LOS ANGELES — Life without basketball is nothing. At least that's what UCLA point guard Baron Davis believed when the game he adores was jerked out from under him.
Quicker than Davis can dunk, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the Bruins' second-round NCAA tournament victory against Michigan last season.
It might as well have been his heart.
The bulky black brace on his knee this season is a constant reminder of how something he loved was taken away and how sheer hard work brought it back.
"This is the toughest thing that I've ever been through. Just being out of basketball for eight months, not being able to play with your friends, with anybody," said Davis, whose return has been an inspiration for the No. 12 Bruins. "You're not able to get out on the court and do the things that you love to do."
Davis' slow road back began a month after the Bruins' season ended with an embarrassing 94-68 loss to eventual national champion Kentucky. Davis' knee was surgically repaired, but he still had to cope with the mental devastation.
Soon after surgery, Davis spent most of his time eating, up to seven times a day. Then he'd fall asleep.
"I didn't want to go out and hang out," he said. "I just wanted to stay at home and feel sorry for myself."
The self-pity and gorging was accompanied by a funk that dragged into early summer. He couldn't rouse himself from the couch for much more than another trip to the refrigerator.
"When you can't move your knee, depression definitely sets in. He's never had to deal with that before," UCLA assistant coach Steve Spencer said.
The 6-foot-2 1/2 Davis quickly blew up to 230 pounds, about 20 more than his playing weight. He didn't get off the couch until his family and teammates told him he was fat.
"There's no injury that's going to keep him away from the game," Spencer said. "He's got special qualities inside of him."
Still, Davis was plagued by self-doubt. He wasn't achieving the immediate results he wanted from running, biking and pool workouts.
"It didn't seem like I was getting any stronger and I wanted to give up," Davis said. "It was hard to overcome it."
For inspiration, UCLA coach Steve Lavin gave Davis an article about Jerry Rice's successful comeback from a similar injury. The San Francisco 49ers star admitted he cried at times. Davis knew the feeling.
"Sometimes I just sat there and tears were pouring on my cheek just because you miss it," he said.
There was much to miss. He'd made an immediate impact in his first season at UCLA after arriving with a national reputation built at Crossroads High in Santa Monica. Davis was named Pac-10 freshman of the year and led the league in steals.
That it ended so suddenly seemed unfair.
Against Michigan, he came down from a dunk and pivoted to run up the floor, but his left foot remained planted. He came up limping as the rest of the players sprinted away.
"My momentum was carrying me, I didn't even know I was up that high," he said.
Although it was five months before he could bear to watch replays of the injury, Davis said he would make the same play again.
The injury and rehabilitation improved more than Davis' physical and mental strength. He channeled the aggression that had propelled him helter-skelter on the court into his shooting.
"It's helped his game because it's slowed him down a bit," said Spencer, who often accompanied Davis on his running and biking workouts. "His shot has gotten better because it's taken his legs away from him and so it made him concentrate a little more on his technique."
The 19-year-old Davis missed UCLA's first four games this season but returned Dec. 2 to a standing ovation at Pauley Pavilion. He had nine points, including seven of eight free throws, and four assists in 16 minutes of a 109-67 victory over Delaware State.
The emotions were heartfelt, especially the hug Davis got from Earl Watson, a close friend and backcourt mate.
"Baron has always been the type of player to have a lot of energy," Watson said. "He gives so much to the team and the fans."
Davis showed it in his first start three days later against Oklahoma State. He played 19 minutes and preserved a 69-66 victory when he blocked a 3-point attempt in the closing seconds.
"He's very tough and strong-willed," Lavin said. "He's even a better leader now."
Davis once took for granted his ability to careen down the court, rise into the air and slam dunk, or to rifle a no-look pass to a teammate waiting under the basket. Not any more.
"Once you lose something for so long, something you've been playing all your life, it really takes its toll on you," he said.
"I'm not going to worry about my knee. I'm going to go out and have fun and play as hard as possible. I have to. That's the only way I know how to play."