When the University of Maine men’s basketball team opens its 2008-09 season on Nov. 14 in Kennesaw, Ga., one of the team members will be on the bench but much more formally dressed than he’d like to be.
Westbrook native Jason Hight, who up until January — halfway through last season — was a Black Bears starting guard, has had to give up his dream of playing Division I ball and focus on life off the court much earlier than anticipated.
“It’s been my dream and goal to do this since middle school, and playing pro was always kind of a dream to do and go see a lot of the world in the process,” Hight said. “I’m still trying to deal with it. It’s hard going to practice and only be able to watch, knowing that I’m not going to be able to play.”
Hight has been diagnosed with a rare, hereditary disease that causes carpal tunnel syndrome and creates permanent nerve damage in his arms and hands, making them feel like they’re numb and/or asleep.
“I first started noticing it last year during the summer,” said Hight, who declined to name the disease. “By the end of the summer my arms were getting weak and tingly after workouts and they’d feel numb, almost like my arms were asleep.
“It was a struggle just to get through practice. My arms felt like they were just hanging there. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell if I was dribbling.”
Still, Hight was determined to continue playing.
“Right as school started, I saw doctors and took almost eight weeks off,” he said. “They prescribed various therapies and medications, but nothing seemed to be working, so they suggested rest.
“When I came back, it was slightly better from the rest, but as soon as I got back into practice and workouts, it started up again.”
The 6-foot-4, 182-pound junior managed to play 16 games — starting five and averaging 20.3 minutes, but just 3.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
“I think it was halfway through the season. My minutes were going down and I decided I couldn’t do it anymore,” Hight recalled. “It was a very difficult decision. It’s something I loved and I’ve waited my whole life to do.
“This was a chance to put a stamp on my career. I invested a lot of time and hard work, so I definitely feel a little slighted.”
Despite the pain of no longer playing, Hight has decided to take a position as a volunteer assistant coach for Maine coach Ted Woodward.
“It’s a way to stay involved with the game I love so much, but I still feel like I’m a player and not a coach,” said the 23-year-old business major. “From my experience in basketball, I’ve learned there is more to life than basketball. I’m seeing there are other things out there and developing other things for myself, but there are also other things involving the sport.”
Getting a break
Hight enjoyed a solid high school career at Westbrook High School and attracted recruiting interest and offers from Ivy League and Patriot League schools, but that wasn’t quite good enough.
“I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of playing non-Division I,” he said.
So he called Woodward. Having seen him play, Woodward encouraged him to try out as a non-scholarship walk-on. Instead of playing it safe and taking a Division II offer, he went to Orono with no guarantees and no financial assistance.
It didn’t take too long for his gamble to pay off.
“During his freshman year, we were very thin at point guard even though Chris [Markwood] was doing a good job,” Woodward said. “Chris got injured and Jay was pressed into a tough spot, but he did a great job.”
Hight played in 22 games and started eight. He averaged 3.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 21.9 minutes as a freshman.
In a relatively short period of time, Hight went from walk-on afterthought to key reserve to starter, and then to a team leader and scholarship player one year later, when he played 27 games but saw his averages dip to 1.1 ppg and 1.5 rpg. He was redshirted as a junior (2006-07) due to a leg injury and an abundance of guards.
“Last year, we were very light in our leadership with not a lot of experienced upperclassmen back,” Woodward said. “He’s battled and gone through a lot of things people didn’t know about, and he was able to give us good leadership despite that.
“Obviously, I would have loved to have him out there last year and again this year. We needed him and we really missed him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I still have the guys around, but it’s different. To see them playing without me is hard,” Hight said. “It’s good to have school paid for and I’m glad it happened late in my career because I proved I can play at this level, but it’s still tough.”
Hight isn’t the only one in his family with the condition.
Although he preferred not to name relatives who are affected, he said it typically has manifests itself when someone reaches their 30s or 40s.
“It affects a small percentage of the population,” said Hight. “There isn’t a whole lot out there about it, in terms of what causes it or how to help it.”
Hight thinks it has affected him sooner due to his much higher level of physical activity as a Division I athlete.
“People in my family who have it, it’s been kind of work-related with physical activity when it happens. I think I may be kind of an extreme case,” Hight explained. “Maybe my degree of physical activity has kind of brought it to my attention sooner.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he added. “I’ve had symptoms since high school, but never any to the point where I had to take time off or take medication for it.”
The best remedy is rest.
“Every time you do damage to them [nerves], they don’t come back totally. If you over-use them, you end up damaging them,” he said. “I’m at that point now where it’s just not coming back fully. I don’t have the same strength in my arms I used to and my grip isn’t as strong.”
Hight credits his teammates and coaches for not only sticking by him but supporting and helping however possible.
“I think last year we had points where I felt helpless to do anything for him and it was tough,” Woodward said. “We didn’t like seeing him have to go through this. We all have tremendous respect for him, especially since we knew what he was going through.
“He doesn’t dwell on it and feel sorry for himself. He moves on to the next thing. He’s just a great example.”