A year ago, Andy Beltowski was grabbing rebounds and slam-dunking for the Oxnard College basketball team. Life for the 6-foot-5 center seemed full of possibilities.
But this year, Beltowski is spending most of his free time lying in bed, recovering from delicate back surgery and counting the days until he can return to the court.
His return is likely but not certain. His fate depends on the success of upcoming therapy sessions.
"I expect to start shooting basketballs in about two months," said Beltowski, who started for the Condors last season as a freshman and averaged nine points and seven rebounds a game. "I'll have to work my way into a full-fledged game. I know I won't be able to do it all at once."
Beltowski, a graduate of Channel Islands High, started every game for Oxnard last season and helped lead the team to the third round of the state playoffs. During off-season preparations last summer he began experiencing pains in his lower back. The discomfort worsened, and playing basketball became a chore.
To make matters worse, Beltowski had no idea what was causing the problem. He hadn't fallen or directly injured his back.
Things only got worse. The initial twinges he felt in August turned to excruciating back spasms by October.
"It got to the point where I would bend down and would have trouble pushing myself back up," Beltowski said. "The pain bothered me all day long. It would move around. I'd get a pinched nerve in my lower back and my whole leg would swell up. It was awful."
The team's trainer, Dr. Daniel Lewis, wasn't sure what the problem was. Beltowski was put on a regimen of exercises to try to help ease the pain. That didn't work. Neither did a visit to a chiropractor. Ultrasound likewise failed to detect the difficulty.
Finally, in October, doctors discovered that a vertebra in Beltowski's lower back was fractured and was slipping, causing the discomfort. His options were to have surgery or wait to see if the back healed itself.
The decision was easy. With the basketball season already lost, Beltowski opted for immediate surgery. He finished classes for the fall semester and had the operation on Dec. 9.
During surgery, a bone graft was taken from his pelvis and used to fuse together two of the vertebrae.
After five days in the hospital, Beltowski returned home for Christmas vacation and the beginning of six months of therapy. He began by walking three miles a day.
"This is very delicate and complicated surgery," said Dr. Daniel Capen, a spinal surgeon who performed the operation. "But I think there's a good chance Andy will have full recovery and be able to play basketball again. He is strong and very motivated. Those factors really help his chances."
Capen said about one in 10 people suffer back problems similar to Beltowski's and surgery almost always corrects them. He said Beltowski's size had nothing to do with the problem.
"Andy probably started suffering deterioration in his vertebra between the ages of 6 and 15. It just started bothering him. Some people have deterioration but never experience any pain."
Capen pointed to many athletes who have successfully returned from back surgery, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.
That knowledge has given Beltowski new spirit and a strong desire to return to the court. He currently is going through aqua therapy four days a week, performing a variety of exercises in a pool to break down scar tissue and relax the muscles.
He is attending classes this semester and said the pains in his back have eased greatly.
"There's a little discomfort, but it is considerably less than it was," he said.
Beltowski, 20, realizes patience is the key to his comeback. His goal is to start shooting baskets in April or May and ease into scrimmages and games by summer. If all goes well, he will attempt to try out for the Oxnard team in the fall.
"Coming back is never easy, but I expect Andy to be back," Coach Remy McCarthy said. "He's a tough kid."
Beltowski has attended most of Oxnard's games this season to stay close to basketball and the team. But he hasn't been stopping by any practices.
"It's just too hard for me to be on a court with basketballs all over the place," he said. "Every time I get in the gym I want to start playing. It is too tempting. So I've stayed away for my own benefit.
"I know what I have to do to have complete recovery. One thing I know I can't do is to try to come back before I'm strong enough. That would only end up hurting my chances. I've got to stay patient and let my back heal properly."
Oxnard has struggled without Beltowski. The Condors are far from playoff contention with a record of 13-13, 4-6 in the Western State Conference prior to Wednesday's action.
"In my mind, Andy was the team's MVP last year," said Randy Carter, a starting forward for Oxnard. "He did all the things on the court that needed to be done. He'd guard the big guys, dive for loose balls and grab the rebounds. We expected more of the same from him this season."
If Beltowski returns and has a successful season, he's hoping for a scholarship to San Diego State. But he also knows there are a lot of ifs.
"I want to get back into basketball as fast as possible," he said. "But I'm also a little scared. I know initially I'll be favoring my back and worrying if I'll injure it and have it start hurting again.
"That's why I know I have to be strong and in shape so I won't need to favor it. I'll be in an aggressive weight-training program this summer. I need to play basketball and not just be a cheerleader."