Damani Coley stares at the two 4-inch scars on either side of his left forearm and recounts the day his sophomore season of high school basketball ended prematurely.
It was January 7, 2009, and the Lincoln Abes were playing at rival Mount Tahoma. Late in the first quarter, Coley took a pass following a Jordan Russell steal and headed for the basket. His instinct was to shoot a 3-pointer. But with his height and athleticism, his coaches had urged him to be more aggressive about going hard to the basket.
So he did.
Coley – at the time a wiry 6 feet, 6 inches of arms, legs and angles – dribbled toward the basket with a simple idea in mind, and no Mount Tahoma defender was going to stop him.
“I went to the basket thinking I was going to dunk on him,” Coley said. “But I was too far away, so then I tried to just lay it up at the end.”
The Mount Tahoma defender tried to take a charge, forcing Coley to try to avoid him. He couldn’t. The two players made contact, and Coley – who was fairly high in the air – came falling straight down.
He stuck his left arm out to cushion the fall. The arm simply couldn’t take it. Coley let out a frightening yelp when he landed, while the screams of the crowd drowned out the sound of snapping bones.
As he struggled to move, Coley raised his left arm and the crowd witnessed a gruesome sight. He had broken both bones in his forearm, and one of the bones had broken through the skin.
“I was dizzy,” he said. “I tried to get up and my arm was all wobbly … It was S-shaped. It was gross.”
Coley fell back down. The ambulance was called.
His season had ended just as it was getting started. He’d been on varsity the entire season, but he was starting to become a serious factor in practice and games.
“He was playing his best ball at the time,” coach Aubrey Shelton said.
Coley still talks about it with a hint of disbelief.
“That was my first year of varsity and one of the biggest games I’d ever played in,” he said, “and I get hurt.”
As he heads into his junior season, the hurt is gone. Thanks to a pair of plates that were surgically inserted and a summer of strengthening and AAU ball, Coley is healthy, stronger, more skilled and even taller.
“I’m 6-8 … well, 6-7,” he said.
And he’s still growing.
“The doctors think I could get to 6-10,” he said.
Still, Coley didn’t take his ever-increasing height or his health for granted. He spent the summer working on his game and his body, after seeing how physical the game is played at higher levels.
“That’s what motivated me to get in the weight room,” he said of his hopes to go from 190 pounds to 225. “I don’t like it. But I’m determined to do it.”
Shelton has seen changes in all aspects of Coley’s game.
“From two years ago until now, not only has he grown height-wise, but his game has improved tremendously as well,” Shelton said. “He’s able to do a lot of things he wasn’t doing before.”
One of those things is mixing it up in the paint. Despite his height, Coley is far more comfortable facing the basket and has a surprising shooting touch out to 19 feet.
“He’s not a post player,” Shelton said. “He’s a wing. It’s pretty special.”
Coley likes to pattern his game after another long and lithe player who played briefly in the area.
“I want to be like Kevin Durant,” he said. “That’s who I try to pattern my game after.”
He’s not at Durant’s level yet, but college coaches are calling. Pac-10 schools Cal and Washington State, as well as Gonzaga, Seattle University and others, have taken an interest.
Coley’s immediate focus is on a different team – the Abes.
Last season wasn’t an easy one for Lincoln. Besides Coley’s injury, Shelton dealt with the suspension of five players and had to use several JV players late in the season. Despite the turnover and turmoil, the Abes were a game away from making it to the state tournament.
With the return of all-Narrows League guard Jordan Russell, Coley and returnees including Denzel Dansby, Geno Horsely, Terrell Lewis, Cardell Clay, C.J. Wright and a few talented freshmen, the Abes expect to return to state.
“Everybody has that mentality,” Coley said. “We’re hungry. Losing in districts made us hungry to get back to state. We can go far.”
Shelton is a little more reserved, but still optimistic.
“We have a chance to be good,” he said. “We’re very long and athletic. We’re very deep. We’re going to get after it – pick up people full-court and play fast. I think we can be pretty good at that.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483