Physically, Gene Brown III had been cleared for some time and was getting back to form.
There was still another hurdle that needed to be cleared. Roughly one year removed from suffering a broken tibia in a game, the senior for Conyers (Georgia) Southwest DeKalb had to return to the same gymnasium where he had suffered the injury that required surgery and cost him most of his junior season.
He recorded a double-double with 27 points and 12 rebounds in a 56-55 overtime win at Columbia. Recovery complete.
"It just felt like I had finally completed my comeback," Brown said. "So much stress left me. I don’t have to worry about this anymore. I’m healthy, I played good, I played in this gym, I scored my career high. It was a great feeling."
It capped what had been a tense 48 hours for the Ohio State signee, a four-star wing prospect according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Signing with the Buckeyes in November had removed the pressure of recruiting from Brown, but it wasn’t much relief as the return to Columbia loomed.
"The day before and that day altogether was very stressful on me and my family, just because of what happened there," he said. "It was a place I actually got hurt at two years in a row, so that was a little stressful and worrying. As we went through it, we went through the day trying to be as calm as possible. It was tough. Before the game I wasn’t really talking too much. My teammates were wondering what was wrong with me."
That spilled over into the early moments of the game, when Brown said he was involved in the same type of play during which he was injured as a junior. Instead of dunking a lob pass from a teammate, he passed it back.
After that, Brown said, he was able to settle in and play his game. That has continued through the season as Saturday Brown helped Southwest DeKalb defend its regional championship with a 49-37 win against the same Columbia team. He had 18 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
It’s been a year of growth for Brown, who was named first-team all-region Monday night.
"I feel like my explosiveness and my defense have definitely gotten a lot better," he said. "Almost leading the region in blocks, averaging 3 or 4 a game. I feel like my defense has definitely gotten better. My athleticism, of course the scoring ability is always there but those things have gotten better."
Brown’s production has come while he’s spent more time as his team’s primary ball-handler than will be asked of him at Ohio State. The Buckeyes plan to use him on the wing, where his 6-foot-6, 185-pound frame should let him play at both shooting guard and small forward.
In part due to the time spent recovering from the injury, Brown is rated the No. 107 overall recruit in the nation and the No. 9 prospect from Georgia. He estimates it took him eight months to get his full stamina and strength back from the injury and another month and a half to knock the rust off.
"I had a little bit of a minute restriction at first to get used to being back out there and playing as hard as I do," he said. "As we got to the fall league and the start of the season, I had to work on my stamina. That was the only thing. My strength was fine, stability, everything was fine, I just had to work on getting my wind back up to play the minutes I want to play."
Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler, Brown’s primary recruiter, visited recently to watch a game in person.
"He said I’m making the right plays, just sometimes I need to be more aggressive," Brown said. "That’s been something I’ve been struggling with throughout the year of having that aggressive mental state and taking a lot of shots when they need to be taken. I’m a real team-oriented guy. I love to see my teammates score, but with the role right now I need to be the main leading scorer."
The hope is to take that approach to a state title and, along the way, leave a legacy of more than just basketball.
"I hope they remember how good of a person I am," he said. "I try to leave as much knowledge as I can with these younger guys that are coming up and looking at me. I’ve got a 4.1 GPA, so I let people know that academics is more important than basketball. I just hope they remember me as a leader and a good guy."