His mother was nearly moved to tears, but Kevin Venable quietly stared straight ahead.
His right leg, as usual, was locked at the knee in front of him.
Perhaps Venable was thinking of his own stalled basketball career as his Ventura College basketball teammates shuffled past the banquet hall's dais one by one, accepting a handshake, a plaque, a smattering of applause. Rather than the success story it appeared to be evolving into, Venable's career reads more like a medical report. And a lengthy one at that.
The list includes three separate surgeries on his right kneecap, a broken thumb, and a cracked left kneecap. All by the time he turned 21.
At the 1986-87 postseason banquet, a few weeks after Ventura defeated Saddleback in the final of the state junior college basketball championship, three of Venable's teammates were headed to UC Riverside, where they had been recruited to play the following season. Another was going to Seton Hall. Still another to Sonoma State.
Venable, Ventura's starting sophomore center when the season began, remains a sophomore this season, but as a redshirt.
A 6-foot, 6-inch flurry of scoring and rebounding, regarded as the Pirate most likely to go big-time when the season began, has been reduced to resting his 205-pound frame on twin metal crutches. Venable had just weathered his second stormy bout with major knee surgery in three years.
And the worst was still in the wind.
"You could see it in his face when they were getting their awards and announcing what colleges they were going to," said Billie Gaines, Venable's mother. "I almost started crying because you could see that he was so disappointed. He put up a good front, but you could see it in his face. I know him, and the quieter he gets the more something's bothering him."
Venable, ever proud, insists it didn't disturb him.
"The way I look at it, if I go back to play, then I'll have the same opportunities, hopefully, if everything sticks together," he said. "I'm happy for them that they moved on, but I can have the same thing if I can just stay healthy."
If . That word again. As Ventura opens defense of its state championship, Venable is again unable to play. He smashed the same right kneecap for a third time while playing in a pick-up game in early August.
In junior high and high school, Venable's bones grew too fast and his muscles grew too strong to be compatible. Venable was injured while jumping all three times--the muscles around the knee contract and pull the kneecap apart. In August, the bottom quarter of the brittle kneecap was removed.
Venable, a Division I prospect out of Channel Islands High ("He was on all the recruiting lists," Ventura Coach Phil Mathews said.) despite missing his sophomore and senior seasons with injuries, is soft-spoken, affable, hard-working. But every basketball player, even the most well-rounded, has a weakness. Slow, can't play defense, soft inside-- something .
Venable's Achilles' heel is his right knee. In his two healthy seasons since he was a sophomore in high school, Venable has averaged nearly 20 points and 12 rebounds a game. Those were as a junior at Channel Islands and as a freshman at Ventura.
Again unable to play, Venable is a security guard at a mall in Oxnard, where he snares shoplifters rather than rebounds. He's not attending classes and is seriously pondering his return to basketball.
A fixture at Ventura while active and a spiritual leader when felled, Venable rarely visits the campus any more.
"I have to get my confidence back," he said. "I'm kind of shaky about going back, knowing that it could happen again, even though I'm being told that it couldn't. That's what I was told before, and it happened. So I'm having second and third thoughts."
Gaines shudders at the thought of her son returning to the court.
"I've tried to talk him out of it," she said. "I don't know if I could go to any of the games. For the past couple of years I've only been to one or two of the games because I was just on pins and needles. Whenever he slipped or anything I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I probably would cringe if he said he wanted to play again. I know if he plays and something goes wrong, he'll have to undergo surgery again.
"His doctor said he didn't want Kevin to go into surgery anymore because it was so rough last time. He was in the hospital longer than before and was much sicker."
Mathews, in his third season at Ventura, nearly went into cardiac arrest himself when Venable went down in the championship game of the Moorpark tournament last season.
"I really think with him we would have been 35-0," said Mathews, whose team was 31-4.
Mathews indeed has a special place in his heart for Venable, who was his first recruit when the assistant coach from Fullerton took over the Ventura program. Mathews went looking for a powerful center and found him at Channel Islands.