Ernest Aflakpui and Archbishop John Carroll High School’s basketball team had one more practice before a trip to Fort Myers, Florida for the City of Palms Classic Basketball Tournament.
The Temple commit and the rest of his team were finishing a transition drill at the end of a Dec. 14, 2014 practice, when Aflakpui went up for a rebound and collided with two teammates.
The 6-foot-10-inch center landed awkwardly on his right leg and collapsed to the floor.
“I messed up my footing, so it kind of buckled a little bit,” Aflakpui said. “It ended up being a torn meniscus in my right knee.”
The Accra, Ghana native had surgery four days after the injury, but one month later, problems struck again when he discovered an infection in his knee. The setback required additional surgery and forced Aflakpui to drain the area three times per day.
“It was scary,” Aflakpui said. “I didn’t know. I was thinking ‘Am I done? What does this mean?’”
“There were some really tough days and some days where, even someone as strong as Ernest and as faithful as Ernest, had to kind of question, ‘What’s going on here? Why me?’” Archbishop Carroll coach Paul Romanczuk added. “But he kept plugging through.”
While at Archbishop Carroll, Aflakpui lived with Sean and Jennifer Finnegan and their four children. Pat Finnegan, a senior marketing major at Temple, remembers Aflakpui sitting on the couch, unable to do anything.
“He was all right with it for a little bit, then you could start to tell he started to get real anxious, really, really anxious, just kind of like moaning around,” Finnegan said. “But right when he was able to start moving again, he was off, always doing something.”
When he arrived at Temple in July, Aflakpui did physical therapy in the morning at Edberg-Olson Hall and worked with assistant athletic trainer Shawn Cameron while the team did conditioning drills later in the day.
Doctors cleared the freshman center to play before the start of the Owls’ season in mid-October 2015, and Aflakpui played in five of Temple’s first 12 games, totaling more than four minutes once.
Coach Fran Dunphy approached him with the idea of redshirting.
“It just didn’t look like he was making the necessary progress, so I just talked to him about the possibility of maybe doing it,” Dunphy said. “I said, ‘Just think about it.’”
After the team’s Jan. 2 loss to Houston, Aflakpui came into Dunphy’s office with an answer.
An MRI showed his knee was completely healthy, and he had no intentions of sitting out the rest of the season.
“I told him I wanted to play,” Aflakpui said. “He was like, ‘Great.’ If I wanted to redshirt or play it didn’t make a difference. Whatever I wanted to do he was right behind me.”
Since his conversation with Dunphy, Aflakpui has started in every game for the Owls. In the team’s past five contests, he is averaging 4.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, including an eight-point, 10-rebound performance in Wednesday’s loss to East Carolina.
“Most of the time he looks pretty good,” Dunphy said. “But you can see there’s times where he favors [his knee] just a little bit, as you would expect somebody coming off that serious of a knee injury.”
Aflakpui, a former soccer player, began playing basketball as an eighth grader in Ghana after his cousins pushed him into the sport because of his height.
Aflakpui’s injury came three games into his senior year at Archbishop Carroll, his fifth year playing basketball. The center scored 16 points in all three contests and said he was playing the “best basketball” he ever played.
Finnegan recalls watching Aflakpui play in a game before his senior season against Thon Maker—a 7-foot center, currently ranked as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com.
“He had a really good game against him, and that one I was like ‘He’s made a lot of improvements,’” Finnegan said. “I thought he was going to have a huge season.”
Owen McCue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Owen_McCue