A stormy year away from basketball nearly led Kazembe Abif away from Drexel University. Instead, it gave him a new appreciation for the game he loves.
When the Drexel University men’s basketball team headed to Hagan Arena Nov. 13 to face off against St. Joseph’s University, Kazembe Abif donned a Drexel jersey, his trusty No. 32, and hit the hardwood for the first time in 21 months.
The last time he played in a meaningful Drexel game, Frantz Massenat and Chris Fouch were leading the Dragons’ offense.
For Abif, a near two-year ordeal of injury and uncertainty, of withering frustration and wrenching self-doubt began at a mid-season practice, a week before Thanksgiving in 2013.
He missed five more games in early January with a sore knee.
He returned to play in four games, then broke his hand when it got caught in a teammate’s jersey— at practice.
Five days after scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds against arch-rival Towson University, Abif’s 2013-14 season was over.
Less than 10 weeks after that, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament—during a workout.
Seven months before it was scheduled to begin, Abif’s 2014-15 season was over, too.
Blow after blow after blow. It would be 19 months, almost to the day, between chances to play a meaningful game with his teammates.
When Abif had a season and a half wrenched away from him, like a rebound ripped right out of his powerful hands, he stepped away from the team. He retreated and took a year off from the team, not participating in workouts or practices.
At the time, nothing seemed unusual to his best friend and teammate, Tavon Allen. His participation in basketball aside, Abif was his normal, loose, lively self.
“Same old Kaz,” Allen said, when asked about Abif’s senior year. “Kaz is Kaz. I know him. He was fine. Nothing was wrong with him. He was good.”
Maybe Allen was covering for his best friend. Maybe he genuinely couldn’t tell.
But Kaz wasn’t Kaz.
With one year until his graduation with a degree in sports management and a pair of painful injuries both fresh in his mind, Abif was anything but himself. He couldn’t play the game that brought him to Drexel, and he wasn’t sure of his next step.
“I just didn’t know what I was going to do,” Abif said in early August. “There was a lot of doubt, a lot of questions. It was a really dark place, when something that you love gets ripped away from you.”
Most days, Abif is a walking handshake. Warm and welcoming, he sports an omnipresent grin, punctuated by jokes and a big, hearty laugh.
That personality and positivity are what made his last year as an undergraduate at Drexel so difficult to understand.
He came to home games and sat two conspicuous rows behind the bench.
“I know other athletes who have been hurt,” Abif explained. “Even when you’re on the team and you’re a part of the team, if you’re not playing and you’re not out there, you don’t feel like you’re actually a part of it.”
So he stepped back.
“I needed time, mentally,” Abif explained. “It’s a lot on you. It was a good mental break for me to just focus on my classes, and it was a mental break for me away from basketball, which I thought was good for me.”
While he spent time rehabbing his knee and attending classes, the season began, and a bit of a rift began to grow between Abif and his head coach, Bruiser Flint, because of something out of either’s control.
With a team falling apart at the seams because of injuries, Flint was in dire need of everything. Experience. Talent. Scoring. Defense. He just needed bodies.
As the season approached Christmas time, Flint and the team’s coaches approached Abif with an idea. They wanted the senior to return after the Christmas break, right around the time league play began.
But Abif didn’t like the idea. He wanted to take the whole year for himself, to get completely healthy and straighten things out. He had a future to think about.
“[Abif] didn’t want to come back after Christmas,” Flint said. “So me and him sort of had a disagreement with that. He was like, ‘Look, I’m just going to sit out.’
“And he talked about going and doing a fifth year somewhere else.”
He considered graduating from Drexel with his degree and leaving for another school to use his final year of eligibility, much like Damion Lee did in early April when he left for the University of Louisville.
Abif also considered not returning to basketball at all.
“It was an option,” Abif said, of not returning to Drexel for his final season. “It was more of an unknown, coming off of two injuries. I broke my hand, had surgery, and then three months later I have another injury that’s going to keep me out for the season.”
It was a frustrating time for Abif, largely because he knew he was playing well in the 2013-14 season when he broke his hand. Without Lee, who was gone for the season with a torn ACL, Abif was counted on to contribute more to the offense, and he was responding.
“I had some really good games in my junior year,” Abif said. “It was really just staying healthy. Some of those freak accidents, it wasn’t anything that I really could do to prevent.
“It only takes one second for your hand to get stuck in somebody’s jersey, and then somebody tells you your season is over. It’s stuff like that,” he said.
All that unpredictability and volatility left Abif uncertain of his future.
“Seeing it long-term, you don’t know,” Abif explained. “There’s really just so many unknowns.
“Months ago, I just didn’t know what I was going to do.”
TALKING ABOUT PRACTICE
As last year’s season carried on, the Dragons’ roster continued to deteriorate. Forward Rodney Williams missed a month of action after Christmas, the time that Flint wanted Abif to return, with a stress fracture in his right foot. Williams tried to push through the pain for a few games, but he eventually relented and told the team’s doctors he was in pain.
Fellow forward Sooren Derboghosian saw his season end at the turn of the calendar with a knee injury. The team didn’t elaborate on the severity of the injury, but it was bad enough to end his final year of college basketball prematurely.
Flint’s team didn’t have enough healthy bodies to win games. They didn’t even have enough to practice.
Abif had already made up his mind: he wasn’t going to return to play during the season. But he decided that didn’t mean he couldn’t help his teammates and his coach.
“What happened was, he did come to me and say, ‘I know you don’t have enough guys for practice. I’ll start practicing,’” Flint said.
Abif lent a hand during practices, on the same floor that cost him the chance to play at Madison Square Garden; the same floor that cost him the final eight games in 2014; and the same floor that sidelined him for an entire season. He wouldn’t be playing on that floor, but he would be running shell drills, shuffling his rehabbed knee and defending his friends in the post.
As Abif was folded back into the mix, Flint realized that he was probably wrong to ask Abif to return after Christmas. After spending so much time rehabbing and away from live-action games, Abif was in no shape to return to the team mid-season. He was light-years behind the rest of the team in terms of conditioning. It’s one thing to hit the gym. It’s another thing entirely to compete for 30 minutes against live opposition.
But Abif was able to help the team with practices, at least until Lee and freshman Sammy Mojica were both sidelined at the end of the season. Then not even Abif could help the team practice.
But the message had been sent. Abif was still invested in this team.
“Then, you know, we sort of sat down and talked about it,” Flint said. “We talked about it with his parents. He said he’ll come back and get his Masters from Drexel, and that was it.”
Once he was cleared by the Drexel athletic staff to resume practicing and working out, it was a done deal.
“After I got cleared by the doctors and got back to playing basketball again,” Abif said, “I said, ‘I’m coming back this season.’”
Flint said Abif told him he always wanted to come back to Drexel. He didn’t want to go to another school, to end his career in a different jersey. He wanted to finish what he started in University City, even after all the time away from the game and the bumpy year that preceded everything.
“In the end, we just said, ‘Alright, let’s come back, and let’s just do this,’” Flint said.
During a pickup game with his teammates in late May, for at least a handful of moments, Abif was the loudest man in University City.
He joked around with Lee and former Dragon Samme Givens, pushing them away from rebounds as players shot around before the game began. He shouted non-sequiturs, each one pulling a hearty laugh from the assemblage.
Abif launched pregame threes from both corners, burying the majority, and when the games began, he muscled his way inside the paint and knocked down mid-range jumpers from the elbow.
The black cloud that hung over Abif was long gone.
A few months later, Abif sat in the bowels of the Daskalakis Athletic Center, his home for one more season, decked out in navy blue sweats branded with the Drexel Dragon logo.
His friends and supporters, his acquaintances and coaches— they will all tell you the same thing when you ask what Abif is like when things are going well. They use similar phrases, different words to paint the same picture.
“He brings a different type of energy to it,” Flint said.
“He’s going to bring another aspect that we haven’t had, that fire, that passion,” Allen mused.
Ask Abif what he thinks of himself, and he’ll give you a similar result.
“I’ve got a lot of positive energy about this year,” he said, grinning.
Abif believes the year he spent away from the game did nothing but good. It was worth the long break, the ache he felt when he watched his teammates stagger to a 11-19 record last season.
Watching those games from two rows behind the bench, he had a whole new way to see the game. Most injured players will tell you they return to the game with a new perspective on what they do right and what they do wrong. Abif is no different.
“I got to watch all of college basketball from a sideline point of view, like a spectator,” he said. “You notice a lot of things differently from a fan’s perspective than from when you’re out there. I used it to my advantage.”
Abif thinks he’s going to surprise some people with a more refined game. He knows what he’s capable of. But everyone else, he says, is in for a shock.
He’s been quietly working on his jump shot and his three-pointer. Before he broke his hand, he was starting to slowly unfurl his shot. He used to shoot threes back in high school, he says, but the opportunities weren’t there in his first few years of college ball.
“Kaz can really shoot the mid-range jump shots,” Allen said. “He can shoot. People don’t know that, but then, shh, they don’t need to know that.”
When Abif’s expanding repertoire is brought up around Flint, his coach bursts out laughing, his hand on his forehead in mock agony.
“Yeah, that’s something we talked about when we started practicing,” Flint said, still chuckling. “[Abif] said, ‘I’ve been working on my three-pointer.’” Flint rolls his eyes, for effect. “I’m like, ‘Okay, buddy.’”
Once Flint collected himself, though, he seemed to support Abif’s progress.
“Honestly, he has been shooting better,” Flint reaffirmed. “So, we’ll see.”
And, possibly most important of all, Abif is just happier.
“Basketball is a lot more fun,” Abif explained. “When you don’t play — and that’s with anything in life — when you take a step back from something, whether it be from work, or from a relationship, it gives you reflection time.
“It takes you stepping back from that to understand how much you miss it, how much you really love something and how much you have a passion for it. It’s been nothing but positivity since I’ve been back, and back playing fully. I’m really excited.”
In fact, his excitement is spilling over into his imagination now. Abif has dreams, maybe a little idealistic, of doing something Flint hasn’t managed to do in his 15 years at Drexel.
“I’m just looking forward to these next 35 games,” Abif said, flashing that trademark grin. “I’ve got 35 games left in the tank.”
The Dragons have played 35 games in a season just once in the past decade, when they played 36 games in the 2011-12 season.
Playing 35 games in the 2015-16 season would require a deep postseason run engineered by a team coming off its worst season since Flint took over, not to mention a team that lost its best player from the year before.
But numbers be damned, at least for now. Abif and his newfound positive energy aren’t concerned with the odds. He believes this is the year for a return to glory.
“Going back to my freshman year, I’ve been part of teams, and I know what it feels like to never lose a home game,” he said. “I know what it feels like to win the regular season championship. I know what it feels like to go to the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Association.
“Besides me and Tavon, nobody else on this team has that experience. A lot of Drexel students who were here at the time, they’re no longer here.
“So we need to bring that back, and that’s what I plan on doing this season.”