Sitting in a hospital room in shock and in pain after suffering a horrifying injury last year that disfigured his right hand, Chris Hutton had enough on his mind without thinking about basketball. The problem, though, is that Hutton is always thinking about basketball, and the realization that his playing career might be over was as difficult for him to cope with in the moment as the actual injury itself.
“I just remember getting really mad, yelling and screaming in the hospital room,” Hutton said. “My mom was trying to calm me down.”
Hutton, a guard on the Albion basketball team, was at his summer job at a golf course last spring when the injury occurred while working on a lawnmower.
“It (the blade) jammed and recoiled on me and the blade spun around when my hand was in there,” he said. “I couldn’t get my hand all the way out and it just spun around and scraped across the top of my hand. It did a lot of damage, but still could’ve been worse.”
What followed were multiple reconstructive surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
“At the time of the accident, I wasn’t worried about if he would ever play again, I was more worried about his safety and giving him and his family the support they needed,” said Albion coach Jody May. “While it was definitely a freak accident, it could have been much worse as far as injuries were concerned and I just wanted to be there for him and his family.”
Although May, Hutton’s family and his doctors and physical therapists were mostly concerned with him simply being able to use his hand normally again, Hutton — a notorious gym rat dating back to his high school days at Lapeer West — was always thinking about when he could get back on the court.
“Last year were the first games I’ve ever had to sit out in my whole career,” Hutton said. “I’d never had to sit due to injury, and I had to go from never having to sit to having to not play a whole season … it was hard.”
“I definitely think it was one of the most difficult things he has ever gone through,” May said. “He went from looking forward to a great senior year as a student and as a basketball player to finding out he has to sit out his whole senior year without really ever knowing for sure if he could come back and play. I think the hardest part for him was the unknown of whether or not he could ever play again. I just tried to keep Chris involved with the basketball program. I wanted him at every practice, I tried to treat him like a student-assistant by giving him responsibilities in working with the younger guys and helping the older guys during practice and games.”
The injury occurred to Hutton’s shooting hand. Over the past year, he’s undergone complicated procedures to fuse bones back together, repair tendons and, essentially, start from scratch when it comes to rebuilding the strength and flexibility in that hand.
“Every little kid thing that you could think of to get any kind of motion in my hand — picking up pins, clips, basically little things like that I was doing every single day for months,” Hutton said.
Hutton was granted a medical redshirt last season. He was cleared to resume some basketball activities again in late 2011 because he held out some slim hope that he might be able to return late last season. Instead, he decided to have another surgery on his hand that would potentially make it stronger in the long-run. He had that surgery in January, did more physical therapy, including heat and electric treatments on the hand to return more feeling, and received clearance to shoot and dribble a basketball again in March.
The chance to come back and play a full season with a group of underclassmen he’d become close with was also a motivating factor for him.
“I was real close with the class below me, so being able to stay back one more year with those guys is going to be fun,” he said.
Although sitting out a year was hard for Hutton, he got to see the game through the eyes of a coach. Hutton helped out on the Albion bench last season.
“I really enjoyed having him on the bench with me,” May said. “He was extremely engaged with our team and I think he really took advantage of the situation he was in. He very easily could have sat on the bench and felt sorry for himself but he was just the opposite … he was fully engaged as a cheerleader, coach and a teammate to the guys on the team. Chris has an excellent basketball mind and it was a great experience for him to see the college game in a different way. I think it will only make him a better player and a better teammate.”
“I actually learned a lot,” Hutton said. “I got to sit on the bench and be right next to coach May the whole time and kind of learn from him. I got to see the game from a different perspective, and I think that will help.”
That wasn’t Hutton’s first experience as a coach, though. He and his dad, Chris Hutton Sr., coach a U15 AAU team for the Mid-Michigan Lakers. One of the things Hutton tries to impart to younger players is the work ethic necessary to become a college basketball player.
“I just tell them that if they truly want to play college basketball, they have to be in the gym every day,” Hutton said. “That’s what I did in high school. If you want to play college basketball at any level, you have to be in the gym all the time, and if you want to play at the highest levels at the big schools, you have to live in the gym and have your life completely committed to basketball.”
He also shares his own experiences going from the high school to the college level. He was known for his offense at West, but quickly learned being able to make shots would not be enough to earn court time as a college player.
“High school and college basketball are just so different,” said Hutton, an education major who hopes to coach high school or college basketball when his playing career is over. “Even at the Division III level, there are way better athletes, the game is way faster, it’s more disciplined. People always joked with me in high school and said I didn’t play a lot of defense and just focused on scoring. But in college, I didn’t see the floor until I played defense. In college, you have to play defense or you don’t win games. When you have college coaches on you every day saying you’re not going to get in the game until you commit to playing defense, you start to focus and work on it more. You realize, hey, I have to do this to be successful.”
Hutton was just recently cleared to resume full basketball activities. He practices with his AAU kids to work on his conditioning and has participated in his first open gym at Albion.
“I felt a little behind, but not as much as I thought I would,” he said. “At one time, I really honestly felt like I might not be able to do anything near what I was doing before. But during that whole mid-period of the season (before his January surgery), I had the OK to shoot and dribble. I still had a ball in my hands, dribbling and shooting, so those things are coming back to me. The biggest thing was just my physical conditioning, I was a little out of shape (at the open gym).”
As a junior, Hutton averaged 11.5 points per game (second on the team) and made 35 percent of his 3-pointers. He had some big moments during that season, including a two-game, 44-point performance at a tournament in Texas that helped earn him MIAA player of the week honors and a game against Adrian College in which he made 6-of-8 3-pointers.
May is glad to have Hutton back not just for his on-court production, but for the intangible things he brings to the team as well.
“Obviously, with a guy as talented as Chris is, we are very excited to have him back,” May said. “He will be asked to not only be a good player for us on the court, but he will also be asked to lead this team. In this league, you are only as good as your seniors are, and having Chris back will certainly help our team in all areas.”
Albion finished 7-7 in the MIAA last season and only loses three seniors from that team while gaining Hutton. Hope won the league last season with a 14-0 record, but the next four teams — Adrian, Trine, Calvin and Albion — all finished within two games of each other. Hutton believes the league will once again be competitive, but that Albion has the talent to contend.
“I want to go in with the same goals I had before last year,” Hutton said. “We have an even better team coming back this year. We want to win the conference and make it to the national tournament and we definitely have the ability to do that. Our main focus is just trying to win a championship.”