though in a paper he's writing toward his second major, Bell wrote he doesn't think of it as a curse anymore.

"I call it the curse only because of the pain emotionally and physically it has caused, [but] both have made me a stronger man," Bell wrote. "So maybe I should just call it the gift."

For years Bell wondered what was wrong with him. Slight contact left his arms tingling. Landing on one leg after a rebound could give him a painful jolt. As far back as in a high school camp, a wobbly trip down court got him three days in a hospital and tests for an enlarged heart.

In Bell's freshman season at Tech, an elbow to the head from a Wake Forest player sent tingling through his body, but by the time he told trainers about it during a timeout, the feeling had subsided.

At one point his sophomore season, Bell struggled to throw a chest pass. He kept it to himself, though, as his playing time shriveled from 18 minutes per game as a freshman to nine.

But the kid whose grandfather always called him "Scrap Iron" for his toughness, played through. Symptoms never lasted long. And tests never raised red flags.

Last year's collision changed that. An Emory orthopedic surgeon told Bell he had narrowing of the spine. His C3-C6 vertebrae were compressing his spinal cord.

With the wrong blow -- on the court, or off -- Bell could be paralyzed from the neck down. Surgery was recommended and no basketball for a year.

"They said if I wanted to play with my kids [someday], pick up my son, play football with him, tackle, wrestle, I'd have to get this surgery," Bell said. "… [At least] we found it before it got too bad, and I knew I wasn't going crazy, thinking something was wrong with my body."

The doctor told him there was a good chance he would play basketball again, but Bell worried about his future.

"It hurt me so bad," Bell said. "I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready to play, to set myself up real good, to play ball afterwards, whether NBA or overseas."

Bell wanted to be the first of his uncles or cousins to make it in pro sports. He wanted to take care of his grandparents, who helped his father raise him after his mother left.

But at home in Los Angeles over winter break having surgery, he had doubts about how good he would be if and when he did return. He wasn't supposed to even stretch for six months.

He was irritable. His grandfather sensed he would rather be around his friends than at home with family, facing questions about his basketball future.

"I guess looking at us made him feel as if it was somewhat of a letdown," Larry Bell said.

Larry Bell is retired after 32 years at United Airlines but his pension was cut after United went into bankruptcy. D'Andre worried about how they were going to survive financially.

"I always tried to keep him lifted up that ‘Hey, Baby Boy, this is about you,' " Larry Bell said. " ‘This isn't about me or your grandmother. You've got your education to fall back on. ... When you got that diploma, that's what you will do for me.' "

D'Andre always turned to his grandfather for answers, even with his most private questions about his mother.

During Bell's freshman year at Tech, Larry Bell tracked down her phone number. She was in rehab and clean. D'Andre called her. He forgave her.

"It's not as if she made a conscious effort, ‘I want to hurt you boys,'" he said of his younger brother, Lance, and him. "She lived a rough life, a very rough life. She was a product of her environment. She made the most of what she could. Some people are stronger than others."

Until last winter, though, Bell had only two vivid memories of his mother. One was at age 3 or 4, when he disobeyed her by walking to a corner store for a lollypop and came home to a spanking.

The second was in high school. He exchanged a brief hello, hug and tears the time his father and grandfather searched all day to find her for him in San Diego.

But last winter, when his mother found out D'Andre was in Los Angeles recovering from surgery, she came up from San Diego to see him.

"She showered me with her love and kind words," Bell said.

Bell has always tried to crowd out negative thoughts with positive ones, even if it meant saying them out loud. Before heading back to Tech in January, Bell told himself: "Play the cards you're dealt."

He worked toward his degree in management. He didn't watch as much basketball. He visualized working in corporate America. He graduated in May. His mother was at the ceremony.

Doctors cleared Bell to play later that month.

He started running at 7 mph on the treadmill and hasn't slowed since. He grew frustrated by his conditioning level and neck stiffness at times but never felt he had fears to overcome.

"I was bumping with the best of them, running out there, trying to dunk on people, getting pushed to the floor, and I didn't think twice of it," Bell said.

He's renewed, playing with less weight on his shoulders. "I know I have two routes I can take," he said.

Bell played 35 minutes in an exhibition win over Indiana (Pa.) on Sunday, chipping in 10 points and nine assists. He made 2 of 3 shots from the floor, both from 3-point range, and all four of his free throws. He acknowledged afterward he needs to shoot more.

Before his surgery, Bell was known as a defensive specialist. There's no telling what kind of player he can be now.