Grant Gibson's left ankle still is a little sore.

He can deal with that.

He can handle the bumps and bruises of the basketball season, the tired legs, aching joints, jammed fingers.

In fact, he embraces them.

"I appreciate every second I have to play basketball," said Gibson, a Cherokee senior forward. "I cherish every chance I get to play."

The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Gibson is one of the top players on one of South Jersey's top teams.

Cherokee, which is No. 6 in The Inquirer's preseason Top 25 ranking, opens the season Friday night against No. 5 Winslow Township in an Olympic Conference interdivision clash.

For Gibson, it's the first game of his last season with his senior teammates, most of whom have been playing together since middle school.

It's also another opportunity to savor his remarkable recovery from a health problem that cost him his sophomore season and nearly put an end to his athletic career.

"I was the skinniest kid I've ever seen," Gibson said of the low point of his battle with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the digestive tract.

Gibson said he first felt symptoms of the disease during his freshman basketball season. By spring break, he "really started to go downhill."

Gibson missed his sophomore season. His weight dropped to 139 pounds. He had serious doubts whether he would ever play again.

"The kid loves the game of basketball," said Cherokee senior guard Tyler Tobin, one of Gibson's close friends. "He was extremely frustrated. But even when he couldn't play, he would be standing up on the bench, cheering us on.

"But I knew how much it hurt him not to be able to get back out there."

Gibson said Crohn's disease can be tricky to treat because "there's not one definite medicine that works for everybody."

Gibson said his initial medication wasn't working well for him, and he needed a feeding tube for a time during December of his sophomore year.

"That's when I was really bad," Gibson said.

A change in medication enabled Gibson to start making a recovery. He gained weight and strength and he was able to play for the Chiefs as a junior, although he wasn't at 100 percent.

To start his senior season, Gibson said he feels "100 times better than I did as a sophomore."

And that's with a cranky left ankle, still sore from a slight fracture this summer.

"Grant loves the game of basketball," Cherokee coach Eric Cassidy said. "He's had some adversity that he has overcome to play the sport that he loves. He's a smart player who works hard and is very coachable."

Gibson said "expectations are high" for the Chiefs, who return four starters from a team that reached the South Jersey Group 4 finals last season.

Gibson said he's excited by the team's prospects and also by his opportunity to play his final season with his classmates.

"It's not something you take for granted after you've been through something like that," Gibson said. "Just the chance to play this season with my friends, it means so much to me."