It's times like these that the 16 Aiken Tech basketball players come together like a family. It's when Derrick King, Greg Thomas and Terrance Washington can forget about the lonely hours outside of class and basketball practice.
The three players are all dealing with their own adversity. King is trying to leap the mental hurdle of an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Thomas is trying to mend his broken heart after three relatives died in a three-month span at the end of 2006. Washington is trying to overcome being two hours away from his young son.
"Everybody has their own troubles," King said. "We can all relate. We all want the same thing. We all have one goal in mind. So we all just pull together."
On the court, the three Aiken Tech sophomores have put their sorrow behind them and recorded highlight years in leading the Knights (26-5) to the Region 10 regular-season title.
Thomas, the team's second-leading 3-point shooter, is averaging a team-high 13.7 points. King and Washington are both averaging a double-double with identical averages of 12.7 points and 10.9 rebounds.
Thomas, of Savannah, Ga., endured a lot his freshman season. During the fall, his favorite aunt, Debra Williams, died. One month later, three days after Thanksgiving, his mother died. The following month, his brother committed suicide.
Thomas thought about leaving the game.
"After all my mother did, my brother did and my auntie did to get me into college it'd be stupid of me to give up now," Thomas said. "They worked too hard to get me here. I can't quit now."
Thomas, who wears a tattoo on his right forearm with his mother's name, Ida Grant Thomas, can't quit. If he does, he said he'll let down his family.
"This is my life," Thomas said. "My mother always wanted to see me be good at one thing. Once she found out I was good in basketball, she just pushed me out there further."
Thomas said he often thinks of his mother. When he scores at Aiken Tech's home gym, he looks to the crowd.
"I still feel like she's sitting up there in the bleachers like she was in every game last year," Thomas said.
King wears a brace that covers the scars from ACL surgery he underwent in January of 2007.
After 10 months of rehabilitation, King returned to the court. Still, he doesn't feel 100 percent.
"It's really mental," he said. "I'm really not even over it yet. I'm worried I might turn and something may happen all over again."
King is thankful for the chance coach Bruce Capers took. Capers signed the Hinesville, Ga., native in 2006. During that summer, King tore his ACL.
King thought about playing through the pain. After two games, he decided on surgery.
"I was scared," King said. "I didn't want to lose that opportunity I had just encountered. But coach Capers worked with me and told me to get surgery."
Capers' patience was rewarded with King's solid season. Likewise, Washington's patience rewarded himself.
The Charleston, S.C., native began his collegiate career at Georgia Perimeter College. After one season, he transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He cut short his stay because of homesickness.
Washington soon found a new home at Aiken Tech, where 2-year-old son Amari visits him for basketball games.
"It's pretty tough," said Washington, who plans to return to Charleston for the summer.
"You miss him. You want to be there. But you have to make a sacrifice to get better in life."
Off the court, Washington said he works more on his game and lifts weights in his down time. Anything to keep his mind off missing his son.
"I make him my motivation," Washington said. "He pushes me a little bit harder."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.