Kevin Venable was in an all-too-familiar scene Monday afternoon at Ventura College. He sat in street clothes, his knees aching, and watched his teammates scramble up and down the basketball court under Coach Phil Mathews' direction.
Venable, a 23-year-old sophomore, has missed nearly three seasons because of a recurring right knee injury. His kneecap is occasionally pulled apart when he leaps, sending him to the sidelines, where he is limited to encouraging words and high-fives.
Therefore, Monday appeared to be deja vu. Venable had returned from yet another visit to a doctor's office, this time for soreness in his left knee, which may be a stress fracture that will keep him out four to five weeks.
But, despite wobbly knees that limit his playing time, Venable is wearing a Pirate uniform again. The former Channel Islands High star can deal with the pain, and the risk of permanent injury, because of another, more painful, blow.
It's a sharp pain that has pierced his heart since March, when his 21-year-old brother, Bryan, was killed in an automobile accident. It brought Venable back to the hardwood. Not to satisfy a bruised ego; not to prove he can still play.
He has returned because Bryan would have wanted it that way.
"It feels good to be back," Venable said with a smile as he leaned on his scarred knee, looked at the team roster on the gymnasium wall, and read "55 Venable."
"Yep, it feels real good."
That feeling has usually ended at Venable's knees, which have required three surgeries the past five years. Venable averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds before his right knee blew out early in the 1986-87 season, his freshman year at Ventura.
"It was real frustrating. Too frustrating," he said.
Venable was forced to trade his powerful inside game and incredible leaping ability for construction work with Bryan, pouring concrete and pondering a comeback.
"I always had it in the back of my mind that I would play again," Venable said. "I was real anxious, but there was some doubt."
Venable rehabilitated his knee two hours a day--often alone in Ventura's weight room--and stayed in shape playing pick-up games, waiting for the decisive moment of return.
That came on the night of March 20, when Bryan was in a car that struck an embankment and overturned. It ended a relationship that had grown stronger the past three years, when Kevin wasn't busy dragging his knees up and down the court three hours a day.
"I was at my aunt's house when they called," Venable said. "It was quite a shock."
Shortly thereafter, Venable met with Mathews to discuss basketball. Specifically, his desire to crash the boards and dominate inside again. Venable was part of the 1987 state champion team that finished 31-4, a team Mathews said would have been 35-0 with Venable in the lineup.
"I knew he could still play," Mathews said. "But I didn't want him to go through the same thing he went through when he hurt that knee. That was very painful for him, and I wanted to make sure he had rehabilitated his knee to the point where he was comfortable to come out here and play hard."
No problem. Kevin was running on his own for the first time in his career and continued to work in the weight room.
This comeback was in Bryan's hands.
"I wanted to do it for him," Venable said. "He's the reason I'm here."
Venable, however, isn't making a token appearance. He is one of three team captains and started his first game back, scoring 11 points on five-for-seven shooting from the field. Last weekend, he scored a team-high 14 points in Ventura's 70-69 loss to Cypress in the championship game of the D. Wayne Lukas Thoroughbred Classic, and was named to the all-tournament team.
"If you saw him play, you wouldn't think he had any knee problem," Mathews said. "If he was healthy, he'd be a big-time Division I player. He's better than some players with two good knees."
But watching Venable leap over helpless, would-be rebounders isn't as entertaining to his mother, Billie Gaines. Gaines has held her son's hand in the post-operative room three times too many.
"I really didn't want him to play," Gaines said. "After the last surgery, the doctor said he didn't want to have to operate again."
Reluctantly, Gaines dragged herself to the season-opening intra-squad scrimmage. She watched her son catch a finger in an eye and gasped when he landed off-balance. Twice she left the gym.
"It's nerve-wracking," Gaines said. "I'm happy he's out there because it's what he wants. But I'm apprehensive, too. I don't want to see him get hurt again."
Neither does Venable's step-father, Freddie Gaines. But he won't take the ball out of Kevin's hands.
"It's his decision," Freddie said. "He's got guts, that's for sure."
Now, if only Venable had two healthy knees. He is limited to three days of practice a week and 25 minutes of game time. He plays in pain, but doesn't want anyone to know. "We have to strap him to the bench," Mathews said.
And that is a place Venable has become accustomed to the past three years. But whether Venable is playing or watching, Mathews says he will contribute to a team that is one of the best in the state.
"He has always been a leader," Mathews said. "He is a positive force. All of the other players have tremendous respect for him."
Although Venable's Division I eligibility has expired and his main goal this season is to avoid another injury, he has several Division II colleges from chasing him.
And there's always Bryan, whom he says he prays for every day. Venable carries a pin in his pocket which reads 'I Love Bryan.' "This is for him," he said.