Central sophomore Justyn Ross stood under the basket grabbing rebounds during a morning shootaround on Friday at Carver High in Birmingham, Ala.
All of his teammates were in their typical red and white practice uniforms, trying to get as much work in as they could to prepare for McGill-Toolen in Saturday’s Class 7A championship game.
Ross, meanwhile, wore long black warmups and a black hoodie. It’s the same uniform he’s worn most of the season after suffering an ACL tear during the championship game of the Shaw Christmas tournament.
Ross suffered the injury as he chased a loose ball under the basket in the first quarter against Shaw High in December. He was only just returning from a separate knee injury that he had suffered in the Class 7A football quarterfinals about four weeks prior. When he stumbled near the baseline on the basketball court, he said he knew what had happened.
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“It was painful,” he said. “I already knew I had messed it up. As soon as it happened, I knew.”
So, the high-flying sophomore who had already put up huge numbers on the football field and was beginning to show his elite athleticism on the hard wood was finished playing for the year.
“It’s been difficult because I’ve been through a lot with my knee,” he said. “I feel like I could be helping my team. But they’re getting the job done without me, and I like that.”
It hasn’t been completely without his help, though. While his role as a player may have changed, he has maintained his presence on the roster.
Ross, who is one of the top wide receiver recruits for the football Class of 2018, still attends most practices, taking a seat just off to the side of the court. He sits on the bench during every game, including the two most recent crucial overtime wins in the central regional final and state semifinals.
Despite his youth, he has served in a leadership role, being a motivator and a cheerleader for his teammates throughout the year.
“Just keep them motivated,” he said of his role on the team now. “Keep the bench ready, keep everything ready off the court.”
Ross is certainly disappointed he can’t be on the floor when the Red Devils tip off on Saturday with a chance to win their first state championship in school history, but he has a long-term outlook for his high school career.
He still has two more football seasons and two more basketball seasons, and he has plans for both.
“I’m gonna ball,” he said with a smile. “I’m gonna ball next year.”