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Former Temple big man Ron Rollerson, having lost a leg, finds a new sport

The former Owls center lost his left leg in 2016. His new goal: the 2024 Paralympics.

Ron Rollerson at his home in Pennsauken.
Ron Rollerson at his home in Pennsauken.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

The dream came first in the hospital. Ron Rollerson was playing in a basketball game. He was his old self — he still had two legs. His dream changed up history. His Temple Owls were playing Seton Hall in the NCAA tournament. Temple fans with a memory to 2000 will cringe, going straight to a day that derailed maybe the Owls' best shot at the Final Four under John Chaney.

In this recurring dream, Rollerson comes off the bench to help save the day. He is the hero. Temple moves on to glory.

Did Rollerson's subconscious pick this most memorable basketball game as a hinge point for Rollerson's own life? The dream, Rollerson can tell you, doesn't begin to capture all that went through his brain the last two years, since a ruptured aortic aneurysm in 2016 took both his left leg and the life he'd known.

"Forget trying to walk a mile in my shoes. Most of y'all couldn't do 5 steps,'' Rollerson told the world last year on Facebook. "Now spend a day wandering around in my mind."

Rage and despair, the worst kinds of thoughts, they all moved through. Suicidal thoughts crept in. How couldn't all the thoughts?

You wake up after 11 days in a coma — you assumed it was just the day after you went to the hospital until your family sets you straight — and you find out they hadn't been sure you'd wake up at all. And the big news they have to tell you: They've taken your left leg. You're partially blind in one eye.

Eventually, only four toes are left on your remaining leg, the one that had been your bad leg your whole hoops career, which included overseas journeys and almost two years with the Harlem Globetrotters and a near-miss trial with the Sixers. You don't stand for eight months. You blurt out online: "Patiently waiting for my turn on a blessing."

Your basic decency, a trait that was always as noticeable as your massive frame and nimble mind, isn't always enough. An artificial leg is sometimes the least of your adjustments.

As you're trying for your footing in this new world, an old basketball trainer from your teenage years says, "Weren't you a swimmer before you were a ballplayer?"

Almost heaven in the water

In the back of the workout place in Cherry Hill, there was a swimming pool with four lanes, two swimmers in the pool. Rollerson moved from his wheelchair to a chair that would slowly drop him in the water. The swimmers saw him in the chair and, without speaking, switched lanes to free up the lane by the chair. Ted Davis Jr. hit a button, and Rollerson lowered until his right foot touched the pool bottom. "It's a little chilly,'' Rollerson noted on this recent Sunday morning.

Davis, who used to help Rollerson with hoops, swam to the other end using freestyle strokes. Under the water Rollerson went, his arms surging out in a breaststroke, taking up practically the entire lane. For seven or eight strokes, Rollerson's head stayed underwater before he came up for air. Midway down the 25 meters, he veered slightly left of center until he corrected himself on his next stroke. He kicked harder to get himself all the way down, head now popping up every two or three strokes, water moving in his wake. The stroke itself, the arm movement, stayed smooth. The stroke of an athlete.

Davis mentioned Rollerson's coming up for air at different points — "You want to be more consistent."

Still in the water, Rollerson took big breaths. Any race, he said, is at least a year away.

"I'm still trying to get the conditioning now,'' he said.

When that happens, Davis said, watch out.

"You're three times stronger than me and you're 6-11,'' Davis added, pointing out how far down the pool Rollerson could move in a single stroke.

The stated goal is the 2024 Paralympics. The breaststroke, a grueling test for any swimmer, is the stroke least impacted by having one leg. That'll be his event.

"This is baby steps,'' Rollerson said from the pool. "Even if I don't do it, it gives me something to shoot for in my life."

Rollerson swam the 25 meters eight times, taking a few minutes between, so he was in the water about 45 minutes. (In between, they mostly talked hoops.) He made a point of coming up for air at more regular intervals.

Rollerson, who lives in Pennsauken with his sister, in the house he grew up in, doesn't claim that swimming has turned back the clock. He's 36 years old, preparing now for at least that many more. His real goal is self-sufficiency.

"I'm losing these shorts,'' Rollerson said after his second 25 meters. "They don't fit me no more."

A good thing: Weight is coming off. With an artificial socket and limb, every 15 pounds mean a readjustment. Rollerson was between limbs this day.

What's it like being in the water?

"I'm at peace,'' Rollerson said. "I'm not a fat guy. I'm not out of shape. I'm fast in the water, faster than everybody."

Soaking in that water isn't just about goals and competition.

"It almost feels like I'm in heaven."

Staying power

It's a struggle every day, Rollerson had said earlier, sitting in his living room. He's not trying to mislead anybody, just working to stay positive.

"I'm a product of Coach Chaney, so I can get through,'' Rollerson said.

Rollerson chose Temple even though the Owls had signed a McDonald's all-American center, Kevin Lyde, the same year. Rollerson figured the all-American would be gone after a couple of years, and he would take over. They each stayed four years, became close friends, ended up in two NCAA Elite Eights together — Lyde starting, Rollerson getting lesser time. Memorable, though. Always a fan favorite.

"They listed me at 290, but the weight was about 350,'' Rollerson said.

Maybe another college where he was featured would have meant a different path, he said, "I chose to go to Temple, to be part of that tradition."

[ From the archives: Temple's good fight falls one punch short ] 

Rollerson had the ability to make his fiery coach laugh. One game, he pulled off a great pivot move twice, going right. He tried the same move left. Chaney: Why? (Or the Chaney version of why?) Rollerson: "Well, Coach, it's fairly obvious I can make it with my right hand. I figured I would start working on my left." Chaney didn't explode. He didn't see that one coming, and actually laughed.

Even if he never averaged double digits in scoring, Rollerson was always in the middle of things. Just before Temple tipoffs, Rollerson would crouch at the foul line, holding a basketball, and his teammates would surround him as final pregame thoughts were spoken.

NBA tryouts and Globetrotters

After Temple, former Owls assistant Dean Demopoulos got Rollerson a tryout with Seattle, where Demopoulos was then working. (The tryout was conditional, if Rollerson could get to less than 325 pounds, which he did, working out with the late John Hardnett.) Rollerson remembers holding his own, impressing everybody with the Sonics, but it was a numbers game. Too many guaranteed contracts to keep him around. He traveled back, and the Sixers immediately invited him to their training camp.

He was late to the Sixers in 2002, preseason games already going on, the team a year removed from an NBA Finals appearance. He spent all hours with the playbook — "I'm in the room setting up chairs." Nobody knew Rollerson used to show up at the Temple basketball office at all hours, and watch tape of old Owls greats. He can dissect the games of players from any era.

His first Sixers preseason game, he had seven points and eight rebounds in 11 minutes at Toronto — "Out of nowhere … Eric Snow was like, 'Yo, that's how guys are supposed to come here and earn a job.' "

At the end of preseason, the final cut, Rollerson remembers Sixers coach Larry Brown telling him, "I just want you to know that you deserve to be on this team right now, but because of the numbers, we don't have a spot."

That's as close as Rollerson ever got. He played all sorts of minor-league ball, then the Harlem Globetrotters called. His agent didn't want him to take it, but the money was good, six figures.

Curley "Boo" Johnson, the Globetrotters' dribbling wizard during Rollerson's time, said he had a couple of hundred teammates during his tenure — many, he can't place the names — but Rollerson was memorable. Rollerson's Globetrotter-given nickname was Steamboat.

"He had a soft touch,'' Johnson said over the phone. "With guys as massive as him, you always expect them to be bricklayers."

One Johnson memory: "He had the biggest calves I'd ever seen."

Another: "He would set a pick. The problem was, you'd go around his pick, he'd become the defender. I couldn't shoot over him. He would either have to roll quick, or I would have to keep going."

The Globies played some real opponents in those days, including top college teams in the preseason. Rollerson was like their real player, Johnson said, and in practice they'd get to playing real ball between working on bits.

"I did not like playing against him, because eventually I would have to go through his screen — man, oh man,'' Johnson said. "Even if he's not going to catch me flush, even if he just grazes me, I've got a crook in my neck for two weeks."

Off the court — "gentle man,'' Johnson said. "On the court, if somebody rubbed him, he could be ferocious."

After his time with the Globies, Rollerson had the typical experiences of a worldwide hoops journeyman. A bad decision leaving a Spanish team. A job in Uruguay but he was dragging around a bad knee, in need of surgery. (He paid out of pocket for it.) He needed to lose weight, did, and got work in Portugal, an island off the coast.

"My knee gets worse and worse and worse to the point I've got to get it drained every day,'' Rollerson said. "I could barely walk off the court."

He had to break from basketball.

"Now my life is going downward,'' he said, remembering his stint working in a warehouse for an electronics store in South Jersey, not wanting to go over to Temple to rehab because he didn't want anyone there knowing what he was doing.

‘Jolt’ in his chest

He got back in some shape, played domestically in Rochester for a minor-league outfit, and had an offer to play in Lebanon, pretty good money. He signed the contract, sent it back, never heard from the team. He went back to Rochester and aggravated his knee.

"I know the end is near,'' Rollerson said. "I haven't disciplined myself to get in shape. I feel the walls closing for basketball."

His mother died in 2009 and Rollerson said he fell into a depression. He was working with kids, which was good. But he wasn't sure about the future. He worked on a demolition crew at Penn for maybe 18 months. In 2016, a day off from work, Rollerson said he felt "a jolt" in his chest.

He was on the phone. He got off, tried to get up, couldn't walk. He crawled to the bathroom. Didn't know what was going on. He called to his sister downstairs, told her to call 911 — "I can't feel my legs."

He was about 375 pounds then, Rollerson said. There was a burning sensation, and he was sweating profusely. He told her he'd crawl downstairs so the EMT crew could get him out.

When he woke up, he thought it was the next day. He had no idea that he'd been in a coma for more than 10 days, that a ruptured aortic aneurysm, which he had suffered, meant death 80 percent of the time. If he'd gone to sleep instead of getting downstairs, he was told, he never would have woken up.

The next year was, in a word, hell. It included 22 surgeries, the amputation of a toe on his right foot, nerve damage in his hand. He stayed in bed, unable to leave it. Call it solitary confinement. His father and sister were his lifelines.

"All of 2017, I was trying to battle alcohol addiction,'' Rollerson said. "This time last year was the lowest point in my life."

He got to Magee Rehab in Center City, and it saved his life, he said. The physical therapists and occupational therapists and nurses and that woman Bianca who tidied up, telling him about her son, the high school basketball player. They all saved his life.

The work to get him an artificial limb also changed everything. First, they had to get Rollerson out of bed and upright and moving, said Steve Gude, the prosthetist who has been working with him. At the time, Rollerson was about 50 pounds heavier and had been in bed so long he couldn't bend his knee and ankle. According to his sister, Rollerson might be the tallest and largest person to have an amputation from the hip.

"They don't make these parts for people this big,'' Gude said. "We had to get special stuff, from Germany. They had their engineering staff working on it."

Rollerson's goal now is to drop another 50 or 60 pounds, Gude said, to reach the stage where he can get a "smart knee."

And then there was that reminder of how, before he moved to Pennsauken, living in the Logan section until he was 10, he'd been a swimmer at the YMCA on Broad Street. He'd had a natural and powerful stroke.

Learning to walk with a prosthetic was important, but for cardio, swimming was perfect.

‘Pockets of happiness’

In his head, Rollerson said, he's still the same person — "still the old Big Ron, the same gentle giant anyone can come up to talk with. … I've just learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations." He hides little. His Facebook name is Ronald E Stumpy Rollerson.

Physically, progress comes in fits and starts.

"I've adopted a healthy lifestyle,'' Rollerson said. "I only drink water now. Occasionally, a flavor of water to get some taste. We count calories really well. Things I should have been doing for my playing career, I do now."

Sure, he was one of John Chaney's whipping boys, Rollerson said. When I stop yelling at you, Chaney would tell his guys, that's when you should worry; I've given up on you.

"I guess I was fortunate because he yelled at me for all four years,'' Rollerson said.

His Temple brothers have stayed close, many in frequent contact through his travails, and words from Chaney keep resurfacing. Several times, Rollerson brings up an NCAA game against Cincinnati, Chaney revving them up so much, "Coach got teary-eyed. Everyone wanted to put on a jersey and go out and play that game — the trainers wanted to go out there and play. Coach said when a man has confidence, no one can defeat him."

If the game has changed, the attitude carries over. A Facebook thought from December: "I can honestly say this past year I learned more about myself and others then I did the previous 20 years combined, from happiness to hell, suicidal to joyous about life. … The one thing that keeps me going is pockets in life … pockets of happiness to focus on 'cause it's the little things I can hold onto that allows me to go on."

There's a favorite sandwich shop in Pennsauken, Troy's Place. His sister used to go in and buy a hoagie for him, corned beef and pepperjack with mayo and hot pepper seeds. Workers heard about what had happened to Ron. When his sister tried to pay, they told her they wanted Ron to pay for it himself. The next time, he was standing there on his prosthetic. Rollerson plans to get to the deli as soon as the next leg gets fitted.

After his sister dropped him off for his workout with Davis, Rollerson wheeled to the back of the place. He noticed a pickup hoops game in a gym by the pool. He glanced over to his left at the game, just for a moment. He looked back a second time, and quickly away from it. He kept his eyes in front from there. The pool was straight ahead. This was no dream. He never looked back.