IOWA CITY, Iowa — He has just finished basketball practice. His face is pink and he is breathing through his mouth. His shoulders are slumped and he is limping on an ankle that needs to be iced.
Luke Recker could not have been happier. He's playing basketball again, for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and that's all that matters.
"I've been keeping a mental count in my head--Nov. 19 is our first game," he said, "and it can't come quick enough."
It will be Recker's first game competition in college since he left Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers in the spring of 1999 because he did not want to play small forward--even though he led the team in scoring with a 16.1 average his sophomore year.
"He's kind of like a caged animal. He's very excited to get his career going at Iowa," said Wendy Pettis, Recker's sister.
As excited as he is, Recker is the first to realize how lucky he is to be playing at all.
Back in Indiana, Kelly Craig is not as fortunate.
Craig, her brother and Recker, her boyfriend, were in the same car on the night of July 10, 1999, in Durango, Colo., when they got into a three-car wreck on a dark county road.
Kelly Craig broke her neck, bruised her spine and must now use a wheelchair. Her brother, Jason, was in a coma for nine months and didn't leave a Chicago hospital until September.
Recker broke his left wrist and needed 200 stitches to close a wound that snaked from the base of his neck to the top of his forehead, nearly lopping off his left ear.
"I feel guilty that I'm able to continue my life," he said. "I mean, I'm able to go out there and play basketball and do all the things I've wanted to do and Kelly is sitting in a wheelchair. That bothers me."
Recker doesn't like to talk about the crash, which came two months after he transferred from Indiana to Arizona.
"It's hard to talk about something you don't even remember," he said. "I really don't remember July of '99 too well."
Recker's father, Clair, said his son would rather focus on the upcoming season.
"It's just a painful experience that I think he doesn't want to relive," said Clair Recker, who lives 45 minutes south of Iowa City in the town of Washington.
Kelly Craig, 20, relives it every time she goes to physical therapy three times a week, two hours per session, in her hometown of Jasper, Ind.
"I've gained some really important lessons out of the accident--never give up, never take things for granted--but I've lost a lot out of this accident, too," she said.
Her relationship with Recker, once possibly headed for the altar by both accounts, is over.
"She means the world to me, but sometimes it's not the easiest conversation to have," Recker said.
Craig said: "I haven't talked to him in months. Right now, it's kind of just nothing."
Recker began rehabilitation after spending nearly a week in the hospital after the crash. After all, he didn't want to let Arizona coach Lute Olson down.
Olson had said he could use an off-guard, which is what Recker wanted to play when Knight insisted he play small forward.
"It wasn't a personal situation with Knight or the Indiana team or anything like that," Clair Recker said. "In fact, he was very much thinking about leaving Indiana after his freshman year. But through discussions with Coach Knight, he determined that maybe things would change for the better and he decided to give it one more season.
"After that second season, I think he realized that it would probably serve him better to be at another program to develop skills at an off-guard position, which wasn't really developing at Indiana."
So, Recker decided not to return to Indiana for what ended up being Knight's last season as coach -- he was fired in September -- and instead accepted Olson's scholarship offer. Recker also considered Iowa, where former Indiana star Steve Alford is the coach.
Recker went through grueling workouts, but without Kelly or family, he began to realize playing for the Wildcats was not for him. He was too depressed.
"The accident and the injuries to Kelly and her brother, I think they really took their toll on him," Clair Recker said.
With Olson's blessing, Recker transferred to Iowa at the end of the semester and began practicing with the Hawkeyes last January.
The NCAA granted Iowa's request to give Recker two full seasons of eligibility so he can play now instead of waiting until the second semester.
The 22-year-old Recker kept busy over the summer, hitting the weights and trying to get his timing and conditioning back in the Iowa City-based Prime Time League. The league is made up mostly of former college players and some former Hawkeyes who also played in the NBA.
Recker struggled a bit with his shooting, which didn't alarm Alford because Recker shot 49 percent at Indiana. In the Hawkeyes' annual intrasquad scrimmage last month, Recker scored 16 points.
"I'm happy," he said. "I think I've used my year off wisely and bettered myself as a basketball player. I don't feel rusty. I think I've gotten better in a lot of different areas."
He and veteran point guard Dean Oliver should form a formidable backcourt.
"I wouldn't trade my backcourt with any other backcourt," Alford said.
Alford, in his second season at Iowa, has pictures of his wife, Tanya, and young children Bryce, Kory and Kayla all over his office.
Bryce and Kory practically live at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, something that was not lost on Recker when he decided to transfer.
"He is such a good, family man," Recker said. "It's great having his kids here at practice and playing with them. It really rubs off on the team. It makes the team a close-knit group, almost like family. I feel like I'm home."