One percent — it is a figure that is normally used to describe milk and the wealthy, but it has a totally different meaning for Debbie Travis.
That was the percent chance that Debbie’s son, Ross, had of regaining sight in his left eye after being shot with an air soft gun when he was in fifth grade. But Ross — now a sophomore forward on Penn State’s basketball team — overcame the odds and his eye fully recovered.
Some would call it luck, others a miracle. To Ross’ father, John, it was a second chance.
“I told him ‘You’ve received a chance to do something special with not just basketball, but your life. Take full advantage of it,’ ” John said. “And he understood what I was telling him. He was very appreciative of it, he didn’t take it for granted.”
With his father’s advice in mind, the 6-foot-6 swingman has become a fixture in Penn State’s starting lineup and one of the Big Ten’s best rebounders.
But it’s been a long road as the freak accident was just one of a multitude of injuries Ross has soldiered through to get to where he is today.
Eye will survive
It started out as a normal day in May with Ross and some other kids playing outside at a friend’s house, like ordinary middle school children.
However, one of Ross’ friends decided to pull out an air soft gun, and he fired in Ross’ direction. It was a shot that was meant to be harmless, but as Ross turned to look, he was hit in the eye with a plastic pellet, right below the pupil.
Ross still had vision in his left eye initially, but it wasn’t the same as usual.
“When you get poked in the eye in basketball and stuff, you open it back up knowing everything will be all right,” Ross said. “But when I opened it up, like I said I saw that little piece missing.”
Ross and his parents rushed to the hospital and after being evaluated by doctors, Ross was allowed to return home that night. Even with medications, eye drops and the use of sunglasses indoors, Ross went to bed with a pulsating headache.
When he awoke, the headache was still there. The vision in his left eye wasn’t.
“I woke up the next morning after that throbbing, and I opened my eye and I couldn’t see anything,” Ross said. “I kept blinking, thinking that my vision would come back. I told my mom, she started crying, and then we went to the hospital.”
This time, the news was worse for Ross as there was major blood buildup and for the time being, he was blind in his left eye. Doctors prescribed multiple eye drops, and Ross noted he took as many as 10 a day, but nothing worked right away.
For about a month after the accident, life was not easy for the young, Chaska, Minn. native. With all the build up and pressure in his eye, Ross said he got nauseous just going to see specialists and was basically stuck in his bed most days.
He did have support from the community, though. John noted other parents would call to send well wishes and Ross’ friends would visit him regularly. The support helped, but Debbie said even as a preteen, her son kept a positive outlook about the situation.
“The first sentence out of his mouth was ‘That’s OK, mom, I’ll be OK if I can’t see,’ ” Debbie said. “That’s one sentence that really stuck in my head. And I was really afraid for him.”
Tides would start to turn for Ross as the summer progressed.
The pressure in his eye went down and he was able to resume some of his normal activities and go outside again with his friends. Then in September, four months after the incident, Ross had surgery to drain the blood from his eye.
It wasn’t instant, but the surgery was a success, and Ross started to regain his vision. He said it was blurry at first, but it got better day-by-day.
“It’s like taking a darker shade of wax paper and looking through that,” Ross said. “I could see shadows and the doctor would hold up numbers and stuff. And each day, I’d progress.”
Ross eventually regained normal sight in his eye, and Debbie said she breathed a huge sigh of relief when she learned the surgery worked. But it wasn’t until after the procedure was complete until she found out just how close her son was to never seeing out of his left eye again.
“[Doctors] were putting on a brave face for us,” Debbie said. “We didn’t find out until after his surgery when we went to see another specialist that he had a one percent chance of getting his eyesight back.”
Though it was an accident that rendered him partially blind for four months, Ross said he is still friends to this day with the kid who accidentally shot him.
With the eye incident behind him, Ross started to excel on the hardwood.
Ross was always a good athlete growing up — Debbie noted he once scored 16 goals in a fourth-grade soccer game — and once his full eyesight was back, he returned to sports. For the rest of his middle school days, Ross avoided major injuries and always played on the team a grade above him in basketball to face strong competition.
The good health wouldn’t last too long, however.
It was news Debbie didn’t want to deliver over the phone, so she hopped on a plane to Cincinnati where Ross was playing in an AAU tournament.
In the summer after Ross’ first year of high school, he was traveling with a team coached by NBA veteran Chris Carr. Ross was dealing with nagging back issues for a while, but there was no diagnosed problem, so he kept playing.
That was until Debbie got a call from a radiologist that looked at x-rays of Ross’ back. The images showed Ross had a fracture in his L5 vertebrae. His summer on the AAU circuit was over.
“I felt like I wanted to give that information to Ross in person, so I flew to Cincinnati and told him and Chris Carr he could not play in that tournament,” Debbie said. “That was a hard time, he was working so hard that summer…He was shocked and disappointed and just real quiet at that time.”
No eye drops this time, but Ross had to wear a back brace at almost all hours of the day. The plastic brace was molded to wrap around Ross’ torso, and while some kids in the same situation would try to avoid wearing the uncomfortable piece of equipment when they could get away with it, John said Ross wore it all the time to ensure a quick recovery.
“I thought it was going to be ‘OK, I’m going to have to tell him to wear it,’ ” John said. “But he did not want to take that thing off. I was very proud of him about that. He wore it the whole time he was supposed to wear it.”
Ross was in the brace — which the Travis’ still keep in their house as a memory — for a total of seven months. The injury forced Ross to miss his entire sophomore season and part of his junior campaign at Chaska High School, located in a suburb of Minneapolis.
The injuries didn’t stop there for Ross in high school, either.
He broke his hand at an AAU tournament when it got it caught in someone’s jersey.
Ross spent some time in a wheelchair after a hip avulsion pulled a piece of his bone away.
And he also was in a walking boot for about three months after fracturing his tibia.
Ross admitted he spent more time injured than healthy, and noted his senior season was his only full year on the varsity team. But he said the experience made him more of a student of the game as he was forced to watch from the sideline.
John said all of the time spent sidelined drove Ross to be a better player, which translated away from the court, as well.
“When he was playing AAU, while other kids were in the room playing Xbox, he was in the room watching game film,” John said.
Driven by Carr
Carr said he doesn’t think he talks to Ross as the Travis’ do. But he noted it’s close.
A second-round selection in the 1995 NBA draft, Carr played for six teams in his 10-year NBA career. Ross met Carr through the Minneapolis-based 43 Hoops Academy when Ross was in ninth grade and the two have grown close.
Even with Ross about 1,000 miles away at school, the two still maintain a dynamic relationship. The duo talks every few days and Carr even traveled to watch Ross play once last season. Ross said not only has Carr been a big piece of the player he’s become, but the former pro also helped the 19-year-old mature away from basketball.
“I would say it covers many different areas,” Carr said of his and Ross’ bond. “Mentor, confidant, basketball guide, it covers many layers. Probably most important is ‘big brother’ role, would be the best way to describe it.”
On the court, Carr sees a lot of himself in Ross.
The two have similar builds. Ross is listed at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, while Carr was 6-foot-5, 207 pounds in his playing days, and both have hops.
Ross has slammed home a few highlight reel dunks in his time at Penn State. Most recently, he was on the receiving end of an alley-oop from D.J. Newbill in a Dec. 8 game against Army.
Meanwhile, Carr has some more impressive credentials. Carr, who averaged 6.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per contest in his NBA career, was the runner-up in the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk contest, finishing behind only five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant.
Carr said he has told Ross there is nobody that he could work with that more closely resembles his style of play. While Carr added he did some things better than Ross does when he was a sophomore in college, on the whole, he said he thinks Ross has more potential.
“I think his upside is higher than mine in today’s game, because of his athleticism, his body and his skill set, he’s a more athletic version of [Philadelphia 76ers small forward] Evan Turner,” Carr said. “So as he continues to work on his game, and continues to go after it with a hunger and passion, he’s going to have a great college career and probably be a pro at some point in time.”
So even when Ross isn’t with coach Patrick Chambers and his teammates in Happy Valley, he always has a mentor and gym to turn to, and that’s what he did this summer. Carr said there were no days off for Ross when he was home from school and he would be working out for about four hours a day.
Ross did these workouts at the 43 Hoops facilities, where the best players in Minnesota congregate. Ross said he played pickup games with former Wisconsin standouts Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer as well as former Iowa State forward Royce White, which helped him prepare for the Big Ten.
“With all of them on the court, some days at the same time, it was like you were actually in a little game,” Ross said. “They were physical, and every time I tried to call a foul, they’d be like ‘You’re not going to get that in the Big Ten.’ ”
The name 43 Hoops comes from the jersey number Carr wore, in recognition of his late mother, who died at age 43. Some players who have worked with Carr decided to represent him and his mother on their own uniforms.
Kris Humphries of the New Jersey Nets is probably the most notable player who wears 43 to pay homage to Carr.
“It makes me very proud and honored that they think that much of what the number 43 has meant to them,” Carr said. “And not necessarily the number itself, but more so what it stood for and understanding why I was number 43. For them to carry that on, just makes me feel good and honored.”
In no coincidence, 43 is the jersey number Ross wears on his jersey at Penn State.
The ‘Junkyard Dog’
It was late one night in September of 2010, when Ross had some news for his father.
“I remember it was 11:30 one night, and Ross came to me and said ‘I want to play basketball for Penn State,’ ” John said. “…He called [former Penn State coach] Ed DeChellis and told him, ‘I’m coming to Penn State.’ ”
Even with his injury history, Ross got some looks as a recruit, but he started to receive better offers as he said he had a breakout summer on the AAU circuit after his junior year of high school. This is when Ross said Penn State started to follow him, and though he also had offers from Iowa State, Oregon State and Northern Iowa, Ross — a three-star recruit — traded the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
In his brief career at Penn State, Ross has so far established himself as a good rebounder and a tough defender.
It’s even earned him a nickname from his head coach, as Chambers referred to Ross as a “junkyard dog” last season for his style of play. Ross played in all of Penn State’s 32 games in the 2011-12 campaign and posted 4.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a freshman..
Ross’ numbers are up this season as he is averaging 8.4 pointer per contest. On top of that, his 8.1 rebounds per game is not only a team-best, but, as of Thursday, the mark is also the second-best in the Big Ten behind only Indiana big man Cody Zeller.
“He’s a high-motor guy,” Carr said. “The one thing I’ve always tried to do with him is to make sure he plays to his strengths and pursuing the basketball is something we never allowed him to compromise.”
Shooting the ball was Ross’ biggest weakness last season, and though his 3-point numbers are still ugly this season (2-for-19), his mid-range jumper has started to come around. Ross said he has been shooting more without thinking about it and is 11-for-22 from the field in Penn State’s last two games.
In that stretch, Ross has scored a combined 26 points, and Chambers — who has also called Ross a “matchup nightmare” because of his versatility — said he needs to continue to play with a unhindered mind.
“I just told him to play for me with a clear head and confidence on the offensive end,” Chambers said after Penn State’s win against Army last Saturday. “On the defensive end, you better defend and rebound. You better do the little things that make great programs and great teams. I want him to play free and clear. If anybody knows Ross that is probably not the case. But you are starting to see that more often, which is good for us.”
Ross has been fortunate enough to stay primarily injury free during his collegiate career, and he said he’s looking at time he has now as time he can use to make up for what he lost in high school.
It’s still Ross’ second chance, and he said it’s going to take a lot to force him back on the sideline.
“I think it gives me sort of a toughness that some other guys don’t get through experience,” Ross said. “Everyone goes through their adversity and hard times, some might be with family, some might be like my case with injuries. But either one is going to make you tougher, and coach knows that. If he sees me limping around, he’ll tell me to stop. I know what an extreme injury is and I know what a light injury is that I can play through.”