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February 24, 2012The James Madison basketball team is trailing, and Julius Wells can't find his house key.
On a Wednesday night with his struggling Dukes playing in Philadelphia at league powerhouse Drexel, the one-time starting small forward who was missing his 14th straight because of a heart defect was rendered a mere spectator to a script that has become all too familiar. JMU (11-19 overall, 4-13 in the Colonial Athletic Association) lost once again, 78-61. To make matters worse, while watching the game on ESPNU at a nearby apartment, Wells didn't even know how he'd get back into his home.
But the missing key was just a small bother compared to the one that separated Wells roughly 250 miles from his teammates.
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You look at him and can't see anything wrong. A gray hooded sweatshirt with a Duke Dog logo emblazoned above the front pouch and a pair of matching sweatpants with the letters "JMU" on one leg cover an athletically built 6-foot-5, 205-pound picture of health. Hunched forward on the middle of a three-cushion couch, Wells wears black Air Jordan sneakers, as if there's the possibility that he could teleport to the court help his injury-devastated team.
For now, he's just a Dukes fan - albeit a well-informed one.
"Good rebound. Good rebound If they start switching that screen-and-roll, he's done. Hands, A.J. Hands."
Madison swingman A.J. Davis puts the ball through his legs, steps back and drills a 3-pointer to put JMU ahead 16-7 about seven minutes into the game.
"He got that move from me," Wells says. " I see he's working on the yank-back. That's what we call it, that yank-back."
The 22-year-old would love nothing more than to perform that move himself, rather than watching it on a 39-inch television. He still exercises and even practiced with the team in half-court sets this week.
As recently as Tuesday, Wells had a dream floating around in his head - one he figured would make him a bigger story than New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin.
What if Wells returned to action just in time for the CAA tournament and led his team to four straight victories for a conference championship and the school's first NCAA tourney appearance in 18 years?
They tell you to follow your heart, but Wells' organ just won't go where he desires.
People with M.D.'s and immense responsibilities don't feel comfortable enough to let him compete in games. On Thursday, Wells learned his season - and that dream - had officially ended.
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JMU had a 7-4 record and was 1-0 in the CAA on Monday, Jan. 2. An afternoon home game against two-time defending conference champion Old Dominion provided the opportunity for the Dukes to show they could be league contenders. They wouldn't know it at the time, but leading by 12 points with 11:08 left in the game, JMU's entire season unraveled on that day.
Using a 19-7 run, ODU tied the game at 50-50. That's when Wells, trying to make a play to put the Dukes back on top, began to feel something amiss.
"I felt it right when I hit Kent [Bazemore] with the cross and pumped and got to the line with the shot-clock winding down," Wells said. "And when [the referee] threw me the ball, I held my hand out like that and my hand was shaking. 'I'm like, 'Whoa! What the hell?' So I shot the free throw, and the first one I miss because it's still shaky. Then I gathered myself and made the second and kept playing. End of regulation, I was still good. End of overtime, that's when it hit me. I never experienced anything like that before."
After regrouping and playing the final seven-plus minutes of the game, including OT, Wells dropped to a knee and clutched his chest as the final buzzer sounded and the Monarchs celebrated a 67-61 comeback victory at JMU's Convocation Center.
Still wearing his basketball shorts, Wells headed to Rockingham Memorial Hospital immediately after the game. The news wasn't good, and when he visited the University of Virginia Medical Center later in the week, doctors confirmed there was problem with his heart.
According to Wells, doctors diagnosed him with an enlarged heart and a leak in one of his valves. When Wells' heart squeezes, it doesn't pump out all the blood; when it tries to suck in more blood, it can overflow, causing the leaks.
Wells said that he has never been fearful for his health, aside from on the court that day, when he could not catch his breath. He said that doctors are afraid an irregular heartbeat could cause a heart-attack if he plays at full speed. Wells, though, said he feels healthier than ever.
After six trips to Charlottesville, including a pair of stress tests he thought he'd pass, Wells never received the green light.
Wells' cardiologist, Robert W. Battle, declined to comment for this story.
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Wells started 112 games at Madison and played in all 114 Dukes games during a 3 1/3-year span before being sidelined on Jan. 4, two days after his incident. His 3,688 minutes ranks second in JMU history behind former teammate Pierre Curtis; his 1,414 career points ranks eighth at JMU; and his 247 3-pointers ranks second. He will not climb any higher in those categories.
Asked if he regrets not getting a chance to break certain records at Madison, Wells, named CAA Rookie of the Year as a freshman, is oblivious to the subject, saying he wouldn't even know where to look to find the school records.
Through 12 games as a senior, Wells was in the midst of his worst offensive season as a Duke, averaging 8.6 points per game. When read his shooting numbers - 33 percent from the field, 30.9 percent from 3-point range, 56.9 percent from the free-throw line - Wells joked, "Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that I got hurt."
It certainly wasn't a blessing for the Dukes, who have gone 4-14 without him in the lineup and are tied for ninth place in the 12-team CAA.
Wells, who was the team's leading rebounder with 5.6 per game, vastly improved his defense this season, and earned praise from coach Matt Brady, once his harshest critic.
"He completely bought in," Brady said.
It's tough to project how many wins the Dukes would have with a healthy, diversely talented forward in the lineup all year. Wells can't put a number on it, but he is confident his presence would have turned a couple Ls into Ws.
A college career that began with so much promise ended both in an instant and over a span of two months.
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Wells uses a simple phrase to describe how it feels to sit out and watch his buddies play without him.
"It sucks," Wells said. "Especially since it's my last year. I played 12 games and you can only play nine [or fewer] to get a redshirt. Just a combination of all that stuff that makes it tough."
While he watched the Drexel game Wednesday, his response was cut off by a phone call. It was JMU power forward Rayshawn Goins, who, like Wells, was in Harrisonburg rather than Philadelphia - unable to play because of an injury. Call him lucky - relatively, at least - because Goins tore the labrum in his left shoulder during the preseason, wiping out this season but leaving him eligible to acquire a medical redshirt and play next year. Goins and Wells are two of five key Dukes to have missed time this season because of injury. The only other senior - Akron transfer guard Humpty Hitchens - has missed the last two games with a sprained shoulder and is questionable for what could be an anti-climactic senior night today at the Convo against Towson, the Dukes' regular-season finale.
While Wells generally emits a chill tone about his own situation, it is clear that he struggles to deal with the reality more than he lets on. At first, he was a wreck, according to his mother.
Lynette Williams has driven from the family's hometown of Toledo, Ohio, to watch her son play multiple times a year. The 48-year-old Chrysler parts inspector wears a purple "No. 34" jersey and isn't afraid to stand up and cheer her baby on.
She was not at the Old Dominion game when Wells went down, but after hearing the news, she planned to drive to Harrisonburg at the end of that week for support. After talking to Wells, though, Williams decided to pack up her car and drive the seven hours right away.
"When I called him - I call him every day before I go to work - his voice just sounded funny," Williams said of the typically vibrant Wells. "He was not his usual self. I was glad I left that day, because when I pulled up, he seemed to need his mom. Emotionally, he was not handling the situation well. I could see the sadness in his eyes. I could see the sadness in his face."
When the family purchased a house in the suburbs in 2003, there was a basketball hoop attached to a steel pole that ran down through the concrete of the driveway. Williams used to sit in front of a bay window overlooking the front yard and watch Wells play and play and play on that hoop. Within two years, the rim was bent beyond repair from her preternaturally athletic son dunking so often.
The house rule was that Wells couldn't play basketball if he ever earned worse than a C grade. So he made sure he was an honor roll student.
Wells is sharp, with a quick wit and an observant eye. He considers himself a good writer and plans to graduate with a degree in justice studies next fall. He isn't quite sure what he'll do if he never plays basketball again (if healthy, he'd be a prospect to play somewhere overseas, but not a surefire pro).
Williams said Wells' situation might have added some perspective for his future.
"It's been a while before he's sat down and had to say, maybe basketball's not the thing I'm going to do," she said.
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Back to that lost key: After searching every square foot of land on which he'd traveled in the previous two hours - under the couch, in the bathroom, all over the parking lot - Wells finally found it.
The key was located under the seat of teammate Gene Swindle's black truck, which Wells had driven that night to watch the game. He drove back home, where a date was scheduled to arrive soon.
He was smiling again, happy for what he has in life. His complete contentment remains elusive.
James Madison NEWS