March 30, 2016
The mental picture of that day doesn’t go away so easily. Ryan Arcidiacono’s nerves were working overtime when he gripped the doctor’s office chair with sweaty palms fully expecting what he was about to be told. His narrow face never dipped, he didn’t close his eyes as he was informed basketball would have to be put on hold for the time being.
For a flash, tears welled up and fear gripped him when he heard that he could be out possibly longer. Beyond missing his senior season at Neshaminy High School. In a blink, it could all be taken away, wasted. The tireless hours in the dusk practicing by himself, the travel his family sacrificed to make sure he was able to crisscross the country on the AAU circuit to face the best.
All gone. Done.
Along with playing basketball for Villanova and Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright.
The inch-long vertical scar at the base of his back is somewhat faded now. But not the memory that this couldn’t be possible without Arcidiacono’s unbending stubbornness. Not Villanova’s Final Four, or the Wildcats’ glowing 33-5 record, or the many records he now owns as his fantastic ongoing four-year career winds down as the first player in Villanova history to score more than 1,500 points and have more than 500 assists.
“Arch” underwent herniated disc surgery on Dec. 21, 2011, that threatened his basketball future and everything that has since happened to the Wildcats. It forced him to watch from the sidelines for the first time in his life during his senior year of high school and it’s made him realize how magical this journey has been at Villanova, punctuated by this season’s Final Four appearance.
Four years ago, he admits, he was in denial. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior point guard refused to go back to those days when his basketball life hung in the balance.
Today, the kid that once had a balky back is the steely backbone of a historic season.
“I didn’t think about the fact that I could never play because I always thought I could fight through the pain and anything else to play again,” said Arcidiacono, who leads the Wildcats in scoring in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 16 points a game. “I always knew that I could get healthy again. The worst-case scenario was when Coach Wright said that if I couldn’t play, and the threat was there that I couldn’t, that he would keep me on scholarship. I always had that in the back of my mind. Even when I was working out, I always knew that if I reinjured my back, I would still be able to go to Villanova and be on scholarship, and Coach Wright would have me there on the team.
“I don’t say that I’m lucky to be in this position. I think it is more trust in Coach Wright and the coaching staff here. They believed in me that I would be okay. I believed in them that they would give me an equal opportunity to play, even as a freshman. The worst thing was watching my whole senior year of high school and working on getting better and healthy. Looking back at it now, I would say I appreciate things the way they happened. How strange this may sound, I think it was really a blessing in disguise getting hurt. I’m thankful that it happened because it’s helped me in so many ways. It’s helped me appreciate everything that’s happened to me at Villanova, and you look at what we’ve done this year, to be a part of this, it’s made me realize how fortunate I am because I never really thought about never playing again before.”
Late in Arcidiacono’s junior year at Neshaminy, he began feeling a shooting pain down his left hamstring. He couldn’t glide up and down the court without feeling discomfort. But he wasn’t about to say anything to anyone, so he took it. It’s when the pain became unbearable that he relented and saw doctors, who found he was suffering from a herniated disk that would require surgery.
“I don’t remember ever missing any games because of an injury as a kid,” Arcidiacono recalled. “One day my back started hurting and I kept playing and playing, and my back started to get progressively worse. I had trouble sleeping, but there were definitely some nights I couldn’t go to sleep because of the pain. There were some terrible nights.
“I’ll admit that there were a few teary nights, too, after the surgery because it does cross your mind about the worst-case scenario of not getting back. My head was all over the place when that happened. I trusted the doctor’s word that I would be able to get back. We were told in September my senior year and the surgery occurred in December. I kept looking at the positive side. I had to keep thinking I was going to come back.
“The whole experience taught me that I can overcome anything because it tested me more than I ever have been in my life. I love the game, and then you’re faced with having the game taken away. I had to stay strong-minded. The fear flashed fast, but today, I never think about my back. To me, I never had a back surgery. People used to ask how my back was doing. I’d have some fun and ask, ‘What back?’ like the surgery never took place. I had some doubts, but I found out I was strong enough to get through it.”
“(Arcidiacono’s) freshman year, we lost a lot (the Cats were 20-14), and we talk about this all of the time, the junior class here, they didn’t lose anything. Arch and Daniel (Ochefu), they lost. I mean they lost by 20 to Columbia, at home (actually 75-57, on Nov. 20, 2012). They lived through that, and I think that’s what makes them great."
Ryan's father, Joe, a former football co-captain at Villanova, said fear of the unknown was difficult for the entire family.
"You hear guarantees from doctors, but you really don't know anytime you do surgery on a back, there is always that little seed of doubt," Joe said. "I see him now and it's been a pretty remarkable journey. He went from lying in a hospital bed his senior year of high school wondering about his future, to standing on the foul line with tears in his eyes about to put Villanova, his parent's alma mater, in the Final Four.
"It’s a movie and a book. Ryan's always had an amazing will to succeed--and it's always been there. He's won on and off the court."
Early on, Wright’s trust in Arcidiacono, whose aforementioned four crucial free throws in the final :33 sealed Villanova’s 64-59 victory against overall No.1-seeded Kansas in South Regional final on Sunday night, was a huge aid in building the poise and confidence Ryan currently plays with.
“I gave him the green light to gain a lot of confidence, but Ryan learned a lot about failure his freshman year, and he never feared failure again,” Wright said. “We had a game at La Salle, when he had eight or nine turnovers, and we lost in overtime. Basically because of a lot of mistakes he made. But Arch handled that so well, and he learned. Every mistake he learned from and better than anyone I ever had … well, maybe except Scottie Reynolds his freshman year, too. (After Arcidiacono’s surgery), we were scared. We went and got Tony Chennault as a transfer, and we never take transfers, because we didn’t know whether or not Arch was going to be able to play. It turned out great because we got two great point guards.
“(Arcidiacono’s) freshman year, we lost a lot (the Cats were 20-14), and we talk about this all of the time, the junior class here, they didn’t lose anything. Arch and Daniel (Ochefu), they lost. I mean they lost by 20 to Columbia, at home (actually 75-57, on Nov. 20, 2012). They lived through that, and I think that’s what makes them great. Arch played himself into shape his freshman year. Remember, he was coming off his junior year of high school. That was the last time he played competitive basketball before he made the jump to the Big East. That’s a big step. He got healthy, and after that, I think everyone has seen what’s happened. He has a pretty strong back. We depend on him. You can say he’s put us on his back.”