On a night that started out in celebratory fashion with the Saint Joseph’s Hawks unveiling their 2015-16 Atlantic 10 Championship banner and winning their first game against the Toledo Rockets 77-76 in front of a sold-out Hagan Arena crowd, ended with junior James Demery sitting down at his locker after the victory trying to stand up.
Unable to get up and walk without a limp due to pain in his left foot, Demery asked Bill Lukasiewicz, Saint Joseph’s Head Athletic Trainer, to examine the lowest extremity on his left leg.
Lukasiewicz, who is in his 18th year at Saint Joseph’s, looked at Demery’s foot, which had swollen up, and told him “see me tomorrow,” hoping that Demery had just got stepped on or suffered a bruise, rather than a bone injury.
The forward did as he was instructed and returned the next day to meet with Lukasiewicz. As he re-examined the foot, it was apparent that the fourth metatarsal was the central point of the pain. He scheduled an MRI for Demery that same day at Lankenau Medical Center with Dr. Tricia M. Beatty, a Sports Medicine Physician and Musculoskeletal injury Specialist.
“I knew that it had to be a little serious because I tried to walk on [my left foot] but I could barely walk,” Demery recalled in an interview with The Empire. “I was hobbling so I knew that it had to be more than what I thought it was, so when we went over to [Dr. Beatty’s office], she showed me the x-ray and I had a little crack.”
The doctor’s diagnosis was more than discouraging.
“They told me I had a fourth metatarsal stress fracture, which was a shocker. I was mad about that,” Demery revealed. “That was really devastating for me in the beginning.” Demery tried to keep himself together. “I just have to do this rehab,” he reminded himself. “Take my time and get back.”
Just the evening before, the Williamston, North Carolina native watched as Saint Joseph’s A-10 Championship banner was displayed with the rest of his teammates and the 4,200 fans in attendance. Demery had worked his way up, starting at forward in the opener after only doing so one time last season. He played a major role in their victory, helping the Hawks defeat the Rockets by scoring the final basket of the game for Saint Joseph’s on a free-throw with 11 seconds left in regulation, which ultimately won them the game.
Despite feeling like something was in his shoe during the first half of the season-opener, Demery continued to play as if nothing was wrong. It was the first game of the season and his adrenaline was rushing, why would he stop playing?
He thought “okay, it’ll just go away,” and went on to play 15 minutes in the first half but the uncomfortable sensation persisted.
“[When] we went in the [Saint Joseph’s locker room at halftime], I sat down, got back up, and it literally felt like a rock was in my shoe,” explained Demery. “I’m thinking, ‘what in the world is this.’” Demery, however, decided not pay too much attention to it and thought “whatever it’s nothing too crazy.”
As Saint Joseph’s returned to the court for warm-ups in the second half, Demery felt tightness in his left foot and could hardly move but decided “I’m just gonna go through it” and went on to score 7 of his 11 total points, grab 6 of a then career-high 8 rebounds and hit a crucial shot from the charity stripe that won the Hawks the contest.
Now, less than 24 hours after that selfless performance, Demery learned that he had suffered a stress fracture in the fourth metatarsal of his left foot. He was still in some pain, so he was put into a walking boot and told by doctors to walk around using crutches, to rest and ice his sore foot.
“[I had] to walk around with crutches, which I didn’t like doing but I had too,” said Demery. “[They] told me ‘to rest and stay away from basketball’, which is a hard thing for me to do, so I had to watch my teammates practice but I was still cheering them on because I love the game.”
The pain and swelling in Demery’s left foot significantly improved in the first week of rehabilitation but he continued to use the crutches for an additional week. He had to find other ways than basketball to get in a workout.
“We had him in the pool doing some cardio,” said Lukasiewicz. “Brian [Bingaman] (Saint Joseph’s Director of Strength and Conditioning) did a lot of upper-body [work] with him in the weight room and bicycle work, to keep his cardio up.”
Sophomore Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva joined Demery and Bingaman for the upper-body workouts that would last for an hour and half to two hours, depending on how long team-practice lasted. Oliva, who is sidelined for the entire 2016-17 campaign due to a knee condition, should be ready for next season, according to Demery.
Once Demery's foot started to feel better, Lukasiewicz had to step in and make sure the team’s leading returning scorer (8.1 ppg last season) did not overexert himself.
“When [Demery] was starting to feel better, we had to put the reins on him a little bit because he wanted to go,” said Lukasiewicz. “I talked to him about not undoing three weeks of rest and setting yourself back three weeks.” He told him, “we need to be slow and smart about it so you're sure your healed before you go.”
Although Demery wanted to get back on the court as soon as possible, he understood that returning too soon could re-injure his foot and possibly extend his time away from the hardwood.
“Mr. Bill [Lukasiewicz] was just telling me to take my time,” said Demery. “He did not want to rush it. I understood that it was nothing but love. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
The dialogue about remaining patient between Lukasiewicz and Demery was ongoing for about five weeks, which meant that Demery was unable to shoot and had to continue to lift weights.
“That was the hard part because I feel like if I can lift weights, I should be able to shoot but they just told me to stay off of [my left foot],” said Demery. “I know I have to do it (weightlifting) to be successful with the game I love. It was a good experience and it paid off, that I can say.”
Within that five-week time frame, Demery had two follow-up doctor appointments, according to FanRag Sports Network Columnist Jon Rothstein, which gave him a good idea of when he could possibly return for the Hawks.
Saint Joseph’s first A-10 conference game against the George Washington Colonials on the penultimate day of 2016, was the date he told his coaches and mom he would come back on.
Once Demery entered the sixth week of rehab feeling good, he was allowed to get back out on the court and shoot, which Lukasiewicz says is typically the amount of time (6-8 weeks) someone with a stress fracture in the fourth metatarsal misses, depending on the severity of the injury.
Poised to play against the Colonials, Demery was raring to-go after the sixth week but was limited during the next week of practice, as a precaution to make sure he did not do too much and experience a setback.
That being said, he was cleared during the few first days of the seventh week post-injury and sent out a tweet that Friday morning confirming his much-anticipated return and sharing his excitement to be back.
“I always try to keep a positive mindset about everything,” said Demery. “Even though that [foot injury] was a minor setback for me, I always kept telling myself, ‘I’m gonna come back better and stronger.’ That was my first game back, so I was excited.”
Before the Hawks’ 7 PM tip-off versus George Washington, coach Martelli talked with Demery about not trying to make up for the 10 games he missed while injured, all in one outing.
“When [Martelli] was telling me that, he knows how I think, so he said ‘alright James don’t worry about those ten games,’ because I would have come back at full speed,” said Demery. “If you come back too quick from something like that, you can hurt yourself quicker, so he worked with me.”
The game clock read 15:56 when Demery replaced freshman Charlie Brown after the first official media timeout and he received a warm ovation from the sell-out home audience. This was not the first time the Hawk faithful had showed their support for Demery, as fans would routinely offer him words of encouragement throughout his recovery.
“When the [PA announcer] called my name out and [the fans] started clapping, I felt the love,” said Demery as he smiled from ear to ear. “Even in the games I wasn’t playing in, I always had people tell me: ‘James, we’re praying for you, when you gonna be back’ or ‘We’re praying for, can’t wait for you to get back,’ and I’d let them know ‘soon.’ Hearing that from your crowd, peers, even older alumni in the SJU family, it’s a blessing.”
There was no time to fixate on the round of applause from Hawk fans, as Demery’s defensive assignment was forward Tyler Cavanaugh, George Washington’s primer player.
Cavanaugh entered the game averaging 16.8 points and 7.4 rebounds with 4 double-doubles under his belt. That did not faze Demery, who limited the Lute Olson Award watch-list member to 4 made field-goals on 20 shot attempts. Cavanaugh did record a season-high 13 boards but he was noticeably affected by Demery’s presence on the defensive end.
“[Demery] competed like heck defensively,” said coach Martelli at his postgame press conference after the Hawks held on to beat the Colonials, 68-63. “Cavanaugh is an all-league [player], Player of the Year candidate and he had to guard him for long stretches of time.”
While Demery put in a noteworthy performance on defense, he was not as aggressive on offense, pulling up for mid-range jump-shots instead of attacking the basket. Physically, he “felt real good” but mentally, he was wary of jumping hard off his left foot.
“I was second guessing myself during the George Washington game,” admitted Demery. “I was kind of hesitant to jump harder like I wanted to off of [my left foot].”
That cautious mentality did not last for long, as Demery came down the court at the Ryan Center in Kingston, Rhode Island four days later and attempted a dunk. Though he did not convert the basket, and Saint Joseph’s would go on to lose by 30 points, he proved to himself that he was fully healthy and his facial reaction in response to the play said it all.
“When I came down and almost had that dunk, if you could see my face,” Demery said before showing off the face. “If you could read my mind, I said ‘I’m back.’”
Demery’s return came at a critical time for the Hawks, as star guard Shavar Newkirk was ruled out for season with a torn ACL on New Year's Day.
Since the news of Newkirk’s injury and the game in Kingston, where he began to trust his body and scored a team-high 17 points (7-13 FGM-A), Demery has had back-to-back double-digit scoring outings, which included a career-high 25 points (9-15 FGM-A) in 38 minutes of play, to help Saint Joseph’s triumph over the Fordham Rams, 70-55.
More recently, Demery recorded his first career double-double (19 points and 11 rebounds) against the Minutemen of Massachusetts, in a narrow 5-point loss.
Reflecting back on his journey recovering from his injury, Demery focused on a positive learning moment he experienced, rather than on a unfavorable one.
“I thank God for allowing me to get through that,” Demery said while reflecting on his recovery process. “It was learning experience. I was able to watch the game and see open spots that I don’t really see while [playing] in the game. That’s why now, I’m able to see certain things, like when a defense is playing 2-3 [zone], I now know the spots to go at. You just have to take it in a positive manner.”
Besides the orthotic shoe inserts Lukasiewicz gave him to support the arches of his feet, Demery did not need any extra treatment on his left foot when he returned and has not had any [foot] pain. He and Lukasiewicz still meet though to discuss how Demery is feeling.
“We communicate daily,” said Lukasiewicz. “He has not had any issues, pain or discomfort [with his left foot] so, I’m feeling pretty good about him now.”
Now back closer to 100%, Demery is looking for more dunks like the one against Rhode Island to be slammed home.
Photo: Sideline Photos, LLC
The NBA has never been Toliver Freeman's main dream.
Yes, he was an all-state high school basketball selection three years running and scored more than 1,500 points, but the NBA hasn't been on his mind.
His dream is to go to medical school.
“The NBA was never something I wanted to do,” Freeman said in an interview with The Empire. “I’ll go to the NBA if I do well enough in college to lead to that, but my main goal is to get a great education and go to medical school. I’m a biology major, so that will set me up to do well in medical school.”
After having someone in the profession visit his high school, Catholic High School, Freeman decided he wanted to study to be an Ophthalmologist, or an eye doctor.
Vision, he says, is “the window to life.”
But unlike school, basketball didn’t always come easy.
Like anyone else, Freeman would come down on Christmas giddy. Looking through his gifts, he always knew he could expect one specific, valuable present: Better Basketball DVDs.
The basketball tutorial videos are normally for people who don’t know how to play basketball. Not Division 1 college athletes.
“I pretty much taught myself,” the Saint Joseph’s walk-on remembered. “I never had a trainer. I would go on YouTube and search: ‘How to shoot?’ ‘How to set your feet?’ ‘How to dribble?’ stuff like that...My parents weren’t sports people. My mom is a practicing lawyer and my dad is an [Emergency Room] doctor. So, education is the main thing that they’re worried about with me.”
Freeman had to learn elsewhere. This came from playing with his brothers in their backyard.
“We would play this game where we had to finish through contact,” Freeman said. “A person would go to the rim and the other person would foul him. Whoever scored the most baskets through the contact would win...I got a lot of my toughness from that, playing some of those intense games in the backyard with my brothers.”
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Freeman was lucky to have a strong support system. The city is one of the most dangerous in the country. With a murder rate of .26 per 1,000 residents and a given crime index of 4 out of 100 (100 being the safest) by NeighborhoodScout, Baton Rouge is notorious for its violence.
On the other hand, Freeman’s structure at home has kept him on track by stamping education as a priority. That’s why he enrolled in Catholic High School, a blue ribbon, all boys school. Catholic offered many opportunities that also stretched beyond the classroom and onto the basketball court.
“It’s a 5A school, so it is the biggest a school can get in Louisiana,” Freeman says. “If you do well at a 5A stage, as opposed to a 1A or 2A stage, it carries more weight because you’re playing against bigger, better teams.”
Although he learned much of his skills by himself, it was in high school that Freeman really started to expand his game and win the backyard battles with his brothers. He cites his high school coach, Mark Cascio, as the person who helped him specifically hone his basketball IQ.
After a strong freshman year, he won the AAU championship with his team, Red Storm, in the summer of 10th grade. This was when he started to blossom as one of Louisiana's best young talents, earning all-state and all-district honors for the next three straight high school seasons.
As a legit scorer who could put the ball in the basketball “inside and out,” Freeman averaged 17.8 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 47% from the field and tallying 31 total steals his senior season, according to Catholic’s website.
His successes earned him interest from small Division 1 schools in Louisiana, but Freeman wanted to leave the state and see somewhere new.
He found himself searching for schools where he could combine great academics, Division 1 basketball, and venture outside of Louisiana. His dream school growing up was UCLA because of his love of Russell Westbrook, but he noticed it was unrealistic. He tried Stanford, but it fell through. He heard from Ivy League schools, but had trouble maintaining consistent contact.
During the long process, however, he was able to get in touch with Saint Joseph’s assistant coach, Geoff Arnold. Freeman didn’t know much about Saint Joseph’s but he did know that they were the school that always seemed to bust his bracket.
“One of my friend’s uncles knew coach Arnold,” Freeman remembered. “He told coach Arnold about me and coach Arnold contacted me...They brought me up during March. I liked it. Everyone was friendly. It just felt like a family community.”
From the start, the coaches at Saint Joseph’s did not sugar coat anything. They were straightforward -- Freeman would be a preferred walk-on. This was okay with him. He was just happy he had found a fit where he could get a great education to pursue his dreams of a medical degree and play collegiate basketball away from home.
His adjustment from high school stardom to a walk-on at Saint Joseph’s has not been too bad either. Had he thought he couldn’t handle the transition, he wouldn’t have willingly accepted the challenge.
As one of four current Saint Joseph’s walk-ons, he understands that his role is make the other players on the team better and additionally, mimic their upcoming opponents’ strategies in practice.
“I try my best to get the team prepared for whatever team we’re scouting that day,” Freeman added of his role. “Just have fun with it and keep competing, you never know what it will lead to...My job is to make other people on my team better by continually competing on the practice court.”
Fellow Saint Joseph’s teammate, senior Brendan Casper, who also walked onto the team, but has since earned a scholarship, expanded on the expectations for Freeman.
“As a walk-on you just come in and work hard everyday,” Casper commented. “You push the guys next to you to make the team better and that's all you can really do. And then if you work hard, good things are going to happen to you.”
Off the court, Freeman is surprised at the amount of spare time he has, even as a honors student at the university.
“I really didn’t expect to have as much time as I have now,” Freeman added. “Being in sports, you’re forced to be on a strict schedule so you cannot really procrastinate as much as people expect. You have to get your work done and get your studying done.”
Although he has more time than anticipated, the classes have been challenging, but this was by design.
“I’m taking 7 classes a semester [right now],” Freeman said of his course load, which includes courses like calculus, chemistry, biology, and more. “I did that by choice to make my junior and senior year easier when I’m starting to apply for medical schools.”
Head coach Phil Martelli has also noticed Freeman’s abilities off the court as a student.
“Toliver is going to be a great doctor,” Martelli said. “He’s a very confident guy, very personable. He wants to be at Saint Joseph’s...and I’m delighted he’s a part of the program. He’s not a good student -- he’s a great student.”
And while most other Division 1 freshman athletes are thinking about the next level of basketball, Freeman is preparing for medical school.
“It’s tough right now but I’m definitely enjoying it,” Freeman said of his biology major. “It will get me ready for the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) and if I do well on the MCATs, I will be able to get into some of the medical schools I want to go to.”
Toliver Freeman already has his eyes set past college basketball, but in this case, they’re aimed specifically at medical school.
Saint Joseph’s star Shavar Newkirk will miss the rest of this season due to a torn ACL in his left knee. Newkirk suffered the injury this past Friday as the Hawks defeated the George Washington Colonials in front of a sellout crowd at Hagan Arena. The guard will undergo surgery in three to four weeks.
The Hawks’ leading scorer (20.3 ppg) was injured on a non-contact play when he attempted to score a layup in transition after picking Jaren Sina’s pocket.
The New York native is not the first Hawk this season to suffer a season-ending knee injury, as sophomore forward Pierfrancesco Oliva was diagnosed with a knee condition this past summer. To add, junior forward James Demery made his much-anticipated return against the Colonials after he had missed the previous 10 games due to a stress fracture in his left foot.
Photo: Sideline Photos, LLC
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament