On Jan. 11, Lees-McRae’s Avery Wallis, making his second career collegiate start, scored a career-high 13 points in a home win against Piedmont International.
That in itself is worthy of note for the Bobcats’ redshirt sophomore guard, who once scored 35 points in a game and averaged 19.8 points during his senior season at East Wilkes.
But given where he was almost exactly one year prior, the story takes on an entirely different tone. Because one year ago, he lay on that same floor at Williams Gymnasium with a gaping hole in his left arm and his basketball career—and his life—very much in doubt.
Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015, began as an ordinary day for Wallis. The son of former East Wilkes athletes Chuck and Heather Wiles Wallis, he attended church services with his family in Wilkes before returning to Banner Elk for an afternoon practice. Redshirt players are allowed to practice; they just don’t play in games.
Wallis was participating in a warmup drill where the player takes a pass from a coach and drives to the basket for a layup or dunk.
“I jumped from too far out,” said the 6-foot-3 Wallis, who was attempting to dunk with two hands, “and barely got my fingertips on the rim. My feet were swinging forward. I slipped off the rim, and my feet were still out in front of me. So I was falling straight backwards.
“When I put my arm out to catch, it snapped,” he said. “I looked over and saw this part of my arm—the forearm—just going back like in a V-shape, and saw the bone and a puddle of blood starting to form.
“I tell everybody it’s like in the movies,” he added, “when you get shot or something, there was just a few seconds of silence, like you’re zoned out…. Really, I couldn’t feel much. It was tingly, like my arm was falling asleep. I just laid there and waited for the ambulance.”
Wallis dislocated the elbow on his left (nonshooting) arm, which created a 2-3 inch wound when bone broke through the skin. In addition, he ripped muscle and connective tissue (ligaments, tendons) away from the bone and stretched—but didn’t tear—the nerve in the arm. He also tore an artery, which cut off blood flow to the forearm and hand.
Because he had just changed his major from history to nursing (he has since changed back to history), “I was taking a lot of anatomy classes, so I knew there was an artery in the arm,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘They need to hurry and get someone here because I could bleed out.’
“I didn’t freak out or anything,” said Wallis, who didn’t lose consciousness at any time. “When the ambulance got there, I asked the people who came to work on me, ‘Am I going to die?’ The woman I asked didn’t really say anything…. There was a pause for a second or two and then she said, ‘No, you’re not going to.’
“But there was like a hesitation, and that worried me a little bit,” he said with a laugh.
An assistant coach used a strap from a computer bag to stanch the flow of blood until the ambulance arrived. From there, and despite windy and cloudy conditions, Wallis was airlifted to the Level I Trauma Center at Johnson City Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn.
Three hours after the fall, he was in surgery.
Chuck and Heather Wallis were at a family member’s house when they got the first of three phone calls, this one from daughter Jailen, the oldest of their five children and a student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“She said Donte Falls (Avery Wallis’ teammate and roommate) called me,” Heather Wallis said, “and said we might need to go up there because Avery did something weird at practice…. She said Avery fell weird and you need to go up to Lees-McRae.”
Before they could get through North Wilkesboro on the way to Banner Elk, they got two more calls. One came from Steve Hardin, Lees-McRae’s head coach, who told them Avery had dislocated his elbow. The other was from Avery, who called while he was in the ambulance.
After reaching Johnson City, the Wallises sat with Lees-McRae coaches and players while Avery was in the operating room.
“The first inkling we had of how serious the injury was,” Chuck Wallis said, “was when the first surgeon came out to talk to us.”
Heather Wallis said, “He called us back in private, and I thought, OK, this is serious.”
Chuck Wallis added, “I asked something about the use of his arm, and I think (the surgeon) thought I was asking a question about his basketball career, and I wasn’t.
“He said, ‘Right now, we’re not worried about basketball. Right now, we’re just trying to save his arm.’
“When he said that to us, it was a little bit scary.”
Avery Wallis had two surgeries that Sunday. The first was to put the bones back in place. In the second, doctors took a vein from his leg to repair the damaged artery and restore blood flow to his lower arm and hand.
Three days later, Wallis underwent reconstructive surgery on the arm. Doctors used screws to securely reattach muscle and connective tissue that had ripped away from the bone. They also used screws to attach an elbow fixator, a device to immobilize and stabilize the joint.
“After Wednesday night (the reconstructive surgery), I was in terrible pain,” Wallis said. “They couldn’t bring the pain medication fast enough.”
But three days after leaving the hospital on a Friday, he stopped taking the pain medication “because I didn’t like the way it was making me feel.”
Chuck and Heather Wallis stayed in Johnson City until Avery was released from the hospital. And his Lees-McRae teammates were there too, in body and in spirit.
“My team, they were all there coming to the hospital to see me,” he said, “writing notes, and they all signed a basketball for me…. All the coaches were super good about being there for me and supporting me.”
The fixator initially locked his elbow at a 90-degree angle to allow healing. Therapy involved increasing the range of motion in the joint.
“There’s pins on (the fixator) that allow the arm to move down some and up some,” Wallis said. “And that was my therapy for the couple of months, to move the arm… to try to get to the next pin and move the pins a little further each week if we could.”
Wallis’ upper arm had atrophied and the elbow was still swollen when the fixator was removed in March. Rehab was painful and at times frustrating.
“If it got to a certain point extending it, it would lock and wouldn’t go any further,” Wallis said.
“The surgeon had always said you’ll get to where it’s 15 degrees or less away from full extension,” he said. “I felt like it was taking forever, because it was therapy three or four times a week, and it was extremely painful. Every time I went, I dreaded it terribly…. I felt like if it was progressing at the pace I thought it was progressing, I wouldn’t be able to use it normally at all again.”
Chuck Wallis added, “Therapy was literally laying down on his arm as hard as you could, and push and hold and try to stretch it.”
Lees-McRae athletic trainers supervised Wallis’ therapy until the spring semester ended, and he worked with a physical therapist in Wilkes during his summer break.
Also during the summer, Wallis worked in his father’s cabinet shop, sanding wood and performing other tasks to strengthen the arm. And he started playing basketball again.
While the recovery process was gradual, there were some defining moments. During the summer, Wallis worked at a Lees-McRae basketball camp and got to play in pickup games there.
“That could be a breakthrough moment, when I went to Lees-McRae (for the camp),” Wallis said. “(Hardin) picked five of the better high school players he saw there and let three of our college players and a couple of other guys play against them. I got to play—and that was the first time my coaches or anybody had seen me play since (the injury) happened. I did good, was hitting my shots and getting to the rim. It was against high-schoolers, but just being out there and doing stuff and feeling good about how I was playing…. I got excited about the year and about basketball.”
Another moment came at home during the summer. “I didn’t think I’d be able to dunk with two hands again, because I can’t straighten (the left arm),” Wallis said. “I did this summer… and I ran in like a little kid and told them I’d dunked with two hands.”
A changing role
Wallis was a scorer while at East Wilkes, primarily because he needed to be. He was the Cardinals’ leading scorer as both a junior and a senior and scored more than 20 points 15 times in his three-year career.
The Bobcats are mostly set at point guard and in the low post, but have a wealth of players to rotate among the other three spots. And Wallis’ ability to adapt and do the little things—drawing a charge, playing defense—helped him earn a starting role.
“All year, I felt like I had been really progressing,” Wallis said, “and was really surprised at myself that I had been doing better this year than in the past two years…. I’m doing really good in practice, and when I get in the games, I’m getting a steal, making something positive happen a lot of the time.”
Wallis’ first hint that he would make his first start, which came at Southern Wesleyan Jan. 9, was a text message from Keith Jennings, an assistant coach, that said simply, “Yo.”
In a pregame meeting, “Coach Hardin told everybody…. He started talking about adversity and started talking about last year and my injury,” Wallis said. “How far I had come and how I had been working really, really hard to recover… that I had kind of become the hustle player on the team. He said I was going to get an opportunity to start because of everything I’d been doing and how hard I’d worked. That made me feel good.”
Two days later, Wallis was 5 of 8 from the field, hit a 3-pointer and had three rebounds, an assist and three steals in the Bobcats’ 96-68 win against Piedmont International.
“Coming into college, I haven’t been the offensive player on the team,” he said. “I’d kind of lost a little confidence in my offensive abilities…. I kind of changed my game and did become the defensive, hustle player to try to stand out in some ways.
“Just seeing that I can do that (score) in some games if I need to or want to or if it comes to me is a good feeling.”
Averaging 15 minutes per game in his last five games—including four starts—Wallis has more than doubled his playing time from his freshman season. And Lees-McRae won three of his four starts and four of its last five overall to be in the thick of the race in the Division II Carolinas Conference. After a 95-89 win at Barton Jan. 19, the Bobcats are in a four-way tie for first place with Barton, Emmanuel (Ga.) and King (Tenn.).
Wallis has surgery scars on both the inside and outside of his elbow and smaller scars from where the fixator was attached. When he raises both arms over his head, there is about a 2-inch difference between right and left. But he is back on the court, doing what he wants to do, finding a way to help his team.
“I love where I’m at, and I feel like I’m in a great place (at Lees-McRae),” Wallis said. “I have an opportunity to be a part of something that’s really good. Our team is really deep, and our coaches have a good idea of what we need to do.
“It feels good to be a part of that…. I want to get back to where I am a vital part of the team and feel like I’m contributing.”