A Season of Learning
As his Williams career comes to a close, a top basketball player reflects on the surgery that nearly sidelined him…and the support that saw him through.
When James Wang ’12 needed to improve his outside game after his first season playing basketball for Williams, he spent hour after hour alone in Chandler and Lasell gyms, firing thousands of jumpers from all angles. For him it wasn’t mechanical—it was about building confidence. His dedication put him on track to be one of Williams’ best players ever, scoring over 500 points his sophomore and junior seasons.
Then came the unbearable back pain, followed by surgery to repair three herniated disks in Wang’s back just 47 days before the team’s 2011-12 opener. The two-time All-American was faced with a new challenge—one he couldn’t necessarily outwork.
“I had to spend a lot more time thinking about my own game and how I did some of the things I used to do,” Wang says of the past season, during which, despite the back surgery and, later, an appendectomy, he played all 25 games. “There was a ton of self doubt, because I was trying to be the player I used to be.”
Because he spent his pre-season recovering from surgery, Wang, a Chinese language and psychology major from Taiwan, had to play his way into shape. After the first couple of games, he believed he was back to 90 percent, physically. Yet he couldn’t find a way back to the explosiveness of his prior seasons or his knack for scoring inside.
That’s where the support of his teammates—“who knew that I needed way more encouragement than I had ever needed,” Wang says—along with that of coach Mike Maker came in.
“We always talk about how blessed we are to play here and go through a season with each other,” Wang says. But after he was injured, he really came to appreciate what it means to work as a team.
During the fall pickup games, he says, “I took a lot of my frustration of not being able to play out on my teammates. Looking back, I have to give them a lot of credit. It had to be difficult for them to hear me being so critical.”
His teammates, meanwhile, had equal praise for Wang. “The heart he showed, particularly in this past season, embodied our ‘program above self’ motto,” says guard Nate Robertson ’13. “What I, my teammates and the Williams program have gained from James will be felt for many years to come.”
Meanwhile, Maker worked through what he calls a “fragile situation” to help boost Wang’s confidence without giving false praise.
“You can’t put your thumb on James as a player,” says Maker, who calls Wang “self-made.” “You have to allow him to ad-lib. … For James to be at his best he needs a lot of freedom to paint outside the lines.”
This past season, Maker had to “reel me in,” Wang says, “and tell me that my frustrations were because my expectations were too high.”
Says Maker, “I think James put undue pressure on himself for his senior season even before the surgery. I tried to give him the proper perspective by reminding him that he chose Williams because if a freak injury happened he would have the best education in the world to fall back on.”
Because Maker knew his slump was “mostly mental, not physical,” Wang says, “he would pull me into his office and show video clips of me from last year to remind me what I am capable of. It definitely worked, because it gave me a lot of confidence.
“I had never struggled like I did this year,” Wang adds. “I felt like I was hitting my stride toward the end of the conference season, and I think Coach Maker’s ability to instill confidence had a lot to do with it.”
The hard work and encouragement paid off. Wang, now 100 percent healthy, finished his career fourth all-time in scoring at Williams, with 1,576 points. “I may play next year because I love playing, but no matter what I know I want to be in the game of basketball,” he says.
“I don’t think I could’ve had a better experience than here,” says Wang, who is exploring his future options in the basketball world both on and off the court. “The chips fell perfectly: right coach, right style of play, right teammates. I leave here knowing Williams was the right place for me.”
For James Wang’s record as an Eph, click here.