College basketball's lone seventh-year senior fights to jumpstart stalled career

Northwestern State’s Jalen West led the nation in assists before back-to-back ACL tears derailed his career. (Getty)

On the day he learned he had blown out his left knee for the second time in nine months last August, Northwestern State’s Jalan West thought he was done with basketball.

He dreaded suffering through another grueling year of rehab, especially given the possibility that his basketball career had already dead-ended anyway.

Having sat out his freshman season due to NCAA clearinghouse issues and his redshirt senior season due to his first ACL tear, West had been preparing for his sixth year at Northwestern State before suffering his second knee injury. To continue playing for the Demons, the 24-year-old would have to petition the NCAA for a seventh year of college eligibility, a long shot at best though not entirely unprecedented.

Without another year in college to prove to scouts he had regained his prior quickness and explosiveness, West’s pro prospects weren’t promising. Many NBA teams dispatched scouts to Natchitoches, La. to watch West as a junior when he put up 20 points and a nation-high 7.7 assists per game, but he knew it was unrealistic to expect even top overseas clubs to seriously consider signing a 5-foot-11 point guard still recovering from two serious knee injuries.

“At that point, my mind was going everywhere,” West said. “I was like, ‘Man, maybe I should look toward doing something else. Maybe this is the end of the road for me with basketball.’ I started having a lot of doubts. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go through this again.'”

When West confided in his mother that he was considering quitting basketball, Janice West patiently listened to her son vent for awhile before urging him to persevere. Each time they spoke the next few days, West’s mother would remind him he was a role model for younger kids, insist that he had come too far to quit and encourage him to draw strength from his faith.

“I would tell him different things to encourage him,” Janice West said. I’d say, ‘God’s going to do what’s best for you, Jalen. This is all in God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. It’s just not your time right now. Delayed don’t mean denied.”

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Hearing West even broach the idea of giving up on basketball was jarring for his mother because she knew how passionate he was about the sport. He had worked tirelessly to ascend from overlooked recruit, to small-college success story, to fringe NBA prospect.

West was a standout point guard on a high school team that won Louisiana’s 4A state title in 2011, yet questions about his size and ability to qualify academically scared most Division I programs away. One of the few exceptions was Northwestern State, a Southland Conference program that at the time had only made two NCAA tournament appearances in program history.

The relationship West built with head coach Mike McConathy persuaded him to choose Northwestern State. McConathy, who had previously coached for 16 years in West’s hometown, identified him as a priority target early and never wavered in his interest even when it became clear the point guard might have to sit out his freshman year.

McConathy’s faith in West quickly proved shrewd once the jitterbug point guard became academically eligible.
Quick enough to get into the lane at will yet a consistent enough shooter to punish defenders who sagged off him, West thrived in McConathy’s up-tempo system. He showcased exceptional court vision as the Southland Conference’s freshman of the year in 2013 before improving his perimeter shooting and blossoming into an elite scorer.

“The last game he played healthy, he had 34 points, 6 assists and 10 rebounds,” McConathy said. “He could go get you buckets yet help everyone on the floor be a better player. To me that was his best attribute. He knows how to push the right buttons and he knows how to get everyone involved.”

As West entered his senior season in Nov. 2015, everything appeared to be set up perfectly for him to finish with a flourish. Northwestern State was projected as the top challenger to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference and West and teammate Zeek Woodley were expected to form one of the nation’s elite perimeter scoring duos.

Disaster struck in the final minute of a 90-76 season-opening loss to Ole Miss when West drove the lane, jump-stopped to go up for a layup and felt a pop in his left knee. Hopeful that he had merely bumped knees with his defender, West tried to get up … and promptly crumpled to the ground.

When an MRI confirmed that West had torn his ACL, his coach took it harder than he did. A distraught McConathy blamed himself for not removing his star point guard from the game with a minute to go and victory out of reach.

“I’m like, ‘Coach, man, it’s not your fault,'” West said. “‘Things happen for a reason. It will be OK.’ I really just had to tell him that things will be fine and it’s not the end of the world.”

While Northwestern State staggered to a disappointing 8-20 season without its senior leader, West poured himself into his rehab in an effort to get healthy as quickly as possible. He attacked every physical therapy session, exercise or drill like he was in the final two minutes of key game.

“To be honest, I think he overdid it,” West’s mother said. “He’s such a competitor. I told him, ‘Don’t do too much. You don’t want to retear it.’ I thought he was doing a little bit too much, but he didn’t think he was.”

The day doctors cleared West to play with no restrictions last August, he experienced a sickening case of déjà vu. Again he drove into the lane, jump-stopped to make a pass and felt the same knee buckle.

At first, West was optimistic it would only be a minor setback since he could walk off the floor under his own power. Only after the swelling dissipated a few days later did an MRI reveal a second ACL tear.

“To tear it again the first day I got cleared, that was heartbreaking,” West said. “You come back from one and you’re telling your teammates, ‘We’re about to do something great.’ To not to be able to play last season with them and to miss it two years in a row, it was really hard to take.”

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A few pep talks from his mom ultimately persuaded West that she was right. He had invested too much into basketball just to quit. Delayed didn’t have to mean denied. Once again, he geared up for nine months of rehab and also asked McConathy to explore the possibility of petitioning for a seventh year of college eligibility.

Northwestern State’s compliance department quickly sprung into action, searching for previous instances in which the NCAA granted a seventh year to athletes with a similar injury history to West’s. They uncovered a couple recent examples, from a Texas Tech offensive lineman beset by recurring knee and shoulder injuries, to a once heralded Washington running back seeking to overcome three ACL tears.

When Northwestern State filed a petition on West’s behalf in late April, McConathy was cautiously optimistic. The circumstances were essentially identical to the previous year when the Demons had appealed for a sixth year for West.

“He hadn’t even gotten to the first day of practice before he tore it again,” McConathy said. “That had to weigh in his favor because he hadn’t gotten a chance to do what they had given him the opportunity to do the year before.”

In early May, less than two weeks after Northwestern State filed its petition, the NCAA sent word that West would have the opportunity to be Northwestern State’s version of Van Wilder, the rare seventh-year senior eligible to compete.

The ruling was a relief for West even if he knew it would make him the target of plenty of locker room ribbing. He has been at Northwestern State so long that one player he once hosted on a campus visit is now a fellow senior, as is another who was a freshman on West’s high school team when he was a senior.

“My teammates are probably going to get me a wheelchair or a rocking chair for my birthday next year,” West said. “They haven’t really given me a nickname yet, but I’m sure they’re going to come up with something soon.”

In West’s dream scenario, he’ll make a healthy return this November without missing a beat. He’ll lead Northwestern State back to the NCAA tournament, rekindle the interest of NBA scouts and leave with a slew of school records and a master’s degree in human affairs.

Of course, the path to those goals is laden with obstacles. West must first finish strengthening the knee in rehab and overcome the nagging fear that he could reinjure the knee anytime he aggressively attacks off the dribble.

“When I cut and go to the basket hard, I still have that little mental hurdle where I’m like I don’t know if I should do this,” West admitted. “Hopefully over the summer, I can ease my way back into being mentally prepared.”

At the very least, West is going to give it his best shot. He’s now adopted his mother’s mantra — delayed but not denied.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!