The distorted face staring back at Raheem Harvey wasn't really him. It couldn't be, Harvey thought. So he peered in a little closer, bending slightly forward in the small hospital bathroom with the help of a nurse who steadied his awkward 6-8 frame. He had to look again at his reflection in the mirror, because he didn't want to believe what he was seeing.

The right side of his head was swollen and bulging. He was barely able to open his right eye when reality gripped him - this is really me. Tears trickled down his face when he overheard doctors saying he might not be able to walk or talk again. But that first look in the mirror told him he might never be able to play basketball again.

This Christmas holds a special meaning to the budding senior forward from Glen Mills. He has the gift of basketball. Last year at this time, he was looking at a possible future with a Division I basketball program, before smashing the 2006 Volvo he was driving into a telephone pole last Dec. 27. Rescue workers need the Jaws of Life to pry him and his three passengers from the car.

Harvey doesn't remember much about the accident, other than getting into the car. Gone are memories of driving on the dark, narrow, winding Boot Road in Exton, Chester County, of losing control of the car, the head trauma, fractured hand and lower back injuries he suffered in the accident, and his monthlong coma before waking up. He just knows today how fortune he is to be alive, let alone be able to play basketball.

But it all became a brutally cold slap in the face the first time he saw his reflection and saw what the accident did to him.

"I really didn't want to believe what I saw," recalled Harvey, who speaks in measured sentences, his verbal and motor skills still recovering. "I kept thinking, this isn't me. It's not me. It was hard. I got a little emotional, because I really didn't know what happened to make that way. I didn't even know I was in an accident."

Before the accident, Harvey was a terror for the Bulls, averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots a game. He was on the verge of earning attention from some Division I schools.

"Raheem really doesn't know how fortune he is, because it wasn't looking good there," Glen Mills coach Tony Bacon said. "It was hard for me, for all of us here at Glen Mills, seeing someone you coached fighting for his life like that. Knowing what he's been through, how much he's recovered, I don't care if he averages one point and one rebound a game, he's alive and with us today. Basketball is secondary."

Not to Harvey, it wasn't.

After awaking from the coma, one time around 2:30 in the morning, he unstrapped himself from his Bryn Mawr Hospital bed. He knew the hospital had a court, and he was so eager to play, he snuck out. Still unable to walk, Harvey found a wheelchair and a lit court. And a basketball. He reached down and grabbed the ball, unbuckled himself from the wheelchair, and, in his zeal to play, fell on his back immobile. He lay there yelling for help until hospital attendants found him.

"I got an earful from the nurses about it, and after that, they put a net down and zipped me in the bed," said Harvey, with a slight grin on his face.

By late January, he was fully out of the coma. By late February, he was walking again. He spent much of the spring and summer involved with rigorous physical and mental therapy.

A few weeks ago, he heard his name announced as the starting Glen Mills center.

"It was pretty emotional for all of us," Bacon said, "knowing what Raheem had been through, and knowing all the steps and hard work it took to get him back. We're working him back gradually. He still has to find his endurance, and we're emphasizing that he takes it slow. His motor skills and hand-eye coordination are still a work in progress, but the important thing is that he's back."

And living and breathing, and able to practice every day.

"I still feel I have a future in basketball, and that's what I'm working toward," Harvey said. "After being in the accident, I do appreciate things more now, though. I appreciate walking, and being able to jump. I lost my game for a little there and that was scary, real scary. But my game is coming back. I think this is all a miracle. Every step I take, I see as a miracle, because I wasn't supposed to be here, but I am."

Able to look at himself in the mirror and know now who is there. *

Send e-mail to santolj@phillynews.com.