Prep hoops star works his way back onto the court while the university patiently waits
Four words and an exclamation point. That's how Micah Mason views his world now.
It's right there at the top of his Twitter page: "Future Drake University Guard!"
But his summer was filled with question marks: What was causing the suburban Pittsburgh basketball star to stop breathing while his heart raced uncontrollably? How could he possibly play college basketball while his body was sapped of energy and suddenly minus 30 pounds?
Then there was the question he dared not speak but found himself contemplating during the lonely days when he locked himself away in his house, forbidden to play the sport that has consumed so much of his 18 years.
Was life still worth living at all?
PROMISING HOOPS LIFE ALTERED
Micah Mason is pictured with the Drake University Bulldog mascot. Drake coaches told Mason their basketball scholarship offer stood even as he struggled with a debilitating heart condition.
Mason's life veered into the unknown, somewhat fittingly, while he was en route to a basketball game. He was always on his way to basketball games, his life's path seemingly predetermined when an aunt gave him a basketball the day he was born.
Starting at age 2, Mason honed his skills on a backyard court with his father, John, urging him on. By his junior year at Highlands High School, the 6-foot-2, sharpshooting guard was good enough to average 33.3 points and 8.6 assists per game. In one contest, he poured in 64 points and earned the ultimate recognition for a prep athlete: a spot in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" feature.
That blurb caught the attention of the coaching staff at faraway Drake. Assistant coach Mike Gibson flew out to watch Mason work out, so blown away by his shooting ability that he urged colleagues to go see for themselves. So they did, one at a time, until head coach Mark Phelps offered Mason a scholarship, which he accepted in April.
"It's just an amazing school," he said then. "I love it out there."
A month later, Mason's mother, Karen, was driving him to an AAU tournament, her teenage son slouched in the passenger seat listening to music on his headphones.
Neither will forget what happened next.
"He just seized up in the seat, couldn't breathe," Karen Mason said. "He's just grabbing at me in the driver's seat."
AND THEN, A TERRIFYING SCENE
In hindsight, Karen said, the frightening episode didn't come out of the blue.
Micah had suffered a concussion during a fifth-grade football game. Sometimes after that, he'd vomit after waking in the morning. He took a hard fall on his tailbone after being clobbered in a layup drill in eighth grade.
There also was a car accident, a dirt-bike wreck, things Karen attributed to raising a rugged boy.
But Micah had bouts with a mysterious malady.
"When it got real bad, he'd say, 'My head doesn't feel connected to my body,' " Karen recalled.
Micah even resorted to dark humor, telling his mother, "At some point, you're going to find out I have a brain tumor, or I have cancer."
In the weeks leading up to the episode in the family car, Micah started complaining that his legs felt heavy, like he was running in concrete.
"I said, 'You played seven games in two days,' " Karen said. "I'm a minimalist."
But the breakdown on the way to the game couldn't be ignored. Micah visited 10 doctors over the next two weeks before a cardiologist finally diagnosed him with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.
The condition, which affects an estimated one out of every 100 teenagers according to the Mayo Clinic's website, is marked by extreme fatigue, dizziness and abdominal discomfort. In Micah's case, episodes where his heart would start beating wildly.
"When these would hit, he couldn't breathe for a second, and his shirt would pound visibly — you could see it moving," Karen said. "His neck was this big, ugly nightcrawler, spasming, like blood couldn't get out of it or into it.
"I didn't know if he was going to live."
Micah did live, but with gnawing uncertainty. The symptoms of POTS can disappear after four months, or last a lifetime. Doctors advised him to increase his intake of fluids and salt.
He stopped playing basketball, afraid that he might collapse on the court. For a month, he stayed in his house, shutting out his friends. He spent hours playing video games on his Xbox. He and his mother would strap on some floaties and loll in the family pool. He lost 30 pounds, down to 148.
Depression and anxiety are common in those who suffer from POTS. For Micah, contemplating a life without basketball increased the dread.
"I felt horrible. I would rather have just slept," Micah said of this period. "Every day, I woke up, (and) it is hard to say this, but I wished I would die.
"I just didn't really eat as much, because I was always thinking about what's going to happen. I had a protein shake in the morning to help digestion, another shake for lunch, then one meal a day. I was one starving boy."
Help arrived in the form of Dr. Bob Corcetti, a chiropractor to whom Micah was referred. Corcetti looked at the number of spinal cord traumas Micah had experienced, and diagnosed him with meningeal compression. The meninges are the membranes that help protect the central nervous system.
Dr. Corcetti counseled Micah to change his diet, put him on an exercise program, and started using a new treatment technique called the Neurologic Relief Centers Technique™.
"He just presses on the neck with these little things that look like one-pound dumbbells," Karen said. "It gets pressure off the spinal cord, so signals start going to organs again. His digestion was affected the most.
"He was not digesting food, getting nutrients, so he was getting sicker and sicker."
LOYALTY EXTENDS BEYOND COURT
Micah's journey back to the basketball court began slowly. Corcetti allowed him to walk once around his backyard court, then increased that to a trip around the block on a bicycle.
Then it became two circuits … eventually three miles, and then six miles.
"It's quite intense," Dr. Corcetti said of the rehab program, "but he followed it to the T, and his nutrition turned around."
Micah began regaining weight, and was cleared to resume shooting a basketball last month.
His first time out, he made 48 of 50 free throws. But shooting while he was moving proved more difficult. He had lost stamina but was determined to get it back.
The Bulldog coaching staff monitored Micah's condition from afar. Gibson heard right away about the initial incident in May, and called Karen while she was still in the ambulance with Micah.
The coaches quickly decided the scholarship offer was going to stand, whether or not Micah was able to play basketball again.
"The way that coach Phelps and the rest of our staff looked at it is, you know, we gave him our word. We offered a scholarship to him. And the right thing to do was to honor that scholarship and believe in Micah," Gibson said. "When you recruit kids, you get to know him and get to know his family; more than anything, you're worried about his health."
The gesture buoyed the Masons' spirits.
"What a peace to know that if and when we could get him well, his world was still intact," Karen said.
The school could have granted Micah a free education without having it count against their limit on basketball scholarships under a hardship rule, Gibson said. But it never got to that point.
Micah has recovered to the point that he believes he will play basketball in Des Moines just as he had planned. He said he hasn't had an "episode" in a month, and was healthy enough to make his official visit to Drake two weeks ago.
At Drake, he bonded with his teammates and was amazed to discover how much Division I athletes can put away at mealtime. He said he gained 6 pounds on the weekend trip, and is now back to 175.
On Wednesday, he sent in his official letter of intent; he now makes up one-third of Drake's 2012-13 recruiting class.
His next test comes today. Mason's high school team is scheduled to play three exhibition games as part of a preseason jamboree. Micah, who hasn't played a competitive basketball game since May, intends to take the court, although he's not sure for how many minutes.
"I feel better than I ever did," said Micah, who has played in a handful of pickup games. "I was dizzy sometimes, my legs were heavy on the court sometimes just randomly. Now that I don't have that anymore, I feel better."
Karen called the turnaround a "miracle."
Dr. Corcetti, who cleared Micah to play and is searching for a chiropractor in Des Moines who can take over his treatment next year, said: "It's a great story. It's amazing."
And Gibson is just eager to see his recruit finally wearing Bulldog blue.
"I think he's going to make a lot of 3-pointers for the Bulldogs," he said. "More than anything, I'm just happy he's healthy."
But is the recovery permanent, or is the POTS still lurking? Karen is keeping her fingers crossed that the medical nightmare has ended.
Micah, who plans to study business at Drake, feels confident.
But even he admits, after a summer of torture, that nervousness lingers.
"There's a little in me that I think it might happen again," he said.