Seven weeks and five days.
Pleasant Grove senior guard Kawika Akina knows exactly how long he had been waiting for Friday night and a chance to get back on the basketball court with the Vikings.
“I got cleared yesterday right after practice,” Akina said. “It’s been seven weeks and five days since I got surgery.”
His left-hand injury — his off-hand — sidelined the talented athlete for 12.5 games but he proved to be ready when the chance came to return.
The senior turned in an impressive performance in Friday night’s 63-48 Pleasant Grove home win over Westlake, leading the team with 16 points and making some big plays to stave off the final Thunder rallies.
“All the guys, as soon as I hit my first layup they were like, ‘hey, he’s got it,’” Akina said. “They got me back in rhythm. It was nice to have them help me out. I’m just so excited. It gives this time of year just a whole different meaning.”
Viking head coach Randy McAllister said watching Akina competing like he did in his first game back was a joy.
“What he does for us that we’ve missed a little bit is bring a little more pace,” McAllister said. “He has a downhill all the time mentality and pushes the ball. He gets the defense into a help position. He was maybe a little off with his passing but he’s got that big pad on his hand. The pace of the game was back where we like to play.”
Akina hurt his hand during Pleasant Grove’s trip to Illinois to begin the season and had to get surgery.
“It was heartbreaking,” McAllister said. “We had a trip to Hawaii, where their family is from and they know everyone. They were looking forward to having kind of a homecoming tournament. That was rough.”
The Viking senior recalled some difficult times during the ensuing couple of months.
“For the first four weeks, I was on crazy pain meds so I would come to practice and I’d be sleeping for half of it,” Akina said. “Then I couldn’t touch a ball. All I could do was run. Getting back was the light at the end of the tunnel, pushing me to keep going.”
He did take some comfort in the fact that his teammate, senior Max Miller, stepped in and helped Pleasant Grove to a 12-2 record.
“Max has been doing unbelievably,” Akina said. “It’s like I never even left.”
Although he was physically limited, the silver lining was the chance he had to see the game in a different way.
“It was a great growth time for him,” McAllister said. “He sees the game with a little different perspective. We sat him between coaches and that helped. Something he gained was a little bit better vision. He sees why we get on kids.”
Akina said that was probably the most valuable takeaway from his rehabilitation.
“Sitting out for that long you get stuff you never get playing,” Akina said. “I hung out with the coaches for eight weeks without worrying about playing and it’s just a totally different mindset. I think it was a blessing in disguise.”
As his return neared, he had to learn how to while having protective gear on that hand.
“They gave me a cast to put on to dribble the ball until I was cleared, and I was like I don’t know how I’m going to dribble with this,” Akina said. “I started getting used to it but it was killing my hand. I had to slap another pad on so it ended up coming like four inches off my hand. I was like, this isn’t going to work — but it’s crazy what sticks with you even without a left hand.”
He just kept hoping that he could make that final step.
“I’ve been saying I was ready for two weeks but they wouldn’t clear me,” Akina said. “They were right for the most part. Instead I was visualizing when I came back, what was going to happen.”
When the news came on Thursday that the long wait was finally over, it was an intense moment for Akina and his family.
“I kept my calm but as soon as I got in my car by myself, I lost control,” Akina said. “I was just so happy. It’s been a tough eight weeks.”
McAllister said, “They cleared him and it was wonderful. I talked to his parents on the phone last night and they were thrilled. His dad was emotional on the floor out here after the game, saying it was a miracle for him to come back in that fashion.”
He said he still feels a little rusty.
“My body is going a little too slow for my brain right now,” he said. “There were a couple of times where I told myself to stop but my body kept going.”
The bottom line, however, is that Akina is thrilled to get to play for the next month and a half with a Pleasant Grove team that aims to be the best in Class 6A.
But it won’t be easy in Region 4, as Westlake showed Friday night.
Although the Thunder fell behind by as many as 16 points, they made a push in the final quarter to narrow the gap to eight with chances to get closer. The Vikings always managed to come up with an answer.
“They are a good team and this is a tough place to come in and win,” Westlake head coach Nate Carling said. “We got a little over-anxious. Guys competed and played hard but it just came down to a lack of execution.”
Pleasant Grove (13-2, 1-0) will next go to San Francisco to face James Logan (California) in the MaxPreps MLK Classic at 11:45 a.m. MT on Monday. Westlake (12-3, 0-1) will look to bounce back on Tuesday when it plays at Lone Peak at 7 p.m.