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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Connecticut's A.J. Price has paid a hefty toll

A near-fatal brain hemorrhage, a one-year suspension and a major knee injury made the road to the Final Four a bumpy one for the Huskies' senior guard.

April 03, 2009|Jeff Jacobs

A.J. stands for Anthony Jordan.

"I wanted to name him after the two greatest basketball players alive," Inga Price said of Connecticut's A.J. Price, breaking into a conspiratorial giggle. "That's his daddy and Michael Jordan."

She was a point guard for Morgan State. Tony Price led Penn to the 1979 Final Four in Salt Lake City, where the Quakers fell to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Yet it turns out basketball didn't bring Tony and Inga Price together. Insurance did.

They met on the job while working for Aetna in Parsippany, N.J.

"It's so cool A.J. is in the Final Four like his father," said Inga, an underwriter for Travelers in Jericho, N.Y. "I know you guys in the media are putting a spin about payback with Michigan State, but that's not what this is about for A.J. After all he has been through, this is about clearing the final hurdle.

"When he got sick, I prayed to God to spare his life. After he did, that was it for me. I said I don't care if he is unable to play basketball. So for me, this is a bonus. We are playing with house money. That's why it's so beautiful. I look at A.J. and I see a blessing."

Inga is a fixture at Connecticut games, wearing her No. 12 UConn jersey, screaming, exchanging hugs and high-fives. She has an unmistakable joy.

"My mom has been doing the same thing since I was 12, leading chants, having the fan base riled up," said A.J., a senior starting guard for the Huskies. "It makes me feel happy to see her happy."

As a freshman in October 2004, Price went to Windham Hospital in Connecticut with flu-like symptoms. It wasn't flu. He would be airlifted to the neurological intensive care unit at Hartford Hospital. To say Price's Connecticut career would become a journey is like saying Magellan went out for a sail. He survived a brain hemorrhage. He endured a one-year suspension for his involvement in stolen laptops. And just when the world was right, he sustained a torn knee ligament and needed surgery.

"I can't begin to tell you what we went through as a family when A.J. got sick," Inga Price said. "He spent 10 days in the neurological ICU. He was literally on his death bed. What was so frightening was the roller-coaster ride. One day he was doing great. On his 18th birthday, he was eating chocolate chip cookies. The very next day he was on a respirator.

"It got to the point where I couldn't even listen to what the doctors said. I got hysterical. For 15 days, we were at the hospital day and night. A.J. lost 30 pounds and he wasn't that big in the first place."

There was cerebral angiogram after cerebral angiogram. Inga lost count at eight. Even upon his release, there was no specific diagnosis.

Barry Jordan, a neurologist for the New York State Boxing Commission, saw what others did -- veins that looked a little abnormal. Coach Jim Calhoun wanted A.J. to see a specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston to help Price understand what he would endure as an athlete. That doctor recommended one of the top vascular neurosurgeons in the world.

"Arthur Day is the name I'll never forget as long as I live," Inga said. "He looked at the pictures and said I'm 90% sure he has AVM. He was on the computer, breaking it down for me to the point where I could teach people. That's how good this guy was. Sure enough, when he did another cerebral angiogram, it was AVM."

Arteriovenous malformation is a condition that causes arteries and veins in the brain to become tangled and sometimes burst.

Price was successfully treated in February 2005 with radiosurgery. Only life's harsh lessons, however, would treat him for his involvement in stolen laptops.

"My husband was devastated," Inga said. "He was so angry he didn't want to speak to A.J. I was disappointed more than anything. There was no reason why A.J. had to be involved in anything like that. And I was hurt. There was a part of me that was ashamed. Now don't think for a second I condone any of it, but after what I had just gone through, it was nothing compared to seeing him close to death.

"My husband and I, it brought a lot of stress and friction between us. I was very upset how he treated A.J., how angry he was. I told Tony, 'I understand what you're going through, but we can't ever stop being parents. The only difference between us and other parents is we don't have the luxury of dealing with this privately.' Tony really came around. We had no time to sulk. We had to find attorneys and such."

Price would not squander a second chance. Not only would he emerge as one of the top guards in the nation, the character forged by his family would emerge. Not only did he get the family name back, he became a man along the journey.

"I've become convinced tearing his ACL was God's way of really getting his attention, of making sure that he got it," Inga said. "For two weeks afterward, we couldn't get in touch with him. He wouldn't return calls. He was really depressed. . . .

"Finally, I said to Tony, 'We're driving to Connecticut.' A.J. was very sad. We stayed with him through the surgery, but I'll tell you he worked harder to come back than you could imagine."

This season would be a battle to trust the knee.

Calhoun gave him tough love. Mom gave him a mom's love and some advice that finally stuck: Have some fun.

So on Saturday at 6 a.m., Inga leaves for Detroit to watch another Price take on Michigan State. No, it's not about payback from 30 years ago. It's about a blessing.

--

jjacobs@courant.com

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