Early in his sophomore year at McClintock, Derek Owens was playing in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament when he was hit in the chest. He couldn’t catch his breath for two hours, prompting his parents to take him to the doctor. “That’s when they noticed my aorta was enlarging,” Owens said. “That’s when they caught it.”

It’s the first day of basketball tryouts at Tempe McClintock and I’m walking near Doc Zinke Gymnasium with Tribune photographer Ralph Freso. I stop to ask two young men if they know where basketball coach Jase Coburn is.

“He’s in the practice gym,” the first students says.

“Thanks,” I reply.

“You guys taking pictures of basketball tryouts?” the second student asks.

“No, we’re doing a story on Derek Owens,” I answer.

“I wish I was him,” the first student mutters, “he’s getting a lot of attention.”

I think if that young man had a chance to think about it for a minute, he wouldn’t wish to be Derek Owens. Maybe he wishes he had some of the traits that Owens has, both on the basketball court and in life, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want to go through what Owens has in the last three years.

Early in his sophomore year at McClintock, Owens was playing in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament when he was hit in the chest. He couldn’t catch his breath for two hours, prompting his parents to take him to the doctor.

“That’s when they noticed my aorta was enlarging,” Owens said. “That’s when they caught it.”

“It” was something that nearly ended Owens’ life. Owens was born with a genetic heart defect, something that his doctors knew about. His aortic valve, the one that controls the flow of blood from the aorta into the heart, was bi-cuspid when it was supposed to be tri-cuspid. The bi-cuspid valve didn’t work as efficiently as a tri-cuspid one does, so blood was pooling up in his aorta, causing it to balloon up.

“I had surgery in October and they told my mom that if I didn’t have surgery I would be dead by December,” Owens said. “They didn’t tell me that until after the surgery.

“Also, during the surgery they had to be extra careful because the walls of my aorta were so thin that any mistake could puncture it and there was a good chance of something real bad happening during the surgery.”

But nothing bad did happen during surgery and Owens fully recovered. He did, however, miss two months of school and he fell far behind his class.

Owens returned to the basketball court last season. He was technically a senior, but academically he was behind the rest of the class of 2009. On the floor, however, he was not behind, averaging 10 points and eight assists a game for the Chargers.

On Feb. 20, Owens scored 21 points as McClintock lost to Avondale Agua Fria in the second round of the 4A-I state tournament. It was the final game of his senior season, but he wasn’t sure if it was the final game of his high school career.

“I knew at the time that I was going to apply for a hardship appeal, so I kind of thought I was done, but I knew I had another chance,” Owens said. “I was never set on being done.”

“It was weird, because we had our senior meeting with him, you know, 'thanks for everything, but we hope this isn’t the end,’ “ McClintock coach Jase Coburn said. “The whole time I didn’t feel that it was over.”

Owens’ plans were to apply to the Arizona Interscholastic Association for another year of eligibility. If his appeal wasn’t granted, he would just go on to college. But, the timing of the appeal hearing made that impossible.

“Originally, I thought I would know before school started so it wouldn’t be that big of a deal for me,” Owens said. “But then I found out that I wasn’t going to know until basketball started. It kind of sucks going to school not knowing if it’s worth it or if I will get cleared or not.”

The wait was difficult, but in the end it was worth it. The AIA, seeing how much time Owens missed and the course work he still has to make up, granted him another year of eligibility. That year began on Monday as Owens and his teammates took the floor for the first official day of practice.

“I’m nervous because it feels like I have a ton of pressure now,” Owens said. “I better do well, otherwise, what’s the point?”

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